According to a report by the Interior Ministry of Georgia, on the evening of March 11th, police officers detained two local residents for disobedience and violating traffic lights. Later, the police arrested three more people for ignoring the policemen’s orders. According to witnesses, however, the conflict began when the police gave a local resident a disproportionally high parking ticket.
In response, protesters gathered in front of the interior ministry of the Adjara region to peacefully demand the resignation of local police chiefs and the release of detainees. Members of the United National Movement opposition party arrived soon after in Batumi to join the rally, which gathered up to 1,000 people. Subsequently, the protests turned violent, with people attempting to break into a police building and setting several cars on fire. Police and special forces used tear gas and rubber bullets. As a result, about 40 residents were arrested and at least 33 people sustained injuries, including 15 policemen.
According to eyewitness accounts, at first the police rejected the demand to release the detainees and later, after the the protests escalated, they sent vague messages to the crowd offering terms for the release of those arrested.
As local protesters claimed, the direct source of anger was the decision of the newly appointed heads of police to introduce high penalties for minor offences, and the fact that police officers verbally insulted the local population, calling them “Tatars”. According to some participants, police officers deliberately used hate speech against the detained to incite anger.
Moreover, many raise the question as to whether the root cause of the uproar was the obstructed political processes in the Adjara region. According to some observers, the government let the protesters vandalise the city infrastructure and property of local residents for almost 12 hours before their immediate demands, namely the release of the detained, were addressed.
This led to accusations that the government might have deliberately slackened on the Batumi events. As several politicians and experts noted, police and security services demonstrated a dilettantish and unprofessional attitude and an unwillingness to act properly in time. It is still unknown whether the events were orchestrated or the security institutions are simply too weak to timely respond to crises.
In the last five years of Georgian Dream rule, the country has witnessed the change of three prime ministers, four defence ministers – some lasting only several months – and a constant shuffle of security and intelligence heads. Nepotism doomed institutional capacity in defence and security institutions to tackle even basic threats and challenges. Consequently, an insufficient professionalism of policy-makers, security advisers and defence planners has led to an approach where the possibility of conflict re-escalation with Russia is not considered, and hence the capacity of a quick response to deter Russian hybrid warfare is not adequately estimated.
In a logical parallel, the Tbilisi flood of June 2015 had a very similar response time as the “Batumi uprising”. The police force, emergency services and, later, army units were deployed for rescue efforts rather than acting preventively to detect an alarming signal of upcoming possible damage and casualties.
It is difficult to compare a natural disaster and a social uprising since they are phenomena of different scopes with significantly varied predictability rates. Accordingly, when it comes to assessing the efficiency of security institutions, it is important to distinguish between governmental capacity to take preventive measures and respond to crises already at hand. However, the robustness of security structures is largely determined by their preventive rate rather than post-incident response.
The “Batumi uprising” is believed to be a reaction to the numerous instances of rigging the results of the 2016 Georgian Parliamentary Elections, in which the Georgian Dream allegedly falsified about 25,000 ballot papers in the Adjara region. On top of that, the vast majority of election promises have not been delivered, which has been accompanied by worsening social-political conditions and a constant devaluation of Georgian currency, the lari.
Finally, the lynchpin of Georgian political polarisation rests in the “blame strategy” between the UNM and Georgian Dream parties underpinned by the current political arrangement, where the country is run by the latter, while the UNM remains in opposition. The Georgian Dream's blame rhetoric is strengthened through a constant reminder to the UNM of its unpopular political decisions in the past, feeding the vicious circle of mutual accusations. The country lacks a clear and consonant political vision and needs effective reforms to regain the popular trust.
Aside from the political clashes, it is alarming that the Batumi protesters were mainly young local residents violently responding to complex social and political issues. The government must decide whether to embrace the outcry as a political message and embark on a real change, or pedal again on UNM as the root of its failures.
Beka Kiria is a political analyst, and a member of the Younger Generation Leaders Network on Euro-Atlantic Security. He is also a former defence and security official at the Georgian Ministry of Defence, and a member of NATO’s Future Alumni Network. He tweets at @BekaKiria