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Scapegoats, Suspicions and Schisms: LGBTQ+ Rights in Georgia


Georgia’s Drift To Illiberalism


The small nation of Georgia sits on the Black Sea and counts Turkey, Russia, Azerbaijan and Armenia as its neighbours. It’s not the first place you’d think of when conjuring up an image of Europe. Yet its people have long aspired to enter the European Union (EU), with 83% of the population in favour of joining the bloc. The feeling is mutual, with the EU having poured billions into the former Soviet state in recent years as part of an agreement aimed at greater integration, and ultimately, accession. 


A shame then, that the ruling Georgian Dream party, which has controlled the country since 2012, has done little to help Georgia meet the 12 criteria outlined by the EU to realise this aspiration, despite publicly backing the will of the people. This lack of progress has less to do with incompetence and more to do with the party’s ‘authoritarian drift’, which has included cosying up to Russia and borrowing tricks from Hungary’s illiberal playbook. Georgian Dream is in effect treading a fine line, dismantling Georgia’s democratic institutions while at the same time gas-lighting the public with the pretence that, like the people it claims to serve, the party wants in on the European club too. The juggling act cannot be an easy one but, luckily for Georgian Dream, there is a particular minority group which still doesn’t enjoy majority support, and which makes for a useful distraction whenever its political agenda gets a little too fractious. 


Punching Down: Georgian Dream and the Queer Community


To say Georgia’s LGBTQ+ community is still not widely accepted is an understatement. A 2021 study by the International Social Survey Programme found that 84% of the population believed that same-sex sexual relations were always wrong. This was the highest score across all European countries surveyed, and higher even than Georgia’s neighbours, Russia and Turkey; violating LGBTQ+ rights is an easy win when the population at large doesn’t even recognise them as such.


In 2016, Georgian Dream proposed a ban on same-sex marriage via a constitutional amendment, limiting the union to one between a man and a woman. The then-president, Giorgi Margvelashvili - a political independent - astutely noted that “given same-sex marriage is unacceptable for 99.9 per cent of Georgia’s population” the amendment was merely a tactic  “in order not to talk about jobs; in order not to talk about education [...] There are thousands of things which are more important”. The Constitutional revision went ahead regardless - and curtailed the president’s powers along with it, just for good measure.


Despite these distraction tactics, public discontent with the ruling party continued to grow until June 2019, when anti-government protests finally broke out in Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi. The demonstrations had been sparked by the visit of the Russian MP, Sergey Gavrilov, who had been invited by Georgian Dream to speak at an ultra-conservative conference on Christian Orthodoxy. Protestors were infuriated at the government’s growing alliance with Moscow, given Russia had forcibly taken, and continued to occupy, the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia since the 2008 Russo-Georgian war. The protests soon became known as ‘Gavrilov’s Night’, and despite clearly focusing on Georgian Dream’s increasing ties with its northern neighbour, the government led a smear campaign against demonstrations, branding them as queer events.


Tbilisi Pride: Protests Against Protest


Complicating matters was the fact that, by coincidence, the first-ever Tbilisi Pride was due to be held around the same time the protests erupted. The timing usefully allowed Georgian Dream to tarnish the anti-government demonstrations while also diverting attention onto the queer community. Aside from a brief and impromptu gathering of a small number of LGBTQ+ activists outside of the Interior Ministry, the country’s first-ever Pride event was largely cancelled amid heightened security risks.


Following a year of Covid-19 lockdowns in 2020, Tbilisi Pride returned in July 2021. The NGO, Tbilisi Pride, which organises the event, liaised with authorities to discuss security and, under seeming pressure from the European Parliament, the government arranged for a small number of police officers to be present. This token gesture did little to deter right-wing extremists who were emboldened by the support of the Georgian Orthodox Church. 


The headquarters of Tbilisi Pride were broken into and equipment destroyed, as were the offices of several other NGOs that hid the organisation’s staff. 53 journalists who were following events were assaulted, leading to several needing hospitalisation, and the tragic death of one cameraman, Alexandre Lashkarava. Many noted that law enforcement did little, if anything, to prevent the rioting, and the attacks had the desired effect of forcing the cancellation of the pride march.


