Incident in the small town of Gardabani in Kvemo Kartli region, which appears to have started with a relatively trivial quarrel between several young men, grew into overnight clashes between locals, sparking concerns over possible ethnic tension in the town populated by ethnic Azerbaijanis and Georgians.
The incident also prompted UNM opposition party and GD ruling coalition to exchange accusations, blaming each other for this incident in Gardabani ahead of the June 15 local elections.
According to some local residents and several non-governmental organizations, working on national minority issues, the incident initially started with a quarrel between several young men, ethnic Azerbaijanis and Georgians, at around midnight outside a supermarket in Gardabani. Apparently to settle the score, a larger group of local Georgians, mainly friends of those involved in the initial quarrel, headed towards a nearby teahouse, where a group of ethnic Azerbaijanis were gathered; several supporters of UNM opposition party were also among those gathered in the teahouse, which later triggered speculation about political motives of the incident. Quarrel in the teahouse then grew into a larger melee, which spilled out into the streets and escalated further with involvement of several hundred people from the both sides.
Local police was deployed, but after they failed to put an end to the clashes, special purpose forces were sent in and tensions were defused.
Next morning several hundred people, some holding sticks and wooden batons, gathered in the center of Gardabani demanding from the police and local authorities to punish those, who attacked ethnic Azerbaijanis in the teahouse previous night.
Governor of Kvemo Kartli region, Giorgi Mgebrishvili met the protesters and told them that investigation was ongoing and those behind the incident would be held responsible. No arrests were made as of Thursday evening.
There was no outdoor rally and situation was calm in Gardabani as of Thursday evening.
Earlier on May 29, one of the leaders of UNM opposition party, Gigi Ugulava, told journalists at a news conference that the incident was a politically-motivated violence against UNM members. “It was clearly a political attack,” he said, adding that assailants were affiliated with the Georgian Dream ruling coalition.
In response Georgian Dream ruling coalition released a statement accusing UNM of “provoking” incident in Gardabani, blaming UNM for trying “to mar positive” pre-election environment ahead of the June 15 local elections by “inciting strife.” Some GD representatives, including governor of Kvemo Kartli region, Giorgi Mgebrishvili, claimed that head of local branch of UNM in Gardabani, Ramin Bairamov, was behind this “provocation.” Bairamov denied the allegation as absurd.
In a joint statement on May 29, several non-governmental organizations – Multinational Georgia, Civil Integration Foundation, Civil Development Agency and Analytical Center for Interethnic Cooperation and Consultations, have called on the political parties and their activists to “refrain from getting involved in the incident for the purpose of scoring political points.” They called on the law enforcement agencies to promptly investigate the incident.
According to NGOs, during the rally in Gardabani on May 29 several demonstrators tried “to provoke the conflict on religious ground, but these attempts failed to find support from participants” of the demonstration.