Clashes erupt in Pankisi Gorge between residents and police

Clashes broke out yesterday in Georgia’s northeastern Pankisi Gorge region between police and residents protesting the construction of a hydropower plant.

The protest grew into a serious clash between the civilians and law enforcers, who were mobilised by the Economy Ministry to ensure security and order around the construction site. The residents of Pankisi oppose the construction of the Khadori-3 hydropower plant, saying it could harm the environment in the mountainous region and force them to leave their homes.

The protesters threw stones at police, who used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse them.

Georgia's Interior Minister Giorgi Gakharia was among the ministers who visited Pankisi Gorge and met with the local population. 

The minister said after the meting that although the construction works have been suspended for now, those who have violated the law will be strictly punished. "We have postponed [construction] of HPP and agreed on that it will only be built if 90% of the population supports the idea," cited Gakharia as saying.

He also underscored that the company responsible for the construction works will continue negotiating with the locals.

As a result of the clash, 55 people, inducing 38 police officers, were injured.

Political scientist Gela Vasadze, speaking to Vestnik Kavkaza, noted that the incident in the Pankisi Gorge was another big mistake in the government's internal policy. "It was necessary to negotiate the construction of hydropower plant long before it was started. As there were no agreements, the residents started protests. Then the authorities made it even worse - they called the special forces, finally confirming their incompetence. The special forces showing weakness was the third mistake. The citizens started to throw stones sticks at police in a live television broadcast - it was a strong blow to the image of the authorities," he explained.

"It’s good that the authorities made a concession in the end, but the main problem remained: there is no real local government in Georgia. If there was a local government that could clearly explain to the population that they could receive natural rent from a facility located on their territory, then such wouldn't have happened," Gela Vasadze added, stressing that the Pankisi Gorge itself is not a problem region of Georgia.

"The overwhelming majority of the Pankisi Gorge residents are quite respectable citizens. Moreover, the murder of Tamerlan Machalikashvili and the murder of David Saralidze de facto combined the general political agenda of both Pankisi and Tbilisi. The majority of our citizens were sympathetic to the fact that the Pankisi Gorge residents opposed the infringement of their rights, that is, they supported this protest," the political scientist said.

The head of the Institute of Management Strategy, Petre Mamradze, agreed with Vasadze. "The clash was caused by another manifestation of the authorities' weakness and short-sightedness. The hydropower plants must be built. But it requires working with the local population, with potential opponents of power plants, and showing them their benefits so that they themselves ask to build there hydropower plants," he said.

"There are no high principles in such conflicts, no struggle against environmental damage from hydropower plants either, it's only interests. Instead of normal work with people, the authorities first provoke a conflict with them, and then are forced to make the hardest compromise. The condition of 90% is simply unfeasible, because there is no such measure which wouldn't be protested by at least 10% of the population. In general, both the beginning and the subsequent actions of the authorities in Pankisi are a manifestation of a blatant incompetence, inability and lack of political will of the authorities," Mamradze said.

"But the Pankisi Gorge has been peaceful for a long time. There are no longer militants or drug and weapon depots, as before. Now it's much calmer there than it was under Saakashvili. Yes, a few dozen people left Georgia and fought in the banned in Russia terrorist group ISIS, but in general there are no problems there. And there will be no problems in the future, if the authorities star to behave adequately," the political scientist concluded.