Public protest in Georgia’s north-eastern Pankisi gorge over construction of a hydro-electric power plant grew into clashes with the riot police on April 21. At least 55 persons were injured as a result.
Georgian politicians and civil society activists were commenting on the developments throughout the day. We are offering you a compilation of what they have said (remarks not in chronological order).
President Zurabishvili, Government Administration
President Salome Zurabishvili: I am closely following the developments in the Pankisi gorge. I am ready to do everything in my discretion to protect both state interests and lawful interests of our citizens. The only solution is agreement.
Government administration: Energy independence and energy security is one of our key priorities, which has to be carried out with due consideration to environmental factors and interests of local residents. It is worth noting that along with the power plant construction, the company assumed social responsibility for implementing projects that benefit the gorge and the area in the vicinity. Although direct communication with the population has been underway for a year, we are still ready to answer all remaining questions… Provocations and violence, including against police officers, that took place in the Pankisi gorge, are strongly unacceptable. We call on everyone to avoid yielding to provocations and to refrain from disseminating unverified reports that will further escalate tensions on the ground. The government will respond adequately to any forms of violence and destructive actions.
Sozar Subari, PM’s advisor on regional development: We had many meetings and I would not hesitate to say that local residents had full information about the construction plans, that there are practically no threats from it… but regardless of that there was unfortunate misunderstanding, to put it softly; when police officers are assaulted, when vehicles, including police cars, are destroyed, we cannot leave this without due scrutiny… everyone who used force against police officers will be held accountable… as far as I know, there is an agreement that construction of a 27-mgwt capacity power plant deeper in the gorge will continue, and that talks about the five-mgwt capacity plant that is located in the village will continue. We also agreed that special forces units will be recalled from the area, but there will be enhanced police presence and we will also speed up building a new police station.
Assessments in the opposition
Ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili: The Pankisi gorge is home to especially warm, patriotic and diligent people. I have many friends there and these people deserve great appreciation and careful treatment. These people preserved the gorge for Georgia in a very difficult period of time. Their demands not to have the plant built at that particular location is absolutely justified, because it endangers their habitat, livelihoods and prospects for economic development. I would like to call on the government to think twice before they use power and send special forces, before they instruct them to crush local residents. I know why they are building plants; because it is in Ivanishvili’s personal interest, in Kaladze’s personal interest, but not in Georgia’s interest. In many areas of Georgia, plants should not be built, because Georgia’s main income is tourism. This is how people make their ends meet… I would also like to address our brothers and sisters in Pankisi… please be reserved and cautious, as you have always been. Dialogue is essential now. The government, once and for all, has to act in good sense and engage in dialogue with its population and leaders.
Grigol Vashadze, UNM/United Opposition: Today is a difficult day for Georgia. Georgia’s so called government managed to lead us to another crisis, particularly in a region populated by law-abiding and patriotic citizens of Georgia. We have been following the developments closely, and it is absolutely unclear why they convened talks in Telavi, and simultaneously started construction works in the gorge. If they had anything to say about the power plant or legal issues, they could have finished talks peacefully and resumed works only after that. The United Opposition demands categorically to withdraw special forces units from the area; at this moment, their presence only infuriates our citizens. The government has to engage in dialogue and talk to the citizens of Georgia with arguments, explain why it is necessary to build the plant and take their interests and demands into account. I would also like to call on our dear Pankisi residents to avoid violence; your peaceful protest will enjoy the country’s full support.
Gigi Ugulava, European Georgia: When you lead the processes to such state, you are becoming a harmful and toxic government… the power plant is no longer important now. Ivanishvili did everything at his disposal deliberately so that the central government would not be a factor in the Pankisi gorge – neither in terms of being a moral authority, nor in terms of security. This was a revolt of desperate people, which you cannot suppress with power. Throwing stones at police is bad, but speaking about this is a little too late now. What we see today is a clear and very dangerous sign of erosion of our statehood. This is a situation when the government’s “legitimate power” is a violence against its people, because every action by the government has a public legitimacy problem. The country has rotten and there is only one solution – departure of Ivanishvili and the Georgian Dream.
