Following the 2003 Rose Revolution nearly ten years ago, Georgia has been presented primarily as a transition success story. The government under President Mikheil Saakashvili undertook massive reforms to purge the country of its post-Soviet legacy of corruption. Georgia has become a staunch Western ally, has NATO aspirations, and is one of the largest non-NATO contributors of soldiers to Afghanistan (given its population). It’s true that President Saakashvili showed questionable political judgment and perceptibly authoritarian instincts at times. But his finest moment came when it mattered most. In October 2012 his political party lost parliamentary elections to billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream coalition. Instead of contesting the voters’ choice, Saakashvili graciously conceded defeat — and the Caucasus country experienced the first peaceful transfer of power via the ballot box in its history.
But it’s not just the actions of those in power that determine a democracy. It’s also the people, and mentalities can be slow to change.
Today, May 17, is International Day Against Homophobia, and Georgian LGBT activists scheduled a rally to mark the occasion in central Tbilisi. It never took place: Thousands of anti-gay protestors, led by Orthodox priests, held a counter-demonstration on Rustaveli Avenue, Tbilisi’s main street. Protestors carried images of Jesus and signs reading "Stop promoting homosexual propaganda in Georgia" and "We don’t need Sodom and Gomorrah." Some women waved symbolic bundles of nettle to "beat the gay people." The activists decided to move their demonstration just down the street, to (quite ironically) Freedom Square. Chaos ensued. Despite a heavy police presence, the anti-gay protestors stormed the barricades protecting the pro-gay rally; police immediately ushered the LGBT activists out of the area in buses, which their opponents then attacked. As Giorgi Lomsadze of Eurasianet.org reports, shouts from the mob included "Kill them! Tear them to pieces!" Gay rights activists were chased down as they sought refuge in nearby shops and homes. According to Georgia’s Healthcare minister, 28 people have been injured in the violence, though none critically.
The day before, on May 16, the Patriarch of the Georgian Orthodox Church, Ilia II, publicly called on the government to ban the gay rally, saying that it would be "an insult" to Georgian traditions. Members of the homophobe crowd on the streets have expressed similar sentiments. As one protestor put it, "we are against a rally that contradicts our Georgian morals and traditions."
To his credit, Prime Minister Ivanishvili, along with other leading officials, has condemned the violence: "The right to gather peacefully and to freely express one’s opinion is fundamental to our democracy. Every Georgian citizen benefits fully and equally from this right. Acts of violence, discrimination and restriction of the rights of others will not be tolerated, and any perpetrators of such acts will be dealt with according to the law." Yet civil society groups have accused police of not properly protecting the gay rights marchers, saying they did not take the necessary precautions but only reacted to the attacks.
This is not the first time that anti-gay violence has appeared on Georgia’s streets. Gay activists were also attacked last year by religious protesters (and Orthodox priests) when they held a gay rights march in Tbilisi, though on a much smaller scale. In 2011, a gay Frenchman working in Georgia was brutally stabbed to death after meeting a man through an online gay dating site. Most gay Georgians keep their sexual orientation secret because of such extreme public disapproval.
Indeed, the defeat of Saakashvili’s United National Movement at the polls in October 2012 was largely due to a prison abuse scandal that erupted just two weeks earlier. A leaked video of prison guards beating and also sexually assaulting inmates with brooms and cigarettes brought Georgian protestors into the streets for days. Inmates had previously remained silent on the nature of the abuse precisely because homosexuality is such a taboo in Georgia’s deeply macho culture. In one of the videos, a raped inmate pleads: "Please don’t film this; I will do anything."
Such intolerance of homosexuality is not representative of all Georgians, of course. But the country remains deeply influenced by the Orthodox Church, which played an important role in forming Georgian national identity before and after the collapse of the Soviet Union. (Indeed, according to the most recent poll by the International Republican Institute taken after the parliamentary elections, 94 percent of Georgians polled said they had more confidence in the church than any other national institution.) A group of researchers from Tbilisi’s Ilia State University argue that "the GOC [Georgian Orthodox Church] not only plays an important role in constructing collective identity, but has become an uncontestable superego which cannot be wrong and dictates the behavior to Georgians [sic]." In the case of the gay rally, the main "offense" to Georgian culture, heavily-steeped in orthodoxy, would be the assumption that gay people commit the "crime" of sodomy.
The Saakashvili regime’s Ataturk-style modernization campaign has brought Georgia into the 21st century, but it clearly didn’t go far enough. Democracy relies not only on the presumption that the authorities will play by the democratic "rules of the game," but also on the broader recognition that all citizens are entitled to the same rights. In this respect, Georgia still has a long way to go.
Arianne Swieca is an Editorial Assistant for Democracy Lab.