On May 16, in the small town of Dmanisi, about 40 miles from the border with Azerbaijan, a fist fight at a local shop escalated into a violent brawl involving hundreds of Georgian mountain dwellers (Svans) and local ethnic Azerbaijanis wielding clubs, iron rods and stones. The rioting was pacified only after the introduction of Special Forces of the Georgian Ministry of Internal Affairs. Both Interior Minister Vakhtang Gomelauri and the head of the State Security Service, Grigol Liluashvili, arrived in Dmanisi to assess the situation. Clashes of this magnitude in the surrounding Kvemo Kartli province last occurred in 1989 (Civil.ge May 17).
As is often the case with such conflicts, the clashes in Dmanisi began with a relatively minor incident involving representatives of the two ethnic groups. Reportedly, four Svans came to a small grocery store named Omari, owned by a local Azerbaijani. and demanded that the Azerbaijani saleswoman give them a bottle of beer on credit. The clerk replied that she could not release the goods without the consent of the store owner. Soon the businessman himself arrived at the scene. His conversation with the highlanders turned into a fight, with the participation of several relatives and friends of the Azerbaijani. The Svans left, but soon returned with 20 of their relatives and friends. Several people armed with truncheons were already waiting for them at the store. As a result of the fierce fight, eight people on both sides were bruised and wounded (Jam-news, May 17).
That night, the police arrested six Georgians, but this only aggravated the situation and led to even larger clashes: hundreds of residents from nearby Svan settlements began to approach the police building. They demanded the urgent release of their fellow countrymen. Their demands were immediately met. However, the initially peaceful action near the administrative building soon transformed into another mass brawl after the Svans tried to enter Dmanisi neighborhoods inhabited by ethnic Azerbaijani residents. The encroaching crowd was firmly rebuffed. Both sides threw stones at each other and beat their opponents with truncheons. In total, according to the interior ministry, dozens of people were seriously injured (Police.ge, accessed June 1).
Minister Gomelauri and State Security Service chief Liluashvili urgently arrived in the town. At an emergency briefing, Gomelauri promised to “punish all those responsible” for “a serious incident affecting relations with fraternal Azerbaijan” (civil.ge May 17). Liluashvili declared, “Through the efforts of the special services, it was possible to prevent the development of events according to an even worse scenario.” At the same time, he warned about the inevitability of severe punishment for those who “give the incident an interethnic character” (Interpressnews.ge, May 17).
In a May 29 interview with this author, David Avalishvili, an expert with the independent analytical outlet Nation.ge, noted that Georgian-Azerbaijani clashes of this magnitude in the Kvemo Kartli region, which has a predominantly ethnic-Azerbaijani population, were not seen since the summer of 1989. In that incident, a massive brawl began after two Svans refused to pay the fare for an Azerbaijani taxi driver. The unrest was extinguished after the troops of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of the Georgian Soviet Socialist republic (SSR) entered the cities of Dmanisi, Marneuli and Bolnisi.
Avalishvili pointed out, “The Svans are an ethnic group of the Georgian people living in the west of the country, in the high-mountainous Svaneti. In 1987, several Svan villages were destroyed by landslides. Then, the leadership of the Georgian SSR, concerned about the ‘difficult demographic situation’ in Kvemo Kartli, decided to resettle thousands of Svan families in Dmanisi and other areas of this region, where Azerbaijanis were and still constitute an absolute majority” (Author’s interview, May 29).
According to political consultant Gela Vasadze, the mass relocation of highlanders to the plains of eastern Georgia, where Azerbaijanis traditionally live, “created conditions for the constant emergence of conflicts because the Svans felt themselves in an alien, hostile environment and could not adapt to it” (Author’s interview, May 29).
The Azerbaijani embassy in Georgia immediately expressed concern about the events in Dmanisi: “The incident should only be handled by the relevant institutions, and the perpetrators should be punished according to Georgian laws. The embassy is in contact with Georgian law enforcement agencies to prevent any negative consequences of this unpleasant event.” The embassy called on ethnic-Azerbaijani locals of Dmanisi “not to become provoked, to demonstrate political maturity and responsibility” (Facebook.com/azembassy.ge, Report.ge, Civil.ge , May 17).
The constructive spirit of the statement by the Azerbaijani diplomatic mission bolstered the hopes of Georgian experts that the incident will be resolved without serious consequences for Georgian-Azerbaijani interstate relations. Professor Tornike Sharashenidze, who heads the International Relations master’s program at the Georgian Institute of Public Affairs (GIPA), is sure that “one local incident” will not lead to a cooling of relations between Baku and Tbilisi, because these relations “are based on a congruence of long-term interests between Azerbaijan and Georgia.” He continued, “If relations between our two countries were tense over the past 20 years, with many conflicts, the Dmanisi incident could have caused a tougher reaction in Baku; but Azerbaijan and Georgia are successfully developing their relations in the energy and transport spheres. A harmony of interests helps to alleviate concerns about the Dmanisi clashes, unless they happen again” (Author’s interview May 29)
The two-day confrontation in Dmanisi ended with reconciliation and a public handshake by representatives of the local Azerbaijani and Svan communities. None of the 20 people taken to the hospital on May 16 and 17, as a result of the fighting, were found to be seriously injured, and soon they all returned home (Agenda.ge, May 17; Georgiatoday.ge, May 18). The Georgian authorities ultimately decided not to arrest or prosecute anyone involved, so as not to provoke fresh unrest among the Georgian highlanders. And the Azerbaijani community of Kvemo Kartli, apparently, agreed with this approach in the hopes of maintaining peaceful coexistence in this Georgian border area.
The Dmanisi incident was, thus, the second case of a compromise and peaceful resolution of a Georgian-Azerbaijani conflict in three years. The first was the settlement of a dangerous incident around Davit Gareja/Keshkichidag, a medieval monastery that straddles the border of both countries (see EDM, June 6, 2019). Each time, the authorities in Georgia and Azerbaijan were able to calm the burning passions among their populations and prevent a deterioration of inter-governmental relations. But it remains to be seen whether such incidents may continue to grow more frequent over time.