Article was first published on July 13, in German on boell.de;
Even those of us who were only watching the events of Pride Week 2021 unfold from afar could easily appreciate the enormous stress that Georgia’s civil society has been under these past months. Ultra-conservative and right-wing extremist groups began mobilising weeks in advance of the Pride celebrations. The influential Georgian Orthodox Church accused Pride organisers of “propagating non-traditional lifestyles” and urged on the international community not to offer them any political support. The first incidents came at the start of Tbilisi Pride Week in the form of smaller clashes between police and violent anti-Pride demonstrators during a film screening on 1 July; 23 persons were arrested and later released. The next big event, Tbilisi Pride Festival on the 3rd of July, was held outside the city centre, and no major clashes were reported there thanks to effective police protection.
Escalation announced in advance
After that, though, the Orthodox Church and various representatives of the Georgian Government fuelled an escalation in violence. The Church issued a statement vehemently condemning the propagation of an allegedly “perverted lifestyle”, complaining of “drastic interference” by international figures and calling on people to turn out for a “peaceful protest” on the 5th of July, the day that the March for Dignity, the culmination of Pride Week, was scheduled to take place. Right-wing extremist groups also called for a protest. On the morning of the 5th, hundreds of ultra-conservatives and right-wing extremists gathered in central Tbilisi. That same morning, Georgia’s Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili he spoke out against holding the Pride march on Rustaveli Avenue, Tbilisi’s central thoroughfare, at a press briefing in which he claimed that the march was being organised by allies of the “radical opposition” whose sole purpose was to sow unrest. The situation slid out of control at that point, and violent anti-Pride protestors injured 53 of the journalists covering their rally. Death threats were issued. Protesters also stormed and wrecked the offices of Tbilisi Pride and one other organisation. A Polish tourist was stabbed, apparently because he was wearing an earring. In the end, Pride organisers cancelled the march. The Government and the police did virtually nothing to curb the violence, displaying an uncharacteristic attachment to their kid gloves on the 5th of July (both have come under criticism repeatedly in recent years for their brutal methods). The chair of the ruling Georgian Dream party, Irakli Kobakhidze, did make a statement condemning the violence but placed the blame for it squarely on the shoulders of the Pride organisers, as the prime minister had before him.
Broader, peaceful democratic protest
Shocked by the violence, thousands of Georgians gathered for a peaceful democratic protest the following evening. The imagery was striking – a large rainbow flag waving in front of the Parliament building next to an iron Orthodox cross erected there the previous day. And this time, the police did take forceful action to stop violent counter-protesters from disrupting the demonstration. Once the democratic protesters had dispersed though, right-wing extremists and ultra-conservatives moved in to reclaim the space. Once again, the European flag was ripped down from its pole – protesters actually burnt it this time, an act fraught with symbolism in Georgia, where 41 per cent of the population expresses itself as “fully and entirely” in favour of Georgia joining the EU with another 32 per cent more in favour than against membership.
Towards dictatorship of the majority?
The worst news thus far emerged on the 11th of July: Aleksandre Lashkarava, a cameraman who had been severely injured in the attacks on the 5th, was found dead in his flat. An initial forensic examination reported the presence of narcotics in his system, but questions have been raised about the credibility of these findings and the possibility that they were being misused for political purposes. On the evening of the 11th, thousands of protesters gathered on Rustaveli Avenue again amidst calls for the Government to step down. The next morning, on the 12th, Prime Minister Garibashvili gave another briefing in which he laid responsibility for the violence on the opposition and argued that Pride should be cancelled, taking a “dictates of the majority” line. There were more protests that evening. Twelve persons were arrested, including Irakli Absandze, a well-known journalist who had criticised the authorities’ conduct in his previous coverage of the events.
Threat situation and polarisation dividing LGBTIQ+ community and civil society
The threat situation for LGBTIQ+ activists is such that their lives are at risk. The situation also has a divisive effect on the wider LGBTIQ+ community. There is considerable disagreement within the community as to whether a strategy to promote LGBTIQ+ rights that focuses primarily on visibility-oriented actions is likely to be successful given the escalation of violence over the past years. As in previous years, a large segment of the community distanced itself from this year’s Pride celebration before it even began. Several reasons for this decision have been cited: One is that the Pride increases the threat level for those who do not conform to social norms. A second argument is that if Pride were to be celebrated in a more or less secured environment, this would enable the Government to pose on the international stage as a supporter of LGBTIQ+ rights, despite having done virtually nothing else for this cause. A third argument is that the unexamined adoption of and focus on Western “Pride practices” might crowd out other important discussions about LGBTIQ+ rights that are of greater relevance for the Georgian context, such as that on the social situation of LGBTIQ+ people for instance. A fourth reason cited has been a failure on the part of Pride activists to forge progressive political alliances.
This divisive effect is no longer confined to the LGBTIQ+ community. In late May, a successful grassroots movement protesting the construction of two hydropower plants was able to get protesters from very different levels of society, including some who normally stand on opposite sides of most issues to stand united at a big demonstration in Tbilisi. At the time, the movement’s leaders were urged to position themselves against the members of the LGBTIQ+ community who joined the protest, but they appealed for tolerance instead. It would seem that the pressure on the movement, in which Church figures are also involved, has grown too great however: the leaders of the environmental protests made an appearance at one of the anti-pride rallies on 5 July. This caused several important activists to disassociate themselves from the group, putting hopes for a broadly based environmental movement on ice for the time being.
