Tensions reached boiling point in quarantined Marneuli municipality on April 22 as protesters hit the streets of Shulaveri village in defiance of restrictions on public gathering. Hundreds of locals, mostly ethnic Azeri farmers, protested strict quarantine regime in effect since March 23, and expressed grievance caused by inability to sell their produce.
Protesters demanded immediate intervention by authorities to rescue their businesses and support agriculture, a mainstay of the local economy. The Government promised to gradually relax restrictions, acknowledging that keeping them in place too long might stifle businesses. However, given the extension of state of emergency until May 22, farmers’ predicament will only aggravate.
Some politicians have sympathized with protesters’ cause – while disagreeing with the form of the protest – and admonished the government to heed the worries of those who have suffered most during the pandemic.
Meanwhile, Irakli Kobakhidze, a ruling party MP and former Parliamentary Speaker, has denounced the protest and accused it of being fomented by opposition parties. “This was a crime. They should not be playing with fire,” warned Kobakhidze.
What’s really driving the protest? Was it an act of civil disobedience amid the nationwide emergency, or a desperate plea for help by farmers – struggling to make ends meet under the lockdown? What role – if any – did the local authorities play in order to mitigate the fallout of coronavirus crisis?
Civil.ge has asked two keen observers of Marneuli politics to talk us through the source of public unrest in the quarantined region.
Kamila Mamedova, Founder and Director of Marneuli Community Radio
“Most of Marneuli residents are self-employed and run small or medium-sized agricultural businesses. So, naturally, they were especially affected by the lockdown measures. Many have taken loans and now are unable to pay off their creditors. For the first time in their lives, they entirely depend on government’s support for their livelihoods.
Closure of municipal bazaars [open-air markets] has only made matters worse. Some villagers used to travel to the city of Marneuli daily and wholesale produce to grocery stores. Since April 17, when the nationwide ban on driving private vehicles was enacted, even this has become impossible.
While local authorities were claiming to be in negotiations with a number of distribution companies since the outset of quarantine [to transport goods from quarantined Marneuli to other regions], first batch of local produce was only sent for distribution in Tbilisi supermarket chains eight days ago.
They only name a single company – “Jibe” – which was charged with supplying Tbilisi market[s] with local [Marneuli] agricultural produce. The amount of farm produce turned out to be more than distributors had initially estimated. Now they [companies] are planning to scale up distribution and ship goods to other Georgian regions [in addition to Tbilisi].
Protesters first gathered in Aghmamedlo [a village southeast to the city of Marneuli, located near the state border with Armenia and Azerbaijan] at 11:00, and soon more protests cropped up in other villages. Protesters finally decided to converge in Shulaveri village, which sits on Sadakhlo highway.
Some protesters claimed that they had been made to sell products at below-market prices. Sozar Subari [regional development adviser to the Prime Minister and Government’s point man on coronavirus] stated that the economy had suffered globally and products could not be traded at pre-crisis level prices.
I spoke to a farmer who had harvested 40 tons of broccoli and was unable to sell it at all. There was another farmer, who owns a plot of land, and used to travel to Zugdidi [a town in Western Georgia] and vend his produce directly from the boot of his car. Now he’s doomed. Farmers are entirely dependent on local government’s support.
From what I’ve heard, unsold fresh produce is rotting and going to waste.
I can’t say for sure whether this protest was arranged or it all happened impromptu. Previous protests, like one which included honking car horns at 9 p.m. by locals demanding easing of strict quarantine regime, were more or less pre-planned and organized. By contrast, today’s demonstration was most likely unprompted. Some political activists might have also joined the protests, but most were simply concerned with bread-and-butter issues.
Some people tried to label today’s protests as “politically motivated.” Shota Rekhviashvili, Governor [State Representative] of Kvemo Kartli region, named several opposition politicians – in particular, Ahmed Imamkulyev of European Georgia party and Azer Suleimanov, an MP from the United National Movement – who indeed were present at the demonstration. But does not alter the fact that the protest was primarily driven by social and economic factors. Produce is really rotting.
Generally, local people are badly informed. We just can’t gauge how well do municipal authorities manage to communicate with the population, especially amid the state of emergency.
Even Sozar Subari [regional development adviser to the Prime Minister and Government’s pointman on coronavirus] recognized that there were logistical constraints and that they remained unresolved. He stated that authorities could not reach out to the [ethnic Azeri] population, hence locals were uninformed.
We [Marneuli Radio] tried to dig deeper in the issue, but City Hall officials just don’t answer our phone calls.
Shalala Amirjanova, Civil Rights Activist from Marneuli
“Today’s protest first began in Aghmamedlo, Kasumlo, and other adjacent villages, then it snowballed and ended up in Shulaveri, which is somewhere near the geographical midpoint of Marneuli municipality.
Most of the protesters were local farmers afflicted by the quarantine regime. By now, they should have already sold their harvest. Now tons of vegetable are left to rot.
Many have borrowed huge sums of money from banks and now struggle to keep their businesses afloat.
Normally, Marneuli farmers supply markets with agricultural produce throughout the entire country and even export abroad, mainly to Azerbaijan and Armenia. Farmers do not care who buys their product as far as they make enough profit.
The protests that we have witnessed today have really overshadowed mere politics. While politics may have played a marginal role [in gathering protesters], a majority of the people joined the protest to make their economic woes known. Selling their produce and getting some income is all they are asking for.
Since the lockdown, life has become more and more expensive in Marneuli. Food prices are spiking. Stalls are empty. In large households, made up of more than five members, people usually make bread at home. Now, once they are run out of flour, they head to bazaars. Bazaars are closed. Then they go to grocery stores and buy flour that costs double the price compared to pre-quarantine levels.
The government has recently announced that farmers will be allowed to drive private vehicles during specific periods of the day in order to carry out agricultural work, but not all residents of Marneuli are aware of this change. Because of state of emergency restrictions, people cannot gather at birzhas [open-air spots where locals usually hang around]. Most of the materials are now translated [into Azerbaijani language], but many do not have access to the internet, and struggle to stay abreast of news.
Imagine that you are a village representative [a low-ranking official who runs a village administration in Georgia] in Marneuli municipality, and you are tasked with spreading official information in your village. In effect, you just can’t do that. Even the village representative has a poor command of Georgian [the official language], and is unable to effectively communicate with the authorities.
I can’t say exactly what role the City Hall plays in conveying relevant information to the local population. But one thing is clear. People are underinformed. Local authorities lack human resources, they are understaffed, while just one or two people cannot bear the burden during emergencies.”