Updated at 08.30 CET / 11.30 Tbilisi
The Georgian Black Sea port of Batumi has seen some of its more serious rioting in its modern history overnight, as rioters burnt police cars and police clashed with protesters firing tear gas, following an incident over a parking ticket. Batumi is the administrative capital of the Adjaran Autonomous Republic, a self-governing entity within Georgia.
According to the government website agenda.ge, more than 20 people were taken to hospital after violence erupted late on Saturday evening "after a group of citizens physically confronted police after an officer fined a driver for illegal parking in central Batumi".
Batumi emergency centre said that 24 people were taken either to the Batumi Referral Hospital or Batumi Republican Hospital as of 2 am on Sunday. Most of those hospitalised suffered injuries as a result of stone-throwing, and among them were 11 police officers.
Police used tear gas several times to disperse groups of protesters that gathered in front of the traffic police headquarters. A number of people were detained but later released. However Imedi Television in its report at 11.00 am (08.00 CET) said that around 40 people have been arrested in connection with the incident, and that 34 were hospitalised.
The Georgian government despatched Interior Minister Giorgi Mghebrishvili to Batumi overnight. President Giorgi Margbelashvili issued a statement in the early hours of Sunday morning in which he called for calm and said that "the right of assembly and freedom of expression must be protected, although state institutions and the law must also be respected and any form of violence is unacceptable".
Commonspace.eu political editor said that what started as a small incident over a parking ticket quickly turned into a full-scale riot, and this reflects deeper tensions in Adjaran society that have been brewing under the surface for some time. Adjara has the status of an autonomous republic within Georgia, and has its own parliament and government. Their powers were restricted following constitutional changes in 2004, after the ousting of Adjara's local strongman Aslan Abashidze, who had dominated life in the territory since 1991 with the connivance of Moscow. The territory is home to a sizeable minority Muslim population of Georgian ethnicity, but in recent years has also seen a large presence of people from neighbouring Turkey, who are active in many aspects of the economy, and whose presence is sometimes resented, at least by part of the population
Under President Saakashvili, Batumi became a show piece for the Georgian government, attracting investment which saw a complete transformation of the City's skyline. This policy continued after 2012 when the Georgian Dream came to power. But many Adjarans feel that little of the new prosperity around them has rubbed off on them, and there has been a lot of criticism of the local officials who are seen to be simply tools of Tbilisi and not being able to stand up for the rights of the local community.
The incident overnight may very well blow over as tempers cool, but it should be a wake-up call to Prime Minister Kvirikashvili and his government. Adjara's specific circumstances require a more nuanced and sophisticated approach than simply economic models. This is the first big test for Kvirikashvili, who will need to balance the need to maintain law and order, whilst showing sensitivity to local circumstances and conditions.
photo: An overturned police car following rioting in Batumi late on Saturday (11 March) picture courtesy of agenda.ge
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