Homophobia in an increasingly heterogeneous society
Last week’s violence can be explained by a number of factors: a deeply rooted homophobia that is regularly stoked by a Church that sees its own position in society as threatened; the instability in the country’s political situation; increasingly illiberal and anti-Western attitudes among the ranks of the Georgian Dream party; and the weakening of the EU as a liberal power.
While clearly a global phenomenon, homophobia is particularly strong and widespread in Georgia. In the last World Value Survey, 83 per cent of Georgians surveyed ascribed to the view that homosexuality could never be justified. Yet Georgian society has become far more heterogeneous in recent years, partly due to globalisation and to the closer ties with the European Union and the USA since the Rose revolution of 2003. The scope available for expressing one’s “otherness” and queerness has broadened, especially in Tbilisi. There is almost no mixing among the extremely different “worlds”, though, and poverty is rife in the country, even more so now due to Covid-19. This makes it easy for political and religious figures to exploit cultural anxieties for their own ends.
Development of the violent anti-LGBTIQ+ movement
Ultra-conservative organisations like the Orthodox Church and the Orthodox Parents Union have been organising anti-LGBTIQ+ rallies since 2007. After a smaller degree of escalation in 2012, the first major outbreak of homophobic violence occurred in 2013, when around 50 activists were attacked by thousands of ultra-conservatives, including numerous representatives of the Church. This was a formative and traumatic event for the Georgian LGBTIQ+ community, one that is still very present in their collective memory. In 2014, the Church introduced “Family Day”, an annual event held on May 17, which is also the “International Day against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia”. Family Day programmes include mass weddings for heterosexual couples. This period also saw Georgian right-wing extremists intensified their networking activities with anti-liberal movements in other countries such as Russia but also in the USA. Threats and the escalation of violence occurred repeatedly in years that followed, including during the first Tbilisi Pride in 2019 and at the Georgian premiere of the multi-award-winning film “And Then We Danced” later that same year. Police investigations rarely result in criminal prosecutions let alone guilty verdicts, allowing violence-prone ultra-conservatives and right-wing extremists to act with a sense of impunity.
Illiberal tendencies and campaign “battle-mode”
Georgia underwent multiple phases of political turbulence in recent years that ultimately expanded into persistent crisis. Many of the more liberal Georgian Dream politicians have left the party. Those who remain are increasingly attracting attention through verbal attacks on civil society and “Western” organisations. It would be difficult to claim that the Government was fully honouring the spirit of the agreement between the Georgian Dream and opposition parties aimed at ending the crisis, which was brokered by Charles Michel, the president of the European Council. The agreement includes a clause stipulating that early parliamentary elections must be called if Georgian Dream wins less than 43 percent of proportional votes in the upcoming regional elections. The Government stood to lose votes in these elections had it been seen to offer too overt support to Pride Week. Thus, seen as the result of campaign calculations, the Government’s failure to take a consistent line and attempts to cater to different interest groups make a sort of sense. However, those in the West who support Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic integration – as well as many potential tourists, whose significance for the Georgian economy is substantial – apply an entirely different set of standards when they look at Georgia, so this year’s Pride turned out to be a PR disaster for the Government as well.
Weakening of the EU as a liberal power
The weakening of the EU in its role as a liberal power is another factor favouring illiberal tendencies in Georgia. Georgian politicians have been known to point to action taken in an EU country to justify an illiberal political action of their own, the incorporation of a provision defining marriage as the union of a woman and a man into the Georgian Constitution being a case in point. Before and after Pride Week, statements underlining the importance of freedom of assembly were made by members of the European Parliament, the EU delegation in Tbilisi and some embassies, including Germany’s. After the 5th July escalation, the EU Delegation to Georgia, the EU Monitoring Mission, the UN system in Georgia and the embassies of 24 states published a strongly worded joint statement that, among other things, called for the prosecution of persons who commit violent acts. However, the embassies of Poland and Romania have not signed this statement. Given the divergent positions taken by Warsaw and Bucharest, it seems unrealistic to expect stronger pressure from the EU.
Greater engagement needed from the Federal Government and the EU
Georgia has been through some hard times, and there are hard times to come. The country has never seen such an escalation of hatred aimed at democratic civil society. Members of civil society and particularly of the media and the LGBTIQ+ community experienced traumatic violence that will haunt them for years to come. There is much that can and should be done by Germany’s Federal Government and, to the extent possible, by the EU: Firstly, they should use strong language now to urge Georgia to ensure that the incidents of violence are the subject of prompt and comprehensive criminal investigations and impartial and independent judicial proceedings. Secondly, they should help Georgia through the process of political and social reckoning by, for instance, affording support to a parliamentary committee of inquiry and by strengthening the independent media, which has been hit particularly hard. Thirdly, in the medium- and long-term, the Federal Government and the EU should actively promote cooperation between the Georgian Government and civil society to develop a strategy for the prevention and prosecution of hate crimes and right-wing extremism, and they should offer more training and exchange measures. Fourthly, they should seize this moment to work with civil society, and particularly with the diverse LGBTIQ+ community, to re-examine and improve the approaches they use to promote minority rights, diversity and tolerance. The next Federal Government should stand by Georgia as a critically minded friend, with (even) greater engagement and support – and a keen eye for the big but not insurmountable obstacles facing the country on its path to democratic consolidation.