The parade planned earlier this month for Tbilisi Pride, a pro-LGBT rights demonstration in Georgia’s capital, was not the first to be met with controversy. Nonetheless, Pride 2021 marked a new low in the conservative country’s recent history.
Several events planned for this month by Tbilisi Pride had to be held under police protection. A Pride March was to be held to conclude the week but was cancelled after far-right groups threatened to respond to the march with violence. In response, homophobic crowds, including some priests, rallied on the city’s main thoroughfare, Rustaveli Avenue.
A mob, chanting anti-LGBT slogans, ransacked the office of Tbilisi Pride and other liberal groups. Dozens of journalists were beaten, according to estimates by Reporters Without Borders, a press freedom watchdog. One, Lekso Lashkarava of TV Pirveli, died days after the rally, although the exact cause of death is still unclear. (The government claimed that Lashkarava may have overdosed on drugs; a claim contested by the opposition.)
In a harsh rebuke to one of its closest allies in the region, the US has threatened sanctions on Georgia if the perpetrators of the violence are not brought to justice.
The episode is troubling not only for showing how rife homophobia is in Georgia but also for what it reveals about the government, led by Irakli Garibashvili of the Georgian Dream party.
Before the planned Pride rally, Garibashvili darkly warned of “civil confrontation” if the event were to go ahead. Following the attacks, he went further, largely refusing to condemn the attacks on LGBT activists and journalists. “The times when the minority decided the fate of the majority are gone,” he said, insisting that he would act in the interests of “95 per cent” of the country.
Some observers have taken the government’s rhetoric as marking a turn towards Hungarian-style illiberalism, where the government declares that minorities cannot stand in the way of the interests of the majority. Culture minister and new deputy prime minister Tea Tsulukiani has argued for a law restricting “fake news”, which journalists have interpreted as a threat against Georgia’s diverse media ecosystem.
[see also: As its democracy deteriorates further, never forget that Hungary and Viktor Orbán are not the same]
“Garibashvili gave a green light to far-right radicals to attack our activists and the media. His statement that 95 per cent of the population is against Tbilisi Pride and so the remaining 5 per cent should obey the majority is undemocratic and hugely problematic for minority groups in Georgia,” Giorgi Tabagari, the director of Tbilisi Pride, told the New Statesman.
Although a small group of liberal activists, mostly based in the capital Tbilisi, have painstakingly carved out a number of safe spaces for LGBT Georgians, they remain overwhelmingly rejected by society at large, according to Dustin Gilbreath, a researcher at the Caucasus Research Resource Centre, a Tbilisi think tank. Nearly a quarter of Georgians would rather have a drug user or a criminal as a neighbour than a homosexual, according to the CRRC’s polling, while nearly nine in 10 disapprove of doing business with a gay person. On some measures, Georgia is “among the most homophobic countries in Europe”, Gilbreath says.
Yet there are also tentatively hopeful signs. Since democratic reforms instituted nearly 20 years ago, many Georgians, even if moderately religious or not overly concerned with LGBT rights, have become used to living under a relatively permissive political system. (Social pressures often continue to restrict the freedom of marginalised groups such as LGBT people and women, however.)
Many liberal-minded Georgians see the recent state-sanctioned homophobic violence as a symbol of a government lurching away from the democratic way of life they would like to preserve. They do not see a model to be emulated in the state-sanctioned homophobia of Vladimir Putin’s Russia or Viktor Orbán’s Hungary. The day after the violence, thousands attended a counter-protest to express their horror. Some were long-standing activists, but others were less seasoned protestors who wanted to show their shock at the government’s failure to stand up to extremist groups.
Some observers believe that the response of Garibashvili and Georgian Dream to the protests is based less in ideological commitment and more in intensifying its core vote strategy ahead of local elections due later this year. Under an electoral reform agreement reached in April, the upcoming poll will trigger early parliamentary elections if the ruling party wins less than 43 per cent of the vote. “I think Georgian Dream’s position regarding LGBT rights is the result of a political calculation in advance of the local elections,” says one diplomat from an EU country.
Nor is the homophobic far right particularly inspired by Russia, which used to be joined to Georgia under the Soviet Union. Although some right-wing agitators maintain links with like-minded Russians, they are as likely to look to Orbán’s Hungary for inspiration as to the Kremlin, Tamta Gelashvili, a researcher at the University of Oslo, has argued. An ongoing territorial conflict over two Russian-backed separatist statelets, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, makes explicitly cosying up to Vladimir Putin even harder for nationalists, for whom the breakaway territories are rightfully Georgian and under Russian occupation.
But whether rooted in political convenience or genuine conviction, many in the country now see terrified LGBT Georgians and a dead journalist as having paid the price for the government’s illiberal turn.
[See also: Is “state capture” undoing Georgia’s democracy?]