Given the overwhelming tensions, no pride march took place in 2022, but last year the organisers of Tbilisi Pride scheduled another march. Again, the event was insufficiently protected by law enforcement, who were no match for the estimated 2,000 anti-LGBTQ+ and far-right protestors, who vandalised parade equipment and attacked attendees. Police removed participants from the area and the march was again cancelled. Tbilisi Pride’s Co-founder, Mariam Kvaratskhelia, told Reuters news agency that the attacks were not impromptu:


"I definitely think this (disruption) was a preplanned, coordinated action between the government and the radical groups... We think this operation was planned in order to sabotage the EU candidacy of Georgia" 

If Kvaratskhelia is right, then Georgian Dream managed to skillfully damage the country’s EU accession scorecard while being able to lay the blame on Georgia’s already deeply unpopular queer community.


Georgian LGBTQ+ Activism: The Great Schism 


Given that hosting an annual pride march appears to play into the ruling party’s hands, many of Georgia’s queer activists question whether the strategy of holding such events is an effective one. More importantly, its detractors within LGBTQ+ activist circles also argue that the increased attention on the community has significantly heightened the risk of homo/bi/trans phobic attacks within the country. With stakes so high, the queer community is deeply divided on the issue, as one activist, who wished to remain anonymous, told me:

 

Before Pride came along, we actually saw a positive trend in research, where people were becoming more accepting [of LGBTQ+ people]. And then pride came along, and the government got more aggressive [towards us]. So we said we don't want to be part of this, because the visibility is going to give the government ammunition against us, which it has done. So the community keeps begging them [Tbilisi Pride] to please stop doing these things as the community as a whole feels unsafe. And then they do it again, every year [...] so it’s a really big fight of the community at the moment.


Tensions are exacerbated by the fact that the government has sown deep levels of distrust within the queer activist space itself:


It sounds so ‘conspiracy theory’, but here [in Georgia] we have the Secret Service and about two years ago, a ton of their stuff came out about how they listen in on the community, phone calls were recorded, etc. And when that got leaked, it showed how they tried to manipulate within the [LGBTQ+] community. So we don't know how much of the infighting that we have is orchestrated by the Secret Services.

If true, then this would be evidence of a profoundly sinister state-led strategy aimed at undermining the advancement of human rights in Georgia. Yet regardless of whether the fact is ever substantiated, the damage has been done, as my source noted:


It might just be speculation, but even the fact that there is a question shows how they [the government] have already gotten themselves in there [the minds of the community]. Even if there is no one - they've made us afraid.


Europe’s Dilemma


Georgia’s treatment of one of its most vulnerable minority populations is just one issue troubling Brussels. The scorecard in question covers 12 key issues blighting the country, including disinformation, the need for judicial reforms, and de-oligarchisation. As with its treatment of sexual and gender minorities, Georgia hasn’t just failed to make progress in many of these areas but has in fact regressed. 


Given this state of affairs, political eyebrows were raised when in November 2023, the European Commission formally recommended Georgia for EU membership candidate status - a huge step forward for the country’s European ambitions, and a gift for Georgian Dream, which could claim the win as its own to an approving public. In reality, both Georgian ministers and EU diplomats were likely smiling through gritted teeth at the prospect of the country’s progress. 


For its part, the EU found itself between a rock and a hard place. It could either prevent Georgia’s progress (while Ukraine and Moldova race ahead in accession talks), thereby risking public disillusionment with the European project, and which in turn could steer the country even closer to Russia - or the bloc could hold its nose, overlook the democratic backsliding, and let Georgia get a foot in the door, even if it’s far from getting a seat at the table. On balance, the EU chose the latter. 


Doubling Down on Georgia’s LGBTQ+ Community


Seemingly now confident that it can continue to act against queer people with impunity, the government introduced a new anti-LGBTQ+ bill in March of this year, which, if passed, would have devastating consequences for the country’s queer community. Dubbed Georