Some 22 years ago, an attorney-at-law working for the world’s leading law firm became fascinated with Georgia’s vast, sprawling nature. The former office managing partner of DLA PIPER Georgia is an advocate of Tbilisi’s historic architecture and possesses a top-notch acumen in legal matters. In an interview with Forbes Georgia, American transplant Ted Jonas discusses the uniqueness of Georgia’s cultural heritage and the threats it faces.
You have been actively involved in Tbilisi’s architectural development since you left your position at DLA PIPER Georgia. What led you to this decision?
I decided to withdraw and give way to the younger generation of Georgian lawyers. Previously I had worked as the Office Managing Partner of DLA PIPER Georgia for nine years. I have 25 years of legal practice. I am 54 years-old now, and while I am still young, I want to spend more time on projects that are important to the country’s future generation. I want our children to be proud of Georgia’s beautiful nature, and the country’s rich historic heritage. At the same time, I am still actively involved in the activities of the firm, but my working hours are less now. However, the company is in good hands – we have Otar Kipshidze working in the position of Office Managing Partner at DLA PIPER Georgia, Avto Svanidze is the Corporate Partner, Nino Suqnidze is the Financial Director, and Zura Kiliptari is the Legal Director. This is a team of professionals with 10 years of experience in the legal business. Even the most powerful and influential Georgian legal companies cannot hold a candle to DLA PIPER. We have very high international standards of service, which is our greatest competitive advantage.
What do you think of the ongoing construction taking place in Tbilisi?
Tbilisi is losing its green spaces. Unfortunately, there is no urban planning project in place. This uncontrolled construction is gradually turning the city into Istanbul, a city that has really lost its architectural identity over the years. Even the communists didn’t dare do what we now see happening on the streets of Tbilisi. The scale of ugly construction projects was much smaller at the time. Since we aspire to the West, wouldn’t it be prudent to look back at the history of the development of European capitals?
For instance, after World War II, the government of The Netherlands decided to demolish the existing buildings, and replace them with modern, socialist construction projects. This decision was thwarted by the business sector. Thanks to the hard work and efforts of Heineken, Amstel and other major companies, the main industrial and residential buildings were renewed, and a new urban planning project was developed, which only allowed new construction to take place on the outskirts of Amsterdam. The city centre of Amsterdam was officially declared a protected area.
The first person that comes to my mind when I think of Georgian businessmen who could do the same for Tbilisi is Temur Ugulava. All of his projects are implemented with a lot of taste. I particularly like his hotel ‘Rooms’ and the Intercontinental. However, one swallow doesn’t make a summer. Georgia would require at least 10 or 15more Temur Ugulavas to do that. And what about the construction plans in the very center of the city? The Old Town, which has more or less managed to preserve its historic identity up until now, is currently being absorbed by Panorama Tbilisi, a large-scale project implemented by the Georgian Co-Investment Fund. If this project is implemented, the historic district of Tbilisi will lose its chance to be on the UNESCO Heritage list. I dare say that this project isn’t commercially profitable either. The $500 USD million allocated for this project would be a more profitable investment if it were spent on the urban development of the city instead.
Tourists come to Tbilisi to see its historic heritage. Why do foreigners travel to Amsterdam, Berlin or Paris? They travel there because they are interested in the history of these cities. Tbilisi still has the potential to be one of the world’s most attractive cities.
The streets of Tbilisi, which are jammed with too many cars and snarling traffic, are a separate topic of conversation. That being said, it’s quite logical that this problem exists in view of the fact that a third of Georgia’s population resides in Tbilisi. The topography of the city, which doesn’t allow for the construction of more roads, makes it difficult to solve this problem.
Do you cooperate with any organizations regarding the ongoing development projects in Tbilisi?
At this stage I am in the process of studying this situation. However, I do not exclude the possibility of establishing an organization that will handle such an issue. I regularly meet with urban development experts like Aleko Elisashvili, Tamar Amashukeli and Irakli Zhvania. These people know Tbilisi very well, and they know exactly what the city needs. However, they do not know how to turn this knowledge into business.
The thing is, the government can’t take responsibility for everything. For the past 25 years, Georgians have been learning how to live in a capitalist society. This process is very complicated, and full of challenges. However, the time when people were entirely dependent on the state has long passed, so people must take the initiative themselves.
How do you assess the activities of the Caucasus Nature Fund (CNF)?
Georgia’s beautiful nature needs to be preserved. Being a board member of the Caucasus Nature Fund, I try to attract more funding for projects that would be beneficial for the country. CNF works closely with the Agency of Protected Areas (APA) of Georgia.
CNF provides funding for the APA rangers, as well as for the rehabilitation of national parks and other significant projects. Waste reduction, the protection of wild nature, forest and pastures (both on state-owned lands and protected areas), and the preservation of the country’s cultural heritage, are the three priorities that require enormous effort and hard work.
CNF is a German non-profit organization that supports protected areas in the South Caucasus countries of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia. CNF’s main funding comes from the German Development Bank KFW, the World Bank and other donor organizations. Bank of Georgia, TBC Bank and Procredit Bank are also major contributors to CNF, which sets a good example for the private sector. I have made some modest donations myself.
