Azerbaijanis rally in Marneuli

Azerbaijanis rally in Marneuli

Georgia's southern province of Marneuli inhabited mostly by ethnic Azerbaijani has been under strict quarantine since March 22, when it was declared a “red zone”. The move was made after a woman from the region was infected with the COVID-19 but it was realized too late. The authorities, therefore, believed that the virus could have been transmitted to more people in the area.

On April 23, farmers from several villages of Marneuli gathered to protest against the quarantine regime. The protested was motivated by the difficulties in selling agricultural products, the residents` livelihood. The government had not proposed any solution to regulate agricultural issues under the state of emergency. The struggling farmers demanded the removal of the quarantine regime and “active support” from the government to sell agricultural products. “I borrowed 35,000 lari from a bank. My produces worth 20,000 lari is already spoiled. I throw them to feed pigs. We invested our hopes in these products. So what are we supposed to do now?" said one of the protesters.

It should be noted that the sale of products is entrusted to a company designated by the government. Company officials came to the protest site and stated that there would be no problems with the purchase of products, which had been temporarily suspended due to the Easter celebrations.

Top regional authorities, Kvemo Kartli’s Governor Shota Rekhviashvili and Marneuli’s Mayor Zaur Dargalli also came to the protest area and called on people to return home. One of the protesters blocked Rekhviashvili and said, "Today I called an ambulance because my mother was ill. Don't we need bread? Are we going to die of starvation? Will you be hungry too?” Rekhviashvili said to the protester that the latter was not an exception and that "now everyone dies from hunger." "There is a risk of the spread of virus and no one will be interested in cucumbers anymore," he said, adding that from that day on, lists of citizens to bring their products would be prepared in advance to prevent large gatherings. The rally was called off after Rekhviashvili promised to protesters to bring more trucks to sell their products.

Several interesting episodes took place during the rally. Some of the participants, referring to former President Mikheil Saakashvili, were caught on video chanting “Misha! Misha!”. Former President Mikheil Saakashvili, who did not miss to criticize his arch-rivals, the Georgian Dream party, and to draw attention to the socio-economic problems in Georgia, also shared this moment on his official Facebook account. Two ethnic Azerbaijani politicians, Ahmad Imanguliyev, a member of the European Georgia party and Azer Suleymanov, a member of the United National Movement also took part in the action.

Following the incident, some media outlets reported that the protest was "political" and was organized by the opposition United National Movement (UNM). The ruling Georgian Dream party also blamed the UNM and European Georgia. Irakli Kobikhadze, a member of the ruling party, said: "This is a crime and they [UNM] are playing with fire." Kvemo Kartli’s Governor, in his turn, called the demonstration a "staged performance" by Imamguliyev.

The protesters, however, rejected these allegations and did not accept that the action was political. "I am being accused. The governor came and laughed at our people. I can show you the people in the rally who in fact support the "Georgian dream". This population is really concerned about this problem. The governor is coming and blaming so many people – it is a shame," said Imamguliyev, head of the Marneuli office of the European Georgia party.

The rally has been among several serious episodes related to Marneuli and its populace since the strict quarantine was imposed. After sealing-off the region in the second half of March, some ethnic Georgians, the titular ethnic group, launched hate speech and a discrimination campaign against the country`s ethnic Azerbaijanis. The main emphasis of this campaign on social media was put on the claims that Azerbaijanis do not know the state language and do not, therefore, anti-pandemic measures, endangering the entire country. 

In another episode, an Azerbaijani religious figure, Sheikh Mirtaghi Asadov of the Supreme Religious Administration of Georgia's All Muslims appealed Marneuli authorities after the traffic across Georgia was suspended, with some exceptions (including the clergy), on April 16. Engaged in food distribution to those in need, Asadov sought a permit on use of car for this purpose. Rejected Asadov took his donkey to deliver products around and spoke up against another discrimination: "Again, we have witnessed double standards, church officials are allowed to use the car, but not us," he wrote on his Facebook account.

After the Marneuli protest, the local mayor met with the population of Agamammadli village. "Residents can sell their products in shops in Marneuli and villages. There will be no restrictions on the movement of their cars," he said. According to him, an agreement has already been reached with the police to allow cars to move freely in the municipality: "Marneuli residents can load their products into their cars and hand them over to local facilities. No permission is required. The matter has been discussed with the Interior Ministry. We will create conditions for them to come in and buy goods.”

The villagers can now take their products by truck to Tbilisi and deliver them to warehouses.