Georgia: LGBTI Activists Fear Far-Right Alliances

Could a toxic partnership be developing between mainstream politics and extremists?

Georgia: LGBTI Activists Fear Far-Right Alliances

Could a toxic partnership be developing between mainstream politics and extremists?

Counter protesters celebrated by dancing and singing in front of parliament, where they tore down the US and EU flags and replaced them with a black iron cross.
Counter protesters celebrated by dancing and singing in front of parliament, where they tore down the US and EU flags and replaced them with a black iron cross. © Davit Mdzinarishvili/IWPR
Wednesday, 23 February, 2022

LGBTI activists in Georgia are warning of the growing political power of homophobic, far-right groups, with fears that the government may choose to court such forces rather than oppose them.

Many identify the turning point as the events of July 5, 2021, when violent groups forced the cancellation of Tbilisi Pride. Observers said that police stood by without intervening to protect media workers and protestors. 

“The fear of losing my life was never as acute as it was on July 5, 2021,” said Ana Subeliani, a TV presenter and activist. “Hundreds of mad men were running towards me shouting my name. We escaped the violence just in time. We were running in the streets and hiding in the yards, we were knocking on doors but people did not open them. We were abandoned, first by the government, who gave a green light to perpetrators, and then by the citizens, who refused to help us.”

In the lead up to Pride, the interior ministry called on organisers to cancel the march as they would be unable to protect them from possible violence. At least 53 journalists were beaten during the day’s events, one of whom subsequently died.

“Despite being aware of the impending threats, authorities did nothing to prevent the violence, with many leading figures like the prime minister accusing Pride organisers of being linked with the [opposition] United National Movement and being against the majority will of the people,” said Giorgi Tabagari, one of the organisers of Tbilisi Pride.

Transparency International has in the past noted links between Georgian Dream members and the far right. These included members serving as bail guarantors for the release of arrested Georgian March activists and sitting on the boards of charitable foundations founded or run by far-right figures.

More broadly, human rights defenders fear that inaction by the ruling party when it comes to the violent far right sends a worrying message to the public.

Subeliani said that this official disinterest in protecting minority rights was fuelling wider problems.

“The people who directly broke into the Tbilisi Pride office and damaged it were released on very low bail by the court,” she continued, adding, “These circumstances, of course, create the feeling of insecurity and injustice not only among LGBT + people, but among other citizens of this country.”

The far-right group Alt Info, one of the organisers of the anti-Pride violence, subsequently announced they were establishing a new political party, the Conservative Movement, and their television channel continues to be streamed on Silk Net, one of the country’s largest TV providers. 

Tamta Gelashvili, a researcher at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs focusing on the rise of the far right in Georgia, said that the trend was partly fuelled by a reaction to “value changes” in society that emphasised the rights of women and minority groups such as the LGBT community.

“In light of all these, the far-right ideology, the main axis of which is the restoration of the status quo, is gaining more support,” she continued. “These groups promise the society the return of the past and pose themselves as the representatives of ordinary people, as opposed to the political elite.”

Gelashvili said that a further danger was that the political establishment appeared to be willing to court the far-right as political allies. The July 5 violence led only to by the arrests of a handful of minor figures, while the leaders of the far-right groups escaped prosecution.

“In the case of Georgia, the events of July 5 have shown that Georgian Dream sees the far-right groups as possible partners, and this is when the cases of violence by these groups increase,” she said. “Of course, no empirical research has been conducted on the relationship between these groups and the government, we cannot say with certainty that the way the government is treating them is a part of their strategy. But, my research [on the far-right]… showed that these groups confront opponents of Georgian Dream and expel them from public space, often with the indirect support of the government.”

Activists warn that crimes committed on the grounds of intolerance have significantly increased in recent years. Tabagari said that the government was not fulfilling its democratic role of supporting the rights of vulnerable groups.

“In most cases, the fight against discrimination can seem hopeless because instead of justice, activists often suffer greater injustice because the state does not see them as equal citizens and often encourages them to avoid protesting and stay quiet,” he said.

Journalist Tina Takadze said that she and her friends had numerous experiences of such state disinterest.

“Some of my friends were killed by family and some of them were stabbed while working on the streets,” she said. “In most cases the perpetrators were released on bail or released immediately after interrogation.”

Takadze was one of those wounded on May 17, 2013, when a rally against homophobia in Tbilisi was violently attacked by counter-demonstrators.

“I remember when I was taken to hospital, my relatives said that they were embarrassed to see me there injured,” she recalled. “No one took care of us.”

The 31-year-old, who now lives in Italy and works as a cleaner, said that she had felt forced to leave Georgia because of discrimination, adding, “but I can tell you that I am luckier than other Georgian gay people”.

The European Court of Human Rights subsequently ruled that Georgia had to pay hundreds of thousands of euros in fines for violating freedom of expression and failing to provide security on May 17, 2013.  Rights campaigners are preparing to file a similar petition over the July violence.  

Tabagari said that the activist community was currently considering whether it was possible to work with the current government at all.

“Empowering the community is one of our top priorities. We have planned a number of programmes for this purpose in 2022,” he said, adding, “We know, of course, that we cannot change the reality only by organising community empowering activities; a significant part of our work is aimed at raising awareness among the so-called neutral population and increasing the number of citizens who support LGBT rights and equality.”

This publication was prepared under the "Amplify, Verify, Engage (AVE) Project" implemented with the financial support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Norway.

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