Parking tickets may be hated universally, but car owners in the Georgian city of Batumi took it to an extreme this past Saturday with mass rioting that revived old memories of civil unrest. The political blame-game that followed left little hope for a widely acceptable explanation of why one parking ticket led to fierce clashes between police and protesters in the country’s top seaside resort.
Authorities in Batumi, seat of the Black-Sea region of Achara, have been taking stock of the damage done on a night of rampage that left cars burnt, property vandalized and dozens arrested. City Mayor Giorgi Ermakov put the damage at 150,000 laris (about $60,000). He said that the local government already has repaved cobbled sidewalks that provided ammunition for protesters. Riot police responded with rubber bullets and tear gas.
The trouble began on the evening of March 11, after a Batumi man and his son came out of a drugstore to find police ticketing their car for being parked in a restricted area, eyewitnesses say. An altercation followed that ended in both men’s arrest. (Their names have not been released.)
Bystanders tried to intervene, blaming police for using excessive force. “They pushed [the son] in like a sack of potatoes,” an emotional woman told Rustavi2 television station.
An angry crowd soon prevented traffic from entering the area. More people began gathering in front of Batumi’s main police station, demanding the two men’s release and complaining about the city’s traffic jams and lack of parking spots. They demanded the resignation of the regional traffic-police chief, Kakhaber Bukhradze, a new arrival accused of getting tough about enforcing traffic rules.
As the night wore on, protesters tried to storm the police station to get results. Deployed riot police eventually ended the tumult.
Although Georgian motorists often get into altercations with traffic police and towing companies, many still find it hard to believe that such a disagreement alone could have led to unrest of such a dimension. As debates rage on in the media, the trouble appears to have had several layers, related to both policy and politics.
One factor could be inconsistent enforcement of traffic rules. For years, it’s been the norm in Georgia for enforcement to ebb and flow. It’s commonly believed – though never confirmed -- that ruling parties instruct the police to go easy on non-compliant drivers ahead of elections to pander to voters.
According to this view, with Georgia’s parliamentary vote over five months ago, it’s now time to enforce the rules again.
And that’s reportedly what Achara’s new traffic-police chief, Bukhradze, has been doing since his appointment in early January. The crackdown has prompted widespread discontent, claimed a prominent member of the opposition Republican Party, Davit Berdzenishvili, a Batumi native.
“People were used to parking wherever and not being punished for it… and all of a sudden, without any warning, the law gets enforced,” Berdzenishvili told Rustavi2.
The Republican Party believes that a local political-power struggle also played a role. Some regional officials resented the appointment of Bukhradze, an outsider from the central Georgian town of Gori, they claim.
Georgian public television cited social-media reports that local activist Merab Gogoberidze allegedly had called for rallies to condemn Tbilisi for supposedly ignoring Achara’s autonomous status and appointing a non-local as police chief.
Gogoberidze alleged that Bukhradze had called Acharans “Tatars,” a slur for Muslims, but never substantiated the claim. Protesters, however, had actively seized on it.
Such rumors are highly divisive in a Muslim-minority region that teetered on the edge of separatism in the past. Issues such as poverty, lingering sectarian tensions and some hostility to the ever-growing influence of neighboring Turkey all create fertile ground for trouble.
Although some Georgians believe the Batumi clashes brought the country close to disaster, the country’s main political parties have been, per usual, too busy blaming one another to assess the likelihood of such a risk. Former President Mikheil Saakashvili’s United National Movement (UNM), the most popular opposition party, initially backed the protesters' right to peaceful protest and announced plans to hold solidarity rallies in other cities. The party, though, took a step back when the rallies turned violent.
The governing Georgian Dream Party, however, blamed the UNM for fuelling the protests. “We saw attempts to exploit these rallies, to pour oil on fire,” declared Georgian Dream member Tamar Chugoshvili, adding that she would not put it past the UNM to have orchestrated the protests to begin with. The UNM scoffs that Chugoshvili is just trying to pass the buck.
Such exchanges leave little hope for an exhaustive investigation and any meaningful, long-term response to Batumi’s problems. Another phase of relaxed enforcement of traffic rules might be more likely.