Georgia’s seaport city of Batumi suddenly erupted in violence, on the night of March 11–12, as hundreds of protesters descended on the city streets, overturning, destroying, and burning police and civilian cars, throwing rocks, and leaving a trail of destruction in their wake (Ajaratv.ge, March 12).
Georgia is no stranger to upheavals. However, outbreaks of such fierce street violence are still rare to the country in general, let alone to Batumi. Moreover, the events developed so rapidly that it left the Georgian public wondering what exactly was happening, who was behind these events and where it was all leading to.
Everything started with a minor parking ticket. Specifically, on March 11, police detained two citizens who confronted traffic officers for handing them a fine for a parking violation. Quickly, several hundred locals, including some activists from the opposition United National Movement (UNM), took to the streets, protesting what they called “harsh” police practices in Batumi and generally, in Adjara Autonomous Republic. They blocked off one of the central avenues in downtown Batumi, demanding the release of the detained citizens. From here, the situation began to spiral out of control. Police tried to unblock the avenue, in the process detaining several more protesters. Demonstrators quickly moved to the headquarters of the regional police, requesting that all six citizens be freed (Civil Georgia, March 12).
Additionally, protesters demanded the resignation of Kakhaber Bukhradze, the chief of the regional police, whom they accused of excessive police rule. Demonstrators also blamed the police chief of disrespect toward the locals, stating that Bukhradze, who is not a native of Adjara region and was recently appointed to the post, called residents of Adjara “Tatars.” In Adjara, which has a sizable Sunni Muslim population, the term “Tatar” is considered a derogatory slur for Georgian Muslims. Although, the allegations could not be independently verified, the enraged crowd pushed for Bukhradze’s ouster, occasionally even shouting some slogans with clear separatist undertones such as, for instance, “Adjara for Adjarians!” (Batumelebi.netgazeti.ge, March 12).
The street chaos soon acquired a more political flavor. Specifically, in parallel with the Batumi demonstrations, UNM announced its solidarity with the protesters and managed to hold small rallies of support in the cities of Tbilisi, Kutaisi, Rustavi and Zugdidi (Gurianews.com, March 12, 1tv.ge, March 13).
Finally, at midnight, police moved out from the police headquarters and attempted to drive back the protesters, using rubber bullets and tear gas. This resulted in a violent backlash from demonstrators, who tried to storm the headquarters, started throwing rocks at police and nearby buildings, and torched both police and civilian cars, generally causing havoc in the streets (Civil Georgia, March 12). It was only later, on the morning of March 12, when police finally managed to bring the situation under control. By then, however, the unrest left downtown Batumi looking like a war zone, with burned-out vehicles, smashed buildings, and torn-off pieces of stone pavement littered around.
The ferocity of the violence, as well as some of the provocative slogans and language used during the protest, unsettled the Georgian public, bringing back dark memories of separatist conflicts, civil war and the devastation of the early 1990s. Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili quickly blamed the chaos on “destructive political forces,” by which he apparently meant UNM. As he emphasized, those forces used the situation to escalate the violence and demonstrated that they would not shy away from anything, “even from shaking the very foundations of the nation’s political stability [in order to achieve their political goals]” (Interpressnews.ge, March 12).
UNM, in turn, denied any involvement, attempting to distance itself from the events (1tv.ge, Ambebi.ge, March 13). Other parts of the opposition, however, condemned both UNM and the government: UNM for declaring solidarity with the violent protesters and attempting to use the street chaos to advance its own political goals, and the government for failing to prevent the escalation of the situation and then for failing to quickly restore order (Newposts.ge, Imtavroba.ge, March, 12).
Regardless of who is to blame for the Batumi violence, these events certainly illustrate several concerning trends in Georgia. First, the sociopolitical situation is so tense in at least parts of the country that it, in fact, resembles a powder keg ready to explode over even the most trivial issue, such as the one that instigated the Batumi unrest. Second, any social discontent that results in demonstrators pouring into the street is clearly prone to political manipulations by political groups in the country. Third, it is highly unlikely that the Batumi protests will be the last of their kind over the coming months. In January 2017, month-to-month inflation hit a six-year high, with an increase of 2.9 percent, and the consumer price index rose by 3.9 percent over December (Cbw.ge, February 13). Economic issues, including jobs (58 percent), inflation (38 percent) and poverty (30 percent) remain top concerns for average Georgians, according to the latest poll (November 2016) conducted by the National Democratic Institute; and 66 percent consider themselves unemployed (Ndi.org, January 16). With such mounting economic hardships, discontent is likely to only increase, often spilling into the streets. And this month’s events in Adjara showed how violent such protests can become. Fourth, the Georgian opposition is obviously too fragmented to show a united front against the government, even if protests around the country start to become more frequent and intense and threatening to the very political power of ruling Georgian Dream party. This will give the government additional leeway to survive in the face of mounting social unrest.
As always, the question is, where do all these leave Georgia and the Georgian people? The answer again depends on how the country’s political elites, both in power and in the opposition, handle public discontent if it continues to increase. Will they manage to channel it into a peaceful political process or try to exploit the ongoing polarization and radicalization of Georgian society in their quest for political power? So far, there are no clear answers to these questions. But the near future certainly will give a better idea about whether Georgia is destined to slide back toward routine domestic violence and chaos or finally reject both.
By: Vasili Rukhadze