Giga Bokeria, European Georgia: This is a difficult and dangerous situation for our country. First of all, I would like to address our citizens in the Pankisi gorge and call for calm. Of course, any form of violence against police officers is unacceptable, but full responsibility for this situation and that the processes unfolded this way, rests entirely on Ivanishvili’s government, for his inconsistent and imprudent policy. This is not about power plants, although we have also seen how inconsistent they are about the issue. We have been warning them both publicly and privately of the difficult situation in the region in terms of [absence of] trust towards the government, rule of law. This is the result of general distrust of our citizens towards the government policy. They have no legitimacy and this is very dangerous for our country.
Davit Usupashvili, Development Movement: The potential of another mine going off in Pankisi is hundred times bigger than the capacity of this particular power plant. In Pankisi, especially after the tragedy of Machalikashvili, everything is political and not economic or energy-related. The Prime Minister and the government do not understand this! They do not understand that using police and special forces for addressing such issues is counter-productive. Therefore, before it is still possible to deescalate the situation, the Prime Minister has to travel to Pankisi and promise to the population that unless there is agreement, the works will not resume.
Free Democrats: The Georgian Dream government can no longer hide its real face and talks to its own citizens in the Pankisi gorge using the language of riot police, special equipment and tear gas. The government’s actions were disgraceful considering that the police started implementing special measures when talks were still underway between the Interior Ministry and representatives of local residents… We call on the government to immediately stop using force in the area, to set up a group for carrying out real negotiations with locals so that construction works resume only through the agreement with them and to provide the public with genuine information about the results of these negotiations. Otherwise, full responsibility for worsening the situation not only in the Pankisi gorge but throughout the country will lie on the Georgian Dream government and their leader, Bidzina Ivanishvili.
Shalva Natelashvili, Labor Party: First, this had to do with Ivanishvili’s private businesses. Second, this was to fulfil Moscow’s orders – to stir tensions in Pankisi and pave way for their peacekeepers to be deployed here and end the same way it ended in Tskhinvali and Abkhazia. This of course will not happen here, but Pankisi residents did the job of the entire country today… they won and forced the outlaw government to step back.
CSOs, Public Defender
Public Defender Nino Lomjaria: The authorities should have acted with more caution. There should have been more communication with the public, more explanations. It is a fact that the public was not informed and that they had a feeling that their concerns were not heard adequately. We have to do everything possible to avoid such escalations… The overall protest mood in the area is high, including on a number of ongoing investigations, and when government uses force, there is a feeling that this may be a retaliation and punishment against them. So the authorities should treat police operations with special care.
Tamta Mikeladze, Human Rights Monitoring Center: The greatest problem today was that the government resumed construction works unexpectedly, through police measures and without exhausting all available resources of negotiations… This was an absolutely irresponsible move by the Interior Ministry and we naturally link it to the appointment of the new Economy Minister [Natia Turnava], who, as her political biography demonstrates, has connections to the energy sector. She clearly stated that she sees the prospect of economic development in the energy sector. So, they launched the construction of this harmful power plant in the Pankisi gorge, thinking they would be able to do so with repressive measures, but they failed to give due consideration to the social context existing in the area.
Sulkhan Saladze, Georgian Young Lawyers Association: What we need most is more information, including in-depth and serious assessment of the information available in the media. I talked to my colleagues, to our partner organizations and we are thinking about developing a document assessing how these processes unfolded, including on how and why the police and special forces were mobilized, and who gave orders. We all know that there was a meeting (referring to April 18 talks of government officials with local residents) few days earlier and everyone agreed that the process was not over and that it had to continue. We would like to show the entire process to the public, what happened during the day and what led to such developments. But what’s most important at this point is to deescalate the situation.