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Facts Scarce, Reasons Obscure after Batumi Unrests
Civil Georgia, Tbilisi / 15 Mar.'17 / 21:41

Map of Batumi Unrests, zoom in for detail, click on flashpoints to view pictures, events

Batumi city court started meting out fines to the perpetrators of unrests on March 12, which left police and private cars burnt, shops and city infrastructure damaged in an unexpected bout of violence.

Four days after the events, speculation is rife about the deep reasons that led to escalation of violence. But with little factual information to go on, political parties have settled into a familiar pattern of finger-pointing.

Unexpected Escalation
Participants and commentators seem to agree that the trigger of the events was a routine parking ticket for double-parking near Batumi Plaza Hotel around midday on March 11. The driver has challenged the police officer, claiming he stopped in an emergency. Apparently, some passers-by came to the driver’s aid. A scuffle with the police officers ensued. Two persons were detained for resisting the police.

A spontaneous rally broke out near the site of the incident, at the junction of Chavchavadze Avenue and Gogebashvili Street, one of the main city thoroughfares, demanding the release of the two. Several hundred protesters blocked the traffic on one of Batumi’s main transport junctions. They were soon joined by political party activists. According to reports, activists came both from the groups sympathetic to the government, as well as the opposition, notably the United National Movement (UNM).

A parallel demonstration convened in front of the Adjara Police Division building.

As the police managed to open traffic on Chavchavadze Avenue and Gogebashvili streets by 23:00, many of the protesters from this location moved to Adjara Police Division building on Tbel Abuseridze Street, close to city’s seaside promenade. Their demands have radicalized, and included the resignation of Kakhaber Bukhradze, the region’s Patrol Police Chief.

Police Chief in Crosshairs
Two charges were advanced against Police Chief Bukhradze. One was excess in police strictures – notably in applying heavy fines for traffic violations. According to Batumi residents, unlike in Tbilisi, the Patrol Police has been rather lax there. The new Police Chief decided to crack down, to simmering discontent of the locals. The second, and more explosive charge that was used to egg on the radical protesters, was that Bukhradze, who is not from Adjara, has allegedly referred to residents as “Tatars” - a derogatory slur applied to Muslim Georgians.

One of the most active peddlers of this claim was Merab Gogoberidze. He positions himself as a civic activist, but was repeatedly engaged in violent attacks, mostly against UNM and as well as the Constitutional Court chair, who was accused of sympathies to UNM. Some politicians, notably the leader of the Republicans Khatuna Samidze, say Gogoberidze is “closely affiliated” with the Adjara branch of the State Security Service. 

Three days prior to Batumi unrest, Gogoberidze called a small-scale rally in front of Adjara Police Division building. His social media account contains allegations of anti-Adjarian slurs by Chief Bukhradze. Speaking on March 12 to Rustavi 2 TV, Gogoberidze backtracked from his earlier claims, saying he never personally heard Chief Bukhradze utter those words, but was referring to “reports” from unidentified “Batumi residents”. 

Activists from the other side of the political spectrum also fanned fires. Irakli Chkhvirkia, member of the Free Zone, a UNM-affiliated youth group, spoke to the media on behalf of the protesters at the night of unrest and demanded resignation of the Batumi Police chief, as well as the release of the detained. On March 13, UNM said Chkhvirkia acted independently and dismissed him from UNM ranks, saying his actions were “contrary” to the party’s position.

Riots
Tensions ran high at the demonstration in front of the Police Division building. Violence started around mid-night. The riot police moved out of the police station to drive the protesters away using tear gas and rubber bullets. This prompted aggressive backlash from some of the protesters, who threw cobblestones at the police, and torched police and civilian vehicles in the surrounding area. The police has retreated into Division building. The uncontained rioting ran its course for six hours mostly in areas adjacent to the Police Division building and ended early morning on March 12, when additional riot police detachments intervened to disperse the remaining protesters, detaining 65 of them, according to Georgian Public Defender’s office.

Confusion, Finger-Pointing in the Capital
Dramatic events in Batumi were streamed live by the national televisions.

UNM activists in Batumi were actively involved in the protest throughout the day, with some of the leaders, notably the former leader of Adjara from UNM, Levan Varshalomidze and one of UNM leaders Nika Melia raising voice in “solidarity” with the protesters in the early hours of the unrest on March 12.

The Head of Adjara government, who was visiting Istanbul at the time, was the first official who spoke to the media at 01:14. He called for calm and said he urged the Minister of Interior to release the detained. President Margvelashvili called for the calm around 02:25. Energy Minister Kakha Kaladze was the first government official to make a statement at 03:35.

Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili, released a statement at around 05:00 on March 12, an hour before the riot police would finally clear the streets of protesters, and hit out at the opposition accusing “the destructive political forces” for escalating “a harmless, everyday occurrence [of a police fine]” into rioting. Hinting at UNM, he said “these forces are willing to undermine the very foundation of stability in the country.” He also claimed, that the police were instructed to exercise maximum restraint “to avert possible complications”.

UNM promptly fired back around 05:30, expressing “extreme concern” over the violence in Batumi, which in the words of the party, followed “a lawful and peaceful protest against individual police officers.” The party also condemned “the unprecedented crime - burning down the patrol police cars” and called on the protesters “not to follow provocations,” but at the same time, UNM said that the Government’s use of force against “the public protest,” was “alarming”, adding that “the responsibility for the destabilization in Batumi rests with the Government.”

Partisan finger-pointing continued in the aftermath. PM Kvirikashvili has railed “an utterly destructive part of the opposition that disrespects the country’s stability.” GDDG went further, saying pointing the finger directly at the United National Movement. The party issued a statement at 11:00 on March 12, saying that “despite the attempts of the enemies of Georgia and the radically-minded leaders of the United National Movement, the unrest will not return in the country.”

It also emphasized that “all perpetrators, who were involved in the violence, should be punished,” and those, “who used, organized or promoted the events for political purposes,” should be held accountable.

Zaza Bibilashvili, one of UNM’s leaders, responded in a press briefing on March 12, saying that the party “condemns any expression of vandalism” and adding that the UNM, “which established the patrol police and has built Batumi, cannot accept accusations, that it damages what it has created itself.”

The Movement for Liberty-European Georgia, a faction that split off from UNM in January blamed both the government and UNM in a statement on March 12. The statement read both the unrest and the inadequate reaction of the Government, “is the result of Bidzina Ivanishvili’s [GDDG founder and former PM] five-year rule.” But it added “the opposition with a sense of responsibility” should not try “to find opportunities for creating unrest and should not exploit the processes for scoring political points.”

In Search of Reasons
A steam of dramatic images from Batumi, a showcase of renewed, vibrant Georgia was a sobering sight for the politicians. While the sniping continued, some tried to look for deeper reasons behind unexpected spike in violence.

European Georgia’s leader, former Tbilisi mayor Gigi Ugulava said “such protests do not emerge on its own. Strong sense of injustice has been accumulated in the people. Hopelessness, desperation and the sense of humiliation reigns in the country. This was exactly what turned the seemingly minor incident into a large-scale protest.”

Indeed it has been long claimed by researchers, that Batumi, which received disproportionately high investment during the governance of UNM in tourism infrastructure, is a hotbed of social inequality. Despite being credited with dramatic revival of the town, UNM has lost the elections in 2012 with a wide margin. Recent parliamentary elections also suggests that both pro-Russian and anti-Turkish sentiments run high there, with the nativist Alliance of Patriots and the Russia-sympathetic Democratic Movement registering statistically higher rates of support than anywhere else in Georgia.

Conspiracies Swirl
Yet, instead of looking for root causes, the conspiracy theories take the center stage.

UNM leader Bibilashvili claimed the peaceful protest turned violent as “all of a sudden hooligans and masked persons emerged” indicating these were organized forces. Pointing in particular to Gogoberidze’s role, UNM claims the government provoked violence, aiming to turn the consequences into a witch-hunt against the opposition.

The Republicans, some of whose leaders like David Berdzenishvili and Khatuna Samnidze have deep personal links with Adjara, have suggested the unrest was triggered by simmering conflict between the region’s State Security Service (with Gogoberidze serving its ‘agent provocateur’) and the Patrol Police.

Samnidze pointed at dangerous use of provocative labels such as “Tatars” to mobilize protest, which she compared to the methods used by local Security Services during the notorious rule of Aslan Abashidze, local strongman who turned Adjara into his de facto fiefdom during President Eduard Shevardnadze’s government. Abashidze was ousted in 2004 by the concerted effort of UNM and local opposition, including the Republicans.

UNM also said that the protest was inspired by a squabble between the local State Security Service employee and the patrol police officer. “The State Security Service is in personal conflict with the Patrol Police Chief and decided to get rid of him using his agency subordinates, in this case - [Merab] Gogoberidze”, UNM’s local leader Giorgi Kirtadze said when speaking with Rustavi 2 TV on March 12. He claimed, the provocation got out of hand.

Elguja Bagrationi of the UNM added on March 13 that the conflict between SSS and Patrol Police began a month ago, when the SSS officer [Amiran] Kipiani was fined for the parking violation and then detained after having resisted the police.  Kipiani’s family has confirmed the incident occurred, but denied it was linked with the unrest.

 

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