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Q&A: Batumi Unrest - In Search for Reasons
Civil Georgia, Tbilisi / 16 Mar.'17 / 17:56

Q: Batumi riots are the first challenge of this kind that the GDDG government faces. As Georgia-watcher, what has struck you most about these events and how does its handling by the government look from the outside?

Michael Cecire, analyst
On one hand, urban unrest is a fact of life in any country, and there is a tendency for outside observers (and more than a few internal ones as well) to assign international or geopolitical significance to any kind of optically problematic incident in Georgia. That is unhealthy, as it turns into a kind of arms race for parallel worldview building while often glossing over more parochial, and sometimes more meaningful, local issues. All that said, the scale and ferocity of the Batumi riots look a lot more like the kind of unrest we periodically see in places like Azerbaijan and Armenia, where local officials are held up as broadly unaccountable and the only remaining means of recourse for locals is taking to the streets. I am not saying that’s what happened here, and the narrative of events appears to be far more complex than that, but the way events have been framed certainly lend to that tenor.

On a policy level, I think it’s clear that Georgian police reform -- one of the country’s crowning achievements in the post-Rose Revolution era -- has reached a point of vastly diminished returns. The Batumi riots appear to reflect that sentiment, as local anger was not necessarily stoked by overt corruption or brutality, but a sense that the police’s legalistic application of the law was overwrought and abusive. That perception may or may not be deserved, but it’s not exactly a new complaint, as versions of this same view have also surfaced in the latter years of the Saakashvili era and for a couple of years following Georgian Dream’s accession to power. It appears that for many Georgians, the fact that their police are no longer extorting bribes is not enough reason to be content. Instead, there is a sense that justice, and not merely the application of the law, remains somehow missing. This is a view that has its analogues in the West as well, such as the US, where the Black Lives Matter movement sought to go beyond what many juries and prosecutors saw as legally defensible police actions, but that activists (and many other Americans like myself) saw as still entirely unjust. That Georgians are grappling with similar issues is not a huge surprise, but I fear that the government’s law and order response to events ignores some very real grievances that could metastasize and blow up again elsewhere. The idea that Batumi is necessarily a one-off incident -- the police chief’s rumored prejudices were an issue; it was fueled by UNM activists; police were too lenient on Batumi residents in the past -- I think mistakes the spark for the tinder, and risks allowing further unrest to happen in the future without some serious self-examination.

Lincoln Mitchell, analyst
It is a little early to know with great certainty, but police community relations are very important. While those relationships are certainly better now than before 2012, the government, particularly at the local level should always be working to improve these.

Demonstrations of this kind are common in democratic countries, so we should be careful not to read too much into these events. The major question for me, and for which it is too early to know the answer is whether the demonstrations were simply part of the larger partisan context and conflict in Georgia, or an outgrowth of a party system that has not always done a great job of representing people.

Joseph Larsen, analyst

As a foreigner living in Georgia with little sensitivity to local dynamics, I was surprised by last weekend’s unrest. If nothing else, it serves as a reminder that Batumi is much more than a pleasant seaside resort but a community with complex political, economic and religious dynamics. That being said, there are three main takeaways.

The government reacted well to the first major domestic crisis since last year’s parliamentary elections. Police responding to the demonstrations showed professionalism and restraint. The central government in Tbilisi reacted firmly but sensitively, instructing police to use maximum restraint while declaring that rioters would be punished severely. While the reaction was strong, more proactive approaches to policing could prevent similar incidents in the future. A comprehensive community policing strategy is one option.

Moreover, Adjara’s poor socio-economic conditions are a factor that must be addressed. The tourism and construction industries don’t provide enough opportunities for local residents. Unemployment is high, especially among young people. This has created a tinderbox environment where perceived slights-in this case from Police Chief Bukhradze, who is not native to Adjara - can quickly spark a crisis.

Third, the incident showed that conspiratorialism is still a strong factor in Georgia’s politics. Both the government and the National Movement accused the other of instigating the riot. Whether that’s accurate or not, the ugliness of the event promises to further polarize a country that is plenty polarized as it is.

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