Over 100 taxi drivers blocked Tbilisi’s central Rustaveli Avenue on Wednesday on foot and in their cars in protest against new taxi regulations introduced by the city hall.
Police succeeded in unblocking the road within around 10 minutes, forcing the protesters onto the pavement. They also warned protestors that they would remove any cars that were obstructing the road. The drivers continued their protest in front of the Parliament building.
During the struggle, police detained one protester for petty hooliganism and disobeying a police officer, both administrative offences. Another protester fell ill and was taken away by ambulance. The police argued that there was ‘no objective need to block the traffic’.
The march, which began from the central Station Square, was led by the Georgian Labour Party, a non-parliamentary opposition party.
Drivers demanded the government axe new rules requiring their cars to be painted white, or postpone the new rules until 2025. They also protested against having technical vehicle inspections twice a year.
The taxi drivers also called on the city hall to continue to allow two-door vehicles and right-hand drive cars to operate as taxis.
‘How it's done in Milan’
According to the changes introduced by the City Hall in December 2018, all left-hand drive vehicles repainted white by October this year will be registered as ‘category A’ taxis, enjoying special parking spots in the city, a permit to pick up clients both off the street or via a mobile application, and would carry a taxi sign on top which will be provided by the City Hall free of charge.
Category B taxis would only be allowed to pick up passengers via a mobile application or a phone call.
Six of the taxi drivers protesting the new rules in front of Parliament told OC Media that vouchers issued by the city hall do not fully cover the expenses of repainting their cars.
‘What do they want from our cars? Did they buy them for us? Some took $4,000 or $5,000 in bank loans to drive a taxi. No government ever touched taxis… What have we done, who have we allowed to come to power?!’, one driver complained.
‘I guess that’s how it's done in Milan’, remarked another, referring to Tbilisi Mayor Kakha Kaladze, a former football player for AC Milan.
Lasha Chkhartishvili, head of the Georgian Labour Party’s Human Rights Centre, promised there would be a ‘taxi revolution’ if the demands of the drivers were not met.
Chkhartishvili told OC Media that their ‘peaceful’ protest on Rustaveli Avenue was sanctioned for an hour, from 15:00–16:00, and ‘including the transport movement section’, hence, the authorities ‘obstructed us illegally’.
Chkhartishvili also said that the free vouchers were not available for all taxi drivers.
‘This is a violation of their property rights, and was done to eventually purge taxi drivers from the market and replace them with a company that, of course, will be of [Tbilisi Mayor Kakha] Kaladze and Ivanishvili. They are trying to monopolise the market’, Chkhartishvili told OC Media.
The Labour Party announced that another protest rally would be held on 11 April in front of ‘Glass Castle’, a common reference to the private residence of the Chair of the ruling Georgian Dream party and former Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili.
‘It's not anyone's business what colour my taxi is […] And I have to stand in a long line for that. It's just a big money trap. This will end this government’, one taxi driver on duty told OC Media.
‘We earn ₾700–₾800 ($260–$300) a month; it's nothing today’.
He added that he had not known about the rally beforehand, ‘otherwise, I would have joined’.
‘Decent’ taxi drivers
Several dozen taxi drivers previously held a street rally over the new requirements in front of the Tbilisi City Hall building on 20 March. The City Hall refused to compromise, saying that Tbilisi needed taxi reforms.
After 27 March’s rally, Tbilisi mayor Kakha Kaladze said at a press conference that the taxi reforms would continue, but that he was open to talking to ‘decent’ taxi drivers.
Kaladze complained that the rally was ‘organised by a specific political party’, something he called ‘unacceptable’.
Kaladze announced in October that financing vouchers for drivers to repaint and dry-clean their cars at the Interior Ministry’s Service Agency would not come from the city budget. According to him, they would instead let a company cover the cost of the vouchers by allowing them to place their ads on new taxis for two years.