The story of Tbilisi Pride 2019 brought divergent elements of Georgia’s stormy politics together into a sharp and violent focus. For a while already, the “formal” politics – dominated by the ruling Georgian Dream, locked in a visceral combat with its perceived arch-enemy, the United National Movement – have obscured parallel, but much more real “body politics” of Georgia’s society.
The viciously partisan political identities that clash on Georgia’s lit-up scene are but grotesque masks, which – distort – sometimes amplifying, sometimes concealing – the real political fault-lines in Georgian society.
Too many things have happened, and we felt it crucial to commit to writing the chain of events, which may become pivotal for Georgia’s coming political life.
Our extended editorial The Cross and the Rainbow linked underneath, provides our views on significance of these events. In this article, we have decided to recap the recent days’ developments.
So it begins…
On January 29, Tbilisi Pride page was set-up on twitter and on February 19 the organizers announced the first ever pride of Georgia to take place on June – 18-23.
“We are affected and concerned by the poverty, unemployment, occupation and social inequality in Georgia”, – the pride manifesto said, putting the issue of LGBTQ rights in a wider spectrum of problems that the Georgians face today. It further noted that LGBTQI people “are being used as scapegoats to divert attention from important social problems, which is equally detrimental to all”.
Not everyone even in Georgia’s increasingly fragmenting LGBT/queer community was happy with the pride, however. Some LGBTQ Georgians themselves too, especially from those on the left, like Giorgi Ptskialadze from Georgian Young Greens criticized the plans to hold pride in Tbilisi. He wrote for OC Media on June 18 that “with its focus on personal freedom, Tbilisi Pride fits well into a liberal system in which queer people are used as tools in bigger political games and social solidarity is fast eroding”.
The pride, already contested from within the community of LGBTQ Georgians, faced a hate wave from various radical conservative groups.
The last year, amid threats from ultra-nationalist and neo-Nazi groups, LGBTQ rights organizations had to cancel International Day against Homophobia and Transphobia on May 17, the day that the Orthodox Church, in an attempt to expel LGBTQ Georgians from the public space, marks as a “Day of Family Purity” since 2014.
- Gay Rights Groups Cancel IDAHOT Rally 2018
- Ministry Says Police Can’t Guarantee Pride Safety Outdoors
It came as no surprise that the Interior Ministry released a statement on May 31, saying Pride Parade cannot be held outdoors and in an intended way – as a march – saying the risks to persons involved were too high.
Tbilisi Pride organizers responded, that they would nonetheless go ahead as planned, to protect their their freedom of assembly.
Orthodox Church Steps in
On June 14, the Georgian Orthodox Church issued a strongly worded warning against Tbilisi Pride, called LGBTQI people the bearers of “sodomite sin” and demanded the government not to allow it.
In response, the pride organizers and activists suspecting the government would yield to pressure from the influential GOC, gathered in front of the Administration of Government to demand protection.
- Orthodox Church calls on government not to allow Pride
- Photo Gallery: Hate groups confront LGBTQ activists on June 14
As the gathering was advertised through social media, its start-time and location were known. As activists arrived, they were met by some radical hate groups and priests who said they would not allow the Pride-supporters gathering. They shouted insults and threw small objects at arriving activists.
Two parallel rallies in front of the Government Administration lasted for about seven hours, some minor skirmishes took place as hate groups were preventing and activists from gaining foothold at the Administration building.
The Ministry of Interior said in an official statement issued on June 15, that 28 people were detained for disturbing public order, as they shouted slurs and threw eggs.
Knight in a rusty armor
Levan Vasadze, self-styled “knight” and ultra-conservative was the most visible presence at the counter-gathering. Vasadze, member of the World Congress of Families with connections to Russian “Eurasianist” movement and its leader Alexander Dugin, rallied against “foreign interference”.
“[The West] tries to impose on us non-traditional, anti-Christian, anti-Caucasian, anti-Georgian norms, which shall never become the norm here,” said Vasadze echoing the anti-Western tenor of the Patriarchate’s earlier statement.
Vasadze announced on June 16 rally about forming “men only” vigilante patrols equipped “with belts” to fight against “gay propaganda” and threatened Georgia’s shadow ruler Bidzina Ivanishvili saying “we will break through any cordon, we will overwhelm you!”.
The rally was attended by the assortment of radical, nativist and hate groups, including MP Emzar Kvitsiani of the Alliance of Patriots, Guram Palavandishvili, founder of the Society for Children’s Rights and Dimitri Lortkipanidze of the Moscow-funded Primakov Center.
