Conflict in Dmanisi between local Georgians and Azerbaijanis. Why did it go so far?
Clashes between local ethnic Azerbaijanis and ethnic Georgians in the city of Dmanisi on May 16-17 escalated to the point that large numbers of police forces and equipment were mobilized in the region.
Several people were injured in the fight.
The authorities rule out ethnic conflict and state that it was a confrontation on a domestic basis, which was completely exhausted.
What really happened in Dmanisi and is the conflict settled?
What happened in Dmanisi?
On May 16, at 5 pm, two groups of young people fought each other in front of a grocery store in Dmanisi.
According to eyewitnesses, the quarrel began because the shop assistant, an Azerbaijani, refused to sell beer on credit to young Georgians.
“Four guys came. They wanted beer on credit. I told them that I could not, because the boss was not there. They started insulting me, threatening to beat me. My father-in-law came out to the noise and told them that a woman should not be beaten. They started beating up my father-in-law. We called the police. I also testified. Later, about forty young people came with these guys. They were with truncheons, they broke everything,”saleswoman Saida Ismailova told reporters.
The brawl footage, captured by the store’s camera, was posted on Facebook. They show about twenty people approaching the store. In the store they are met by another group with sticks in their hands. Soon verbal confrontation develops into hand-to-hand combat.
All participants in the conflict are from Dmanisi, but representatives of different nationalities. One group is ethnic Azerbaijanis, the other is Georgians, eco-migrants from the mountainous region of Western Georgia, Svaneti, who settled in Dmanisi.
What happened that evening caused a lot of discussion and controversy on Facebook. Users wrote that an interethnic conflict broke out in Dmanisi.
◄ Dmanisi is a small town in the south of Georgia, in the Kvemo Kartli region. According to the 2014 census, 2,661 people live in the city, which is the regional center of Dmanisi municipality. In Dmanisi municipality, 65 percent of the population is ethnic Azerbaijanis and 33 percent is Georgians. Information from this city rarely gets into the mainstream media. Most TV channels don’t even have their own correspondents in the town. ►
That same night, it was announced that a protest rally would take place in Dmanisi at 11 am the next day. The organizer was the Azerbaijani community.
“You cannot turn the quarrel into an interethnic and religious one. Someone is speculating on this topic,” said Dmanisi Mayor Giorgi Tatuashvili the next morning, calling the conflict ‘domestic.’
The next day, May 17, the situation in Dmanisi was unmanageable for most of the day.
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Local residents from nearby villages soon joined the conflict. Groups armed with baseball bats, truncheons and stones beat each other mercilessly in several parts of the city at the same time.
For several hours, Dmanisi became a closed city – the police blocked the entrance to the city and restricted the movement of citizens. A large number of security officials were mobilized there, but the police could not calm the situation until late in the evening.
For example, at 5 pm, the media broadcast footage in which a large group of citizens ruthlessly pursued and beat one person, and the police could not do anything, because there were only two or three police officers on the spot.
Several people were injured in the shootout, including journalists and cameramen.
In the afternoon, Interior Minister Vakhtang Gomelauri and Head of the State Security Service Giorgi Liluashvili arrived in Dmanisi.
Late in the evening of May 17, after a day of uncontrollable processes, the opposing sides met in the Dmanisi city council.
The meeting was also attended by members of the government and religious leaders.
After the meeting, the parties announced that they had reconciled and publicly shook hands.
“I am glad and happy that the domestic conflict, which was under the threat of escalation, was resolved with the participation of us, the clergy, the state and the people. Both sides came to an agreement, forgave each other and reconciled,” said Mufti of Eastern Georgia Etibar Eminov.
The Interior Ministry declared the conflict settled, so no one involved in the violence was punished.
Interior Minister Vakhtang Gomelauri said that an investigation has begun, but interrogations continue. Gomelauri also said that the media ‘exaggerated’ the intensity of the situation, and thanked the church for participating. “Thank God, no one was seriously injured, there are only minor injuries,” the minister said.
Both the Minister of Internal Affairs and the head of the security service, who arrived at the scene, stressed that this was not an interethnic conflict.
The Minister of Internal Affairs stated that ethnic conflicts should not be allowed, because “Azerbaijanis are our citizens, and Azerbaijan is our strategic partner.”
Ethnic conflict or settlement – assessments of politicians
Unlike the interior minister, opponents of the government do not see the conflict as resolved.
In their opinion, the controversy that began on the basis of the current incident showed that there is fertile ground for interethnic strife in the region, and the government does not solve this problem, but encourages it.
The main complaints were addressed to the Ministry of Internal Affairs, which sent additional police forces to Dmanisi only 20 hours after the start of the conflict.
Kakha Okriashvili, a former MP from Dmanisi and Bolnisi, says the government in the region is encouraging local criminal groups to help them win elections:
“The population has a syndrome of impunity. All political responsibility for the development of events rests with the ruling Georgian Dream party, and the legal responsibility rests with completely inactive law enforcement agencies,” Okriashvili said.
What happened in Dmanisi “is the result of the use of ethnic and religious hatred for political purposes, which the Ivanishvili regime has been doing for many years,” said Gigi Bokeria, leader of the European Georgia party.
“It is also the result of the use of organized crime and electoral violence, which has been particularly widespread in this region for many years,” Bokeria said.
“Bring the police, calm the situation and severely punish everyone who organized yesterday’s meat grinder, regardless of nationality,” wrote Zurab Japaridze, leader of the Girchi – More Freedom party.
The opposition demands the resignation of the chiefs of the Kvemo Kartli district police and the minister of internal affairs.
The authorities said the opposition was deliberately abusing the situation.
“Political opponents want to present the problem on a larger scale where it does not exist. They go for everything. There can be no serious comments here, we cannot interpret the current conflict in the store as an interethnic confrontation,” said Archil Talakvadze, deputy speaker of the parliament, representative of the ruling party.
“What happened was wrong, this was followed by a moment of misunderstanding and everything would calm down,” said Sozar Subari, a parliamentary majority member and chairman of the regional policy and self-government committee, who arrived in Dmanisi.
The office of the Georgian State Minister for Reconciliation and Civil Equality did not respond to the incident in Dmanisi until the next day, late at night.
In its statement, the ministry repeated the rhetoric of members of the government that the essence of the conflict towards the ethnic factor is deliberately distorted by the opposition.
Position of the Embassy of Azerbaijan
One of the first to react to the incident in Dmanisi was the Azerbaijani Embassy in Georgia. The embassy’s statement emphasizes the everyday nature of the conflict. Also, in a statement, the Azerbaijani embassy called the local Azerbaijani community compatriots:
“Dear compatriots, you have always been a vivid manifestation of the Azerbaijani-Georgian friendship. The embassy is always ready to assist you in fulfilling this important mission and expresses confidence in your wisdom,” the statement said.
What really happened in Dmanisi – expert assessments
The confrontation in Dmanisi really began on a domestic basis, but soon developed into an ethnic conflict, experts and journalists working in the region say, adding that this is the result of a number of processes.
This conflict was sparked by the government’s policy and rhetoric towards ethnic minorities, said Zaur Khalilov, executive director of the Civil Integration Fund:
“The Minister of Internal Affairs comes out and says that Azerbaijanis are our citizens, that Azerbaijan is our strategic partner and friend. Excuse me, but if Azerbaijan does not become a partner, I, an Azeri living in Georgia, is in danger?! Such rhetoric provokes interethnic conflict, and if someone started it, it was the authorities.”
The founder and director of Radio Marneuli, journalist Kamila Mammadova, has lived and worked in Kvemo Kartli for many years and is well aware of the problems of the region.
According to her, Dmanisi is one of the most closed regions of Georgia, information about which does not come out. Mammadova says that the crime situation in the region is serious and compares it to the 90s.
“Unlike Marneuli, there is no civil sector or media in Dmanisi, so we do not know what is really going on there. Therefore, today, when everyone says that they live together in a very peaceful environment in Dmanisi, no one knows if this is true. In fact, such coexistence is a minefield, especially when the state uses a selective approach, and the law does not protect everyone equally.”
According to Mammadova, the aggression could be controlled because experience shows that the Azerbaijani community often avoids such radical protests.
Mammadova also notes that sponsored pages have been activated on Facebook, which host xenophobic content and promote the ideology of the pro-Russian far-right Georgian March:
“For example, yesterday the Alilo Marneuli Facebook page was active all day, where Zviad Gamsakhurdia’s speeches were posted, where he says that Georgia is for Georgians, and everyone else is guests,” Mammadova said.
Zaur Khalilov also notes the inaction of the state and the aggravation of the crime situation in the country. Khalilov says “state institutions have all but collapsed.”
“When people cannot find justice, criminals, crime bosses, formal and informal leaders are involved in the case. If yesterday there was a proper answer, if they were detained, even if they were warned about the consequences of illegal actions, this would not have happened.”
Zaur Khalilov does not believe that the conflict in Dmanisi is over.
“I do not believe that this imitation of reconciliation will solve the problem. With this act, the government bribed both sides. Tries to buy time. This is a temporary truce, until another quarrel. During the next fight, they will remember this, and David Gareji (the disputed section of the Georgian-Azerbaijani border), and we will go one more circle, because where there is no justice and equality, there will always be a conflict”.
Yesterday’s reconciliation is like putting out a fire with kerosene, this is a local decision, Kamila Mammadova believes:
“The problem is that the state does not think about the scale, does not think about the reasons where all this comes from. Gomelauri (Interior Minister) said that these people are our strategic partner, those in power themselves do not think that Azerbaijanis living in Georgia are equal, it is difficult for people to understand this at the institutional level. 30 years later, we still hear the rhetoric that our land and water are being taken away, ‘Gareji is Georgia…’
The nature of the social divisions that began with the incident on the spot points to the underlying causes of the conflict, says Tamta Mikeladze, director of the Center for Social Justice:
“We cannot consider this type of violence without any logic and context. We do not say that there was an ethnic conflict, but we say that the failures in the integration policy, the alienation that exists in various ethnic groups, is one of the reasons for this contradiction. “
Tamta Mikeladze believes that the state policy towards national minorities is acutely problematic.
“Their (national minorities’) political participation is weak. Poor inclusion of their problems and needs on the agenda. They have a lot of problems. And naturally, this lack of voice, weak participation, heavy political needs and refusal to understand them create a very strong sense of alienation, ”says Mikeladze.
According to her, the reconciliation initiated by the government is symbolic and cannot be seen as a solution to the problem:
“We saw how asymmetrical this process was, who participated in it. For some reason, no one in the local Azerbaijani community was seen as a political or civic figure representing the community, there was only a mufti who, I cannot say, has a lot of trust on the spot.
The fact that the state was almost unable to find civilian leaders on the spot shows that political life in this region is extremely weak and even practically dead. There are no signs of political or civil life there,” Mikeladze says.