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Keeping up Appearances: Ogden on Georgian Conspiracy Theories

OP-ED

Whenever something goes wrong in Georgia, it is simply inconceivable that the simplest explanation is probably the right one. There is always a conspiracy theory that will be aggressively defended in the face of logic, evidence or contradiction, and the events in Batumi several days ago have proved no exception.

The Georgian government is, fairly enough, currently attempting to Westernise the country in all things, from its education programs and legislation to its military forces and infrastructure. With the shocking state of Georgian driving being a byword amongst visitors and foreign residents, it is well within the government's interest to finally address what is one of the country's biggest problems (the collision and accident figures of recent years make for an informative if rather shocking read). Yet as well as promising to introduce tougher penalties for drunk driving and carelessness, the government has also attempted to clamp down on parking violations.

It is hardly surprising that several days ago, a few Georgian men in Batumi - seemingly unfamiliar with even the notion of a parking fine - became abusive to police officers and ultimately resisted arrest when their vehicle was found to have been parked badly. The subsequent reactionary riot by friends and family deepened the plot, with a further reason for their protest being revealed: apparently, the local police chief had apparently called the Adjaran population 'Tartars'.

In true Georgian style, the self-proclaimed organiser of the riot, Merab Gogoberidze, later admitted that he had no evidence that the police chief had ever said this, and gave the vague explanation that he had heard of it 'from the police chief's inner circle'. However, this was clearly enough for his supporters, who managed to inflict hundreds of thousands worth of Lari in damage, injured eleven police officers, and then expressed outrage when riot police dispersed them with rubber bullets and tear gas.

The responses around the country were equally predictable. The opposition parties blamed the government for 'provoking' the protestors, and hinted darkly that there was a 'Russian influence' on the affair. The government, again, in a fashion quite typical of reactionary Georgian politicians, completely missed the opportunity to appear magnanimous, and accused the opposition parties themselves of complicity.

The idea that this was simply a group of Georgian men, a group easily provoked and generally hostile to the authorities, railing against laws they believe to be unnecessary does not seem to be being considered, perhaps deliberately; to the minds of Georgian politicians, it might suit for the riots to have a political flavor. With the Georgian public devoid of the scepticism commonly found in Britain, supporters of either the government or the opposition will be more than ready to believe the accusations.

Georgian politicians have something of a tendency to think that what happens in Georgia stays in Georgia, and so do not seem to believe that the foreign institutions they desperately want to be part of have the right to judge them on their internal affairs. Foreign powers might think more kindly of the Georgian authorities if they had managed to prevent what really was quite a simple, albeit violent, breach of the law from becoming a political issue. In light of the recent EU legal ruling in favor of Rustavi 2 and the government's vehement denials of their involvement in what has been described as a politically-motivated case, the Georgian Dream party should tread more carefully.

It is, after all, affairs like these that Georgia will be judged on; accession to membership in the European Union or NATO will have nothing to do with how kindly Georgia happened to treat its six millionth visitor.

Tim Ogden

16 March 2017 17:23