Vasadze’s calls on creating a “legion” to “establish order” and confront police officers “with shepherds’ stuff” was met with a somewhat weak response from the Ministry of Interior.
Vasadze was not alone. The ultra-nationalist Georgian March announced they will be joining the counter-action against Tbilisi Pride and called other radical groups to disrupt Tbilisi Pride. Georgian March Facebook post read: “only by uniting our forces will we vanquish our common enemy!!! Gay-parade shall fail and we will definitely disrupt it!!! May the Lord will your unity!!!”
The Alliance of Patriots, a radical right-wing outfit, rallied several thousand of its supporters ferried from all over the country on Tbilisi’s central Freedom Square on June 15, with focusing on Davit Gareji Monastery issue, also raising anti-NATO wording, demanding military non-alignment and promoting “Georgianness”.
Party leader Davit Tarkhan-Mouravi said “our boys (should) grow up as knights, our girls – as ladies,” echoing strong anti-pride sentiments.
Hate groups were not the clouds bringing the main storm over Tbilisi however.
Twist of fate – Gavrilov’s night
In an unexpected turn of events, pro-Russia hate groups lost the battle over public space, as on June 20, the Georgians woke up to see Russian Communist Orthodox MP Gavrilov in Georgian Parliament Speaker’s seat, addressing in Russian the Inter-parliamentary Assembly on Orthodoxy (IAO) that Georgia hosted since the previous day.
First the opposition MPs blocked the presidium of the Parliament in the morning. Meantime, activists started gathering in and outside the Parliament to protest since that morning too. Ruling party officials also felt “insulted” over Gavrilov’s Parliament visit.
- Georgian Dream on the defensive over Gavrilov’s Parliament Visit
- Tense Protest in Tbilisi As Thousands Gather on Rustaveli Avenue
The biggest crowd was yet to come. Several thousand opposition and civic activists gathered on Rustaveli avenue in front of the Parliament at 7 pm. Tensions have mounted around 10 pm, as some protesters tried to rush into parliament.
Police used tear gas and rubber bullets against protesters as well as journalists at the Parliament. Angry police chased and detained protestors as far as the republic square and the university. Unrest in Tbilisi continued till sunrise – 240 people, including 80 police officers have been injured and 305 people were detained.
Georgians angered by brutal handling of protest dispersion that left two protesters without one of their eyes, kept protesting every night ever since 20th – naming the protest as “Shame” – demanding Interior Minister Gakharia’s resignation as well as next 2020 parliamentary elections to be held on full proportional list, instead of 2024 as planned by GD.
On June 24, Bidzina Ivanishvili, the chairman of the ruling GD party said upcoming parliamentary elections in 2020 will be fully proportional with “zero threshold”. The decision was widely welcomed (yet with a cautious skepticism over “zero threshold”), as CSOs and parties advocated for it over a decade in vain before.
Amid tense political climate, Tbilisi Pride organizers postponed the March for uncertain amount of time. Many LGBTQ Georgians, including the Pride organizers were present at anti-occupation protests however, demanding resignation of minister Gakharia.
Gay-shaming: a political tactic
What started as mainly anti-occupation protest on June 20 has quickly transformed into counter-governmental demonstration following the police violence. Threatened, aid aiming to stem the mounting of the protest wave, the ruling Georgian Dream – from hardline conservative ex-PM Irakli Garibashvili to embattled strongman, Minister of Interior Giorgi Gakharia – decided to use support from Pride against the protesters.
In a bout of political homophobia pro-governmental and hate groups took to paining anti-Gakharia protest as a queer event. Social media pages known to be close to GD portrayed all protesters as queer AND supporters of the United National Movement (UNM), GD’s electorally controversial arch-rival.
“Gay revolution is approaching”, this pro-government Facebook page says, effectively demonizing protesters, painting the heads of opposition leaders onto effeminate figures with rainbow umbrellas.
Over the years, government used homophobia to address falling rankings. Sorbonne-educated Garibashvili, who did only work as Ivanishvili’s business executive for over a decade before becoming country’s interior minister, further activated political homophobia as he proposed limiting marriage as a union between a man and a woman back in 2014.
Garibashvili’s populist move was a response to hard-line conservatives and church that saw adopting anti-discrimination law as a precondition for a visa free regime with the EU.
Queer people were not the only targets of conservatives, and their sexual orientation was not the only characteristic. In recent years, protesting youths are also often painted as drug addicts, with pro-government politicians and media sources weaponizing grassroots movement for decriminalization of drug use.
