Report

The Geopolitical Fault Line Behind the Attack on Tbilisi Pride

LGBT rights are at the center of the struggle over Georgia’s Western leanings.

By , a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy.
People wear rainbow masks at a rally in Tbilisi, Georgia.
Participants wear rainbow masks during a rally in the Georgian capital Tbilisi on July 6, in support of those who were injured in an attack on Tbilisi Pride organizers the previous day. Vano Shlamov/AFP/Getty Images

Organizers of an LGBT Pride march in Georgia were forced to cancel the event on Monday after their headquarters were violently attacked by ultranationalists in what Giorgi Tabagari, one of the event’s co-founders, described as a “pogrom.” The march’s organizers were forced to change location at least four times out of concern for their safety, and each time they were pursued by the mob. Tabagari said that he twice feared for his life as he found himself alone in his car surrounded by a threatening group. 

“I was completely alone in my car and my car was blocked by these radical fascists,” he said. “I’m pretty sure that I would not have survived.” Over 50 journalists were also attacked as events unfolded on Monday, and a Polish tourist was hospitalized after being stabbed. Eyewitnesses alleged that he was attacked for having an ear piercing. 

Organizers of an LGBT Pride march in Georgia were forced to cancel the event on Monday after their headquarters were violently attacked by ultranationalists in what Giorgi Tabagari, one of the event’s co-founders, described as a “pogrom.” The march’s organizers were forced to change location at least four times out of concern for their safety, and each time they were pursued by the mob. Tabagari said that he twice feared for his life as he found himself alone in his car surrounded by a threatening group. 

“I was completely alone in my car and my car was blocked by these radical fascists,” he said. “I’m pretty sure that I would not have survived.” Over 50 journalists were also attacked as events unfolded on Monday, and a Polish tourist was hospitalized after being stabbed. Eyewitnesses alleged that he was attacked for having an ear piercing. 

On the surface, the violence in Tbilisi appears to be an extreme iteration of a culture war being waged around the world. But in Georgia, a small country on the fringes of Europe, the attack on the Pride organizers and journalists cuts to the heart of a profound geopolitical fault line that could determine the country’s future. 

“This became a kind of geopolitical symbol of the clash between Russia and the West,” said Ghia Nodia, the director of the International School of Caucasus Studies at Tbilisi’s Ilia Chavchavadze State University. The attacks reflect a conservative backlash, fueled by years of Russian agitprop, against the pro-European leanings of the majority of the population.

“These groups who organized the pogrom are actually targeting not only LGBT people, but they use this matter to undermine the whole idea of liberal-minded people and the idea of Europe and the West,” Tabagari said. “So it’s more like pro-Russian forces mobilizing against European integration and progressive ideas.”

As in many countries in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, a broader tug of war over the country’s direction has coalesced around the issue of LGBT rights. Conservative groups, including the Georgian Orthodox Church, which is closely enmeshed with its Russian counterpart, have styled themselves as defenders of traditional values and are staunchly opposed to Georgia’s long-standing ambitions to join the European Union and NATO. 

On Tuesday, after supporters of Tbilisi Pride gathered in the capital for a silent protest against Monday’s violence, far-right counterprotesters removed the EU flag from the country’s parliament building for the second day in a row and set it on fire. 

Tbilisi Pride organizers and their supporters have accused members of the Georgian government of emboldening hate groups and of failing to protect the small contingent of Pride organizers. On Monday, Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili said a Pride parade was “unacceptable for a large segment of the Georgian society,” and, with no evidence, accused the group of being backed by the country’s highly divisive former President Mikheil Saakashvili in a bid to sow unrest.

Georgian journalist Natalia Antelava said that around 10 years ago, a range of ultraconservative groups began to use the phrase “LGBT” to describe anyone with liberal or pro-Western values. “They were just throwing that word at anyone who had liberal values,” said Antelava, editor in chief of the news site Coda Story, which has reported extensively on the geopolitics of LGBT rights in the region.  

While support for joining the EU is high in Georgia—over 80 percent, according to a poll conducted last year—large pockets of the population are socially conservative and very religious, which has proved to be fertile ground for homophobia. Georgia’s northern neighbor, Russia, has also fanned such sentiments across the region, seizing upon it as a wedge issue to scuttle the European ambitions of its former satellite states.

“The genius of [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s Kremlin is that it’s very skilled at manipulating existing groups and sentiments and existing actors,” Antelava said. Russia has similarly sought to capitalize on tensions in the United States to sow division and attempt to sway elections.

In 2013, a year after Putin returned to the presidency amid mass street protests that he blamed on the West, Russia passed a law banning so-called gay propaganda, a blunt attempt to outlaw any public discussion of homosexuality in a neutral or positive light. It was accompanied by a dramatic uptick in reports in Russian state TV that sought to portray LGBT people as immoral agents of the West, which was often referred to as “Gayropa.”

“It was coming the loudest and clearest from Russian TV and [Russian] state-funded TV programs, and it was echoing throughout not just the Russian speaking space but across the former Soviet Union,” Antelava said. A spate of copycat “gay propaganda” laws were floated by counties across the region; last month Hungary passed similar legislation that bans depictions of LGBT people in educational materials and content that “popularizes” it from appearing on television before 10 p.m.

While the Georgian government supports NATO and EU membership, ultraconservative groups and the highly influential Georgian Orthodox Church remain important political constituencies for the ruling Georgian Dream party. A joint statement issued on Monday and backed by the embassies of several European countries, the United States, and Israel condemned the attacks on activists and journalists, “as well as the failure of the government leaders and religious officials to condemn this violence.”

Rights groups have condemned the police’s inability to protect the organizers of Tbilisi Pride, leading some to speculate as to whether the attackers were collaborating with the security services. “I have no doubt that these groups have allies in the police forces and they inform them about whatever is happening,” said Nodia, of Ilia Chavchavadze State University.

In the wake of the attacks, several Georgian politicians sought to distance themselves from the incident. “[W]hat we saw yesterday is totally unacceptable to me, and I publicly denounce it. What happened yesterday is categorically unacceptable. Violence against you journalists is unacceptable and must be condemned,” Garibashvili said in a statement on Tuesday. 

“The police are working at full throttle. Three persons were arrested this morning alone, and several administrative arrests were carried out yesterday. Everyone will be identified, and every violent perpetrator will be punished accordingly,” he said. 

Giorgi Gogia, associate director of the Europe and Central Asia Division at Human Rights Watch, noted that most of the people arrested so far had been charged with administrative offenses, which carry much lighter penalties for minor nonviolent crimes, instead of criminal offenses, for their involvement in the assaults. “The crime we saw committed on July 5 was not an administrative offense,” he said.

“The only true way [for the government] to distance themselves from it would be to conduct an effective investigation and ensure accountability for the violence … and by investigating the police actions and inactions and the whole police operation that was planned that day, because there are clear question marks about why there was not enough police presence.”

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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