Analysis: Violent Riot Breaks Out in Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge Region as Ethnic Tensions Escalate due to Hydro-Electric Development Project

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This content was originally published on RiskMonitor by our Intelligence and Analysis Services Team on 24/04/2019. Find out more about RiskMonitor now.

Executive Summary

  • On 21 April, a riot broke out in the Pankisi Gorge region of Georgia, where the government is constructing a hydroelectric power plant in the face of local opposition.
  • This outbreak of violence is the latest in a series of incidents that have inflamed tensions between the region’s majority Muslim ethnic Kist population and the national government.
  • Opposition groups and local activists have accused the ruling Georgia Dream party of pursuing its own business interests whilst ignoring the legitimate concerns of locals.
  • Construction at the site has now been suspended, pending further negotiations between government representatives and residents, although the potential for further violent incidents remains high.

The Event

On Sunday, 21 April, a series of violent riots broke out in the Pankisi Gorge region of Georgia, where the country’s government is currently constructing a large scale hydroelectric power plant. The incident began when local residents organised a protest outside the Khadori 3 construction site to demonstrate their anger at the project, which some believe will damage the local environment.

The authorities then deployed riot police to the site tasked with protecting the asset and dispersing the crowds, but the detachment was assaulted by the protesters who set vehicles alight and threw projectiles and petrol bombs at the police officers. The security forces responded by deploying tear gas and rubber bullets as violence escalated over a period of a few hours, resulting in 38 police officers and 17 locals sustaining serious injuries.

Political Tensions

The Pankisi Gorge region (which is known officially as the Akhmeta municipality of the Kakheti region) of north-eastern Georgia is home to the Kist ethnic group; one of the country’s minority Muslim populations which is frequently at odds with the national government. In the past, local residents have expressed support for Islamic militant causes, which has served to further alienate them from the rest of the country, increasing tensions between the two.

In January 2018, Kist-government relations reached their lowest point, when a counter-terrorism operation was launched in Pankisi which resulted in the extrajudicial killing of a teenage resident. Since this time, local residents have organised regular protests to demand justice for the individual, although these have been largely ignored by the government. Tbilisi’s recent initiative, to develop a much-needed hydro-electric plant in the region, has served to once again inflame these communal tensions.

Over the last year a number of national environmental groups have expressed concern that the project could harm the local ecosystem and restrict access to water and the local residents have cited these conclusions as evidence that the central government is marginalising them in favour of the ethnic Georgian majority.

Government Response

The Georgian government is acutely aware of the potential for the situation in Pankisi to escalate into more wide-spread communal violence and Interior Minister, Giorgi Gakharia, was quick to arrive at the scene of Sunday’s riot.

Gakharia proceeded to hold conciliatory talks with the protesters in a bid to pacify the unrest, and the violence eventually subsided after he publicly thanked both the police for protecting the dam, and the village elders for exercising a degree of restraint. He went on to note that construction work at Khadori 3 will be suspended pending further negotiations, whilst also warning that further violence against law enforcement officers would be ‘punished according to the law’.

Opposing Parties

Georgia’s opposition parties and other groups opposed to the current Georgia Dream government have criticised the police response in Pankisi for the use of excessive force. On Sunday a spokesperson for the rival Free Democrats party characterised the intervention as a ‘senseless operation’ that has endangered the future of the region.

Human rights groups and local NGOs, including the Green Alternative and the Human Rights Education and Monitoring Centre (EMC), have also been critical of the government’s response, accusing it of betraying its previous promise to the Kist people to conduct public discussions prior to the commencement of construction.

Some have gone as far as to suggest that these actions have been motivated by the business interests of the party’s billionaire chairman Bidzina Ivanishvili and his associates, who stand to profit from the hydroelectric project.

An Error in Judgement

The Georgian government’s attempt to rush into construction work at Khadori 3 in the face of widespread opposition has ultimately proven to be a miscalculation. Although it is unlikely to affect government stability in the long-term, it has granted Georgia Dream’s opponents another opportunity to band together in criticism of its heavy-handed approach in the Pankisi Gorge and its illicit state investments.

The situation in the locale remains tense and visitors to the region should note that further communal violence is likely in the medium-term. Travel in Pankisi Gorge also poses a number of unique risks to personal safety due to the potential for Islamic extremist activity in the area and the presence of a high concentration of unexploded ordinance.

Subsequently the location remains one of Georgia’s highest risk operating environments.