In May 2018, as the drug-searching brought riot policemen to Tbilisi’s most famous – and gay friendly – night clubs on a Friday midnight, GD government and Facebook pages linked to it did their best to portray club-going Georgians as filthy, drug addicts and gender-non conforming individuals, showing scenes of intoxicated youths, effectively sowing hate towards these groups in the society.
- May 2018 protest turns into rave in front of Georgia Parliament
- Intolerance throws Nazi salute in Georgia, as two rallies confront in Tbilisi
The strategy brought extreme right groups, some of them Russia-linked to the streets at counter rally, threatening clubber-led demonstration, yet Gakharia did little to prevent nazis roaring in Tbilisi streets, instead sent peaceful crowd protesting club raids to homes by Tbilisi’s rotten yellow buses.
Pride, anti-Pride groups and Pro-Russians in the streets again
The scenario of portraying protesters as drug-addicts, “Natsis” (derogatory term for UNM supporters) and LGBT/Queers angered some crowd, especially the hate groups that lost over Tbilisi’s public space since June 20.
On July 7, two events served as catalysts to bring pro-Russia, pro-GD and anti-Pride protesters in the streets again – obviously, these three groups do not fully overlap.
Rustavi 2 anchor Gabunia’s deeply insulting comments towards Russia’s President Putin sparked outrage among many, including those protesting for anti-occupation cause. Yet also created a pretext for pro-Russia and/or pro-GD groups to hit the streets, first in front of the Rustavi 2 TV HQ, and then to deny the public space to anti-government and anti-Russian activists that have been rallying for 18th day.
As a coincidence, the same day, postponed Tbilisi Pride was announced to take place on July 8, next morning, that brought additional complexity to already complicated protesting scene in Georgia’s capital. Pride was soon called off however as location was leaked to hate groups earlier that night.
Levan Vasadze, Guram Palavandishvili, Dimitri Lortkipanidze and others, often associated with pro-Russia groups that try to capitalize on homophobic sentiments, then went on to occupied the Parliament square, reclaiming it from anti-occupation protesters.
Yet, not only hate groups, but GD’s Garibashvili, ex-PM and UNM’s Giorgi Baramidze, ex-defense minister under Saakashvili voiced homophobic sentiments.
Garibashvili’s homophobic conspiracies went so far that he said “the broadcast aired on Rustavi 2 is a vile plot against our country and our co-citizens, so is “the provocative march” announced by the so-called “LGBT” representatives, that in fact is organized by the United National Movement”. UNM’s Baramidze on the other hand, used insulting words towards those “traitors” “whoever activates and lobbies topic of gays”.
An impromptu, small scale Pride Parade was still held in front of Ministry of Interior in the capital’s outskirts around 7-7.30PM anyway, yet Vasadze and affiliated groups remained in front of Parliament, impeding anti-occupation protests.
At the very same time, anti-occupation rally on its 19th day started gathering on Pushkin Square trying to advance towards the parliament where hate groups occupied the place since morning. Police cordons were set up in between. Two parallel rallies divided by police went peacefully without any serious confrontations till sunrise.
With the 2020 parliamentary elections fast approaching, use of aggressive and divisive rhetoric is bound to expand. Georgia enters into a tense period of power struggle, with series of underlying serious economic, social and political issues that remain unaddressed.
Most recent NDI poll showed citizens of Georgia feel country direction is at its worst in a decade. Georgians perception of government and leadership performance is at decline.
- Mistrust becoming a key societal characteristic of democracy
- Xenophobia on the Rise in Public Speech in Georgia
Meantime, Mamuka Khazaradze, one of the founders of TBC Bank and former Chairman of its Supervisory Board, released a post on his Facebook page on July 9, saying that he plans to set up a new public movement in September aimed at “uniting the country and maintaining its independence and liberty”, citing “the alarming situation” in the country.
Since classical ideological divisions are superficial at best in Georgia’s partisan circles, Georgia’s catch-all party politics often rely on stoking, exploiting and addressing fears in the Georgian society. Scaremongering and brinkmanship are not going to disappear with 2020 elections.
The use of “natural threshold” will encourage fringe groups to aggressively mobilize supporters. Their voices have already been loudly heard in mobilization against Tbilisi Pride.
As splitting Georgians and turning them against one another has become the trend over the recent years, there is little hope, that the divided society would heal its wounds anytime soon.