Right-Wing Violence Threatens Georgian Democracy
The scenes from Tbilisi this month mark the latest and ugliest political crisis for Georgia. The precipitating event was the planned Tbilisi Pride March, scheduled for July 5. Right-wing and pro-Russian factions in the country called for a counter-demonstration which devolved into multiple days of violence against LGBTQ activists and reporters (for good measure). Georgia, once a promising, bourgeoning Eurasian democracy and a key partner of the United States and NATO, is descending further into chaos and illiberalism.
On July 5, the day of the planned Pride march, far-right groups, likely with Russian funding and support and with approval from the Georgian government, stormed an LGBTQ activist headquarters in the capital. Along the way, more than 50 journalists were targeted and beaten. One of those beaten, cameraman Alexander Lashkarava, was found deadin his home by his mother earlier Sunday, sparking renewed protests and calls for the prime minister’s resignation. The cause of his death was unclear.
Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili condemned the violence and visited injured reporters in the hospital. By contrast, Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili blamed the “radical opposition” for instigating the clash and failed to condemn the attacks, let alone prevent them. He tried cleaning up his response a day later, declaring, “Firstly, what 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, of course.”
Yet, proving the hollowness of his second statement, Garibashvili allowed the violence to happen again on the same day that he condemned it. On July 6, thousands of Georgians turned out to denounce the previous day’s savagery against the LGBTQ community and the media. They quickly became targets of the same mob that appeared the previous day, which proceeded to tear down and burn an EU flag that was hanging in front of the parliament building.
This is not the first crisis in which Garibashvili has played a central role. Immediately upon his return to the premier position (he served in the same position from 2013-2015) in February this year, he ordered a raid on the headquarters of the main opposition party, United National Movement, and the arrest of its leader, Nika Melia, at the behest of billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, who dominates the country’s politics despite having no formal office. Garibashvili’s immediate predecessor, Giorgi Gakharia, resigned rather than carry out Ivanishvili’s order.
In this latest crisis, hundreds of ultra-right rioters turned against media outlets, including reporters and camera operators from a variety of news outlets who came out to cover the Pride march, as well as the office of Tbilisi Pride, which was organizing the march. A dozen rioters stormed and ransacked the office, tearing down rainbow flags and burning them in front of the police and numerous spectators watching from the street and through social media. The police, outnumbered and disorganized, were quickly overcome by the mob. The small group of Pride activists continues to fear for their lives as the current leadership in Tbilisi appears to view Putin, not the West, as the model to follow.
Apparently Garibashvili didn’t consider violence so “categorically unacceptable” after all. He previously served as minister of internal affairs overseeing law enforcement and more recently as minister of defense before returning to the prime minister’s position, and was therefore perfectly capable of preventing the violence and managing the crisis as it unfolded in Tbilisi’s streets. Instead, he was more interested in using this incident to blame the opposition for plotting a “riot” disguised as a destabilizing Pride event.
In the hours leading up to the demonstration, he described the Pride march as “unacceptable for a large segment of Georgian society” and “organized by revanchist forces such as radical opposition.” He blamed the organizers of the March—i.e. the victims of the violence—for being “unreasonable” and risking “civil confrontation.” He showed no interest in protecting journalists, some of whom have been critical of his tenure, from the mob’s ravages. He did not order the police on duty, most of whom were ill-equipped to handle such a situation, to intervene—and they themselves became targets of the far-right thugs; many officers were badly hurt. (He seems to have calculated that using special forces against his potential electorate would have been politically damaging. Despite their country’s recent democratic backsliding, Georgians can still be grateful they’re not living under a regime like those in Belarus or Russia—at least, not yet.)
Ahead of local elections this fall, Garibashvili has decided to side with far-right groups known for their ties to Moscow, presumably assuming that doing so will play to the advantage of his party, Georgian Dream. He has excused violence against journalists and rights activists and even endangered the country’s law enforcement officers.
Georgia’s Orthodox Church leaders, who incited violence by calling for the counter-Pride gathering on July 5, portrayed themselves—not LGBTQ activists, reporters, or even local police personnel—as the true victims of the day. Church officials used the planned march to call for Russian-style legislation to protect them from “insulting religious and national sentiments.” If the country is to adopt new legislation, it should do so to protect marginalized groups, including ethnic, religious, and sexual minorities, from hate crimes. And yet the prime minister misleadingly insists that minorities are already well protected in Georgia. Pro-government Imedi TV has spent the past few days broadcasting how queer people are victimized everywhere, including in the West, to help normalize the kind of violence we witnessed in Tbilisi this week.
This latest crisis is a terrible setback for respect for human rights, including freedom of the press and minority rights, in Georgia. Garibashvili enabled, if not encouraged, such violence and did nothing to prevent it. He should resign immediately, and the international community should call for his resignation.
The Georgian parliament and President Zurabishvili should host members of Tbilisi Pride and journalists who were assaulted and publicly announce their commitment to seek justice for those guilty of such ugly attacks. They also should work with civil society, which remains strong, and international experts to develop a realistic strategy for preventing similar attacks and reexamine the role played by the Church in fomenting dangerous outbursts.
The international community—especially the United States, The United Kingdom, the European Union, and the rest of the free world—must realize that the role played by Ivanishvili is ruining Georgia and its prospects for deeper integration with the Euro-Atlantic community. It is time to start imposing targeted sanctions on Georgian officials such as the prime minister and others like Ivanishvili who are allowing Russian influence to grow and treating the opposition as an enemy to be defeated by any means necessary, even physical force.
This is about more than respect for gay rights or freedom of the press in Georgia, important as those principles are. This is about Georgia’s orientation and future, and under the current leadership, both official and behind the scenes, the country is heading in the wrong direction. It is facing an existential crisis. Georgia has been the most democratic, pro-Western and pro-American country in the region—a distinction that, unless Georgian democracy receives strong and decisive support, may become a fleeting historical anomaly.
The international community, which has sought to support Georgia’s democratic development and Western orientation, needs to ramp up its involvement in Georgia. The U.S. Embassy and EU diplomatic mission in Georgia, along with 16 other embassies in Tbilisi, issued a joint statement on July 5: “We condemn today’s violent attacks on the civic activists, community members and journalists, as well as the failure of the government leaders and religious officials to condemn this violence. Participation in peaceful gatherings is a human right guaranteed by Georgia’s constitution. Violence is simply unacceptable and cannot be excused.”
The EU played a helpful role in mediating a compromise to the last crisis in Georgia. Now is the time for the Biden administration, which stayed largely on the sidelines during that earlier crisis, to make clear that Georgia is important to the United States and that we will do what we can to push back against those who are taking Georgia backwards and to stand with the vast majority of the Georgian population. In addition to the LBGTQ demonstrators and journalists who suffered beatings and property destruction on July 5 and 6, Georgian democracy was also injured. Ivanishvili has been, was, and is its main assailant, with a big assist from Garibashvili. Removing his influence won’t be enough to revive Georgian democracy, but it’s an urgently necessary first step.