Residents of Pankisi again gathered on Wednesday to condemn the deployment of riot police to the valley over the weekend and calling for local residents not to be prosecuted over the violence that followed.
Interior Minister and Vice Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia had earlier vowed to prosecute ‘all those responsible’ for attacking police officers.
Violence broke out near the village of Birkiani on Sunday as police and protesters clashed following the resumption of construction on the Khadori 3 hydropower plant. The clashes left 55 people injured, including 38 police officers.
[Read more on OC Media: Georgian riot police deploy rubber bullets and tear gas in Pankisi hydropower protest]
Local residents gathered on 24 April in the village of Jokolo, in Pankisi Valley, and condemned the authorities for resuming construction and the deploying police. The Interior Ministry said police were sent to protect construction workers ‘based on a request by the economy ministry’.
The ministry maintained they had dispatched riot police on Sunday after a group of locals ‘threw sticks and rocks’ at police officers in the morning. Riot police used rubber bullets and tear gas against Pankisi residents while several local leaders met government officials in the regional capital, Telavi.
By the end of the negotiations, which had later moved back to Birkiani, Gakharia vowed that construction would not begin unless ‘90%’ of the local population agreed to it.
Gakharia, who was accompanied by infrastructure minister Maia Tskitishvili, environment minister Levan Davitashvili, and advisor to the Prime Minister in regional development issues Sozar Subari, also promised to go after those who used force against police.
Police presence but no arrests so far
‘Every individual will be identified and everyone who dared to attack police officers will be punished accordingly’, Gakharia told journalists in Birkiani.
After discussing the situation among themselves for several hours, protest leaders told media in Jokolo on 24 April that the interior ministry should abstain from prosecuting individual participants that clashed with riot police unless they intended to bring charges against all members of the protest.
‘Law enforcement [agencies] and everyone else knew that the people were against [the construction]. Despite this, they resumed work and challenged people. If they say they want to punish someone, then they will have to hold all of us responsible’, Emzar Tokhosashvili, a member of the grassroots council that includes both elders and youth, told media.
While residents of Pankisi were meeting, the authorities set up roadside cabins for police logistics in Dzibakhevi, a village close to the scene of the 21 April clashes.
After the incident, authorities sealed several areas off and enhanced the police presence in the region with a 50-member security force.
Despite Gakharia’s statement, law enforcement agencies have not yet brought charges against any of the participants of Sunday’s riot.
This prompted national media and government critics, including the opposition European Georgia party, to speculate that Gakharia faces two difficult choices: either failing to go after the attackers or making public discontent in Pankisi worse.
Giga Bokeria, an MP from European Georgia, said that he would not rule out a total lack of arrests.
‘The government uses force selectively, in political life, only when they need it, and without punishment […] They used police force and stopped only because they saw the resistance was big […] Apparently they talked to some [local residents] and thought they had reached an agreement with them while deciding at the same time to “break” other dissenters with force. First doing, then thinking — typical of this government’, Bokeria stated on TV Pirveli on 24 April.
‘Provocations’ from riot police
Following the clashes, the Prime Minister’s office released a statement saying they had ‘directly engaged’ with the local population over the Khadori 3 project for over a year. They said the cabinet was still ready ‘to answer all questions’ the population might have about the project.
In their statement, the government’s office called Khadori 3 a ‘small’ and ‘green’ project that would not reduce the flow of the river and would have a ‘minimal’ effect on the environment. The government also stressed that the region would benefit from the project economically.
Lasha Iordanishvili, the director of construction company Peri, confirmed to media during a press conference on 24 April that it was they who requested police protection from the economy ministry.
He said they had faced ‘unexpected aggression from the locals previously’.
Peri, a subsidiary of Alazani Energy, has been unable to operate in the valley since early 2018 due to local protests.
There are already two HPPs operating on the valley’s river Alazani.
The Khadori 3 project has faced opposition from local people from its inception. The biggest challenge for Pankisi, according to many of the protesters, is the effect the projects could have on the development of tourism, including rafting, that could be completely stopped if hydropower stations are built along the entire length of the Alazani in Pankisi.
In the Environmental Impact Assessment conducted for the project, Gamma Consulting predicted a possible worsening of the river's water quality and widespread detriment to the area’s ecosystem. Georgian environmental group the Green Alternative criticised the report, stressing that the consequences would be far more severe, including serious problems for the local population’s water supply and destruction of the whole Alazani River ecosystem.
In late 2018, advocacy group the Human Rights Education and Monitoring Centre (EMC) challenged the Khadori 3 plant’s construction in court by questioning the validity of the report, but their motion to halt construction while the case was pending was denied.
Talking to the opposition-leaning TV channel Rustavi 2 on 21 April, Eto Gvritishvili, a lawyer for EMC, blamed the government for Sunday’s clash, as they went forward with the construction without exhausting all the resources to negotiate the project with the population.
Locals have maintained that the government did talk to them, but that they never consented to the project during the meetings. They also noted that government officials mostly preferred to talk to those that were less radically opposed to the project.
'The [special] forces mobilised from the start […] Our only demand was to be able to access the construction site’, Mutoshvili said during an interview with Rustavi 2
‘Instead, [the riot police] used force, acting very provocatively, saying to boys — “come approach us if you are men”. If not for the teasing and threats, the locals would not resort to these forms to protest’, she added.