The budget of the Caucasus Nature Fund is approximately 30 million Euros. However, only 5% (1.5 million Euros)of the investment revenue is spent annually. The funding is allocated between the three countries based on their needs. You can say that this is an additional budget for the Agency of Protected Areas (APA) of Georgia. DLA PIPER provides the fund with legal services free-of-charge.
What is life like living in Georgia for the Jonas family?
I live with my wife and two children in Sololaki, one of the oldest and most beautiful districts of Tbilisi. However, my heart is still drawn to the wilderness, and I often travel to my summer home in Shua Nichbisi to get away. My sons Alex and David enjoy walks in nature too. We have the most beautiful horses in Nichbisi. Frankly speaking, I prefer to live in Georgia, rather than the United States. I love history and antiquities. I discovered the ruins of ancient villages and churches as I was riding my horse in the deep forests of Nichbisi. A lot of people don’t know about this, but there is a local man named Gigo who is a living chronicle. He tells me stories with historic accuracy.
My sons Alex 11, and David 7, spend most of their summer holidays in Nichbisi. During the school year, they attend Tbilisi’s Green School.
What was the initial purpose of your trip to Georgia and why did you decide to stay here for good?
For me, working as a lawyer in Atlanta was boring. I wanted to do something more exciting. I came to Georgia in 1994, and began working on the parliamentary program that was being implemented by the National Democratic Institute (NDI) at the time. I fell in love with this country and refused to go back to the states. I stayed and worked for NDI for another year, and in 1996, I began a private legal practice with Konstantin Rizhinashvili and Gia Bazghadze. Our legal firm was called GCG.
This turned out to be a crucial year in my life, as I met my future wife Nino Tsiskaridze that summer. She was a young lawyer who came to the GCG office for an interview. First we were just colleagues, but after four years we got married and moved to the United States for five years. In 2005, Konstantin Rizhinashvili suggested that I come back to Georgia and work for DLA Piper. I accepted his offer. Nino was also offered a job at the International Finance Corporation office in Georgia.
Is the Georgian market profitable for DLA Piper, the world’s third largest legal firm by revenue ($ 2.6 billion)?
The Georgian office of DLA Piper is probably one of the most modest representations of the firm. Consequently, the revenue rendered by this office compared to the global revenue of DLA Piper, is just a drop in the ocean. Nevertheless, the company has always made good progress. The main advantage of an international brand is that in certain cases we can always count on the assistance of our DLA Piper offices abroad located in the United Kingdom, the United States, Europe and Asia.
DLA Piper has been named ‘Game Changing Law Firm of the Past Ten Years’ by the FT Innovative Lawyers Awards held in London. How did the firm manage to earn such a rating?
DLA Piper was formed in 2005 as a result of a merger between three law firms – the UK-based DLA, the Chicago-based Piper Rudnick, and the San Diego-based Gray Cary Ware & Freidenrich LLP. This was a merger of unprecedented scale and importance. The British and American founders of the new corporation set a goal to build a company that would offer a wide range of businesses high-quality service tailored to the local markets and its specific needs. Sir Nigel Knowles is a former Global Co-Chairman and the Senior Partner of DLA Piper, who was also responsible for the company’s office in Georgia. He was one of the leading strategists. DLA Piper has set entirely new standards of quality, ethics and customer relations etiquette on the Georgian market.
Based on the experience of the DLA Piper’s office in Georgia, which types of disputes prevail in our country –those between representatives of the private sector, or disputes between businesses and the state?
Based on our experience, we see an equal number of disputes between businesses, and disputes between businesses and the state. The main complaint that the private sector has against the state is unreasonably high tax penalties, which is due to a lack of proper qualifications, and a lack of professional independence on behalf of the country’s Revenue Service. I have no complaints about the law. The weak link is within relevant state agencies. Proper education is what the country needs in order to move forward.
On a larger scale, the current government, if we compare it to its predecessor, is very weak at stimulating the economy by means of foreign financial resources or via its own budget. The appointment of Giorgi Kvirikashvili as the prime minister however is a major step forward for the development of the country. He is an exceptionally constructive politician. Today we can see that the government is actually working. However, it would have been more beneficial if this attitude were demonstrated long before the approach of the elections.
It should be noted that there is notable progress in Georgia’s democratic development and the improvement of civil liberties. Businesses in Georgia are no longer subject to extortion, and are also no longer forced to finance various projects, as was the case when the United National Movement was in office. Nevertheless, the practice of incredibly high tax penalties remains a serious problem between the private sector and the state. The current government does not put pressure on businesses, but there are some exceptions, such as the politically motivated high-profile case against Rustavi 2.
You have a very rich legal practice experience in many countries. In your opinion, is Georgia developing based on a Western model, or are the Soviet remnants still observable in our country?
Georgia is a progressively developing former Soviet state with European and Euro-Atlantic aspirations. The country is a leader in the entire region based on its outstanding achievements in the judicial and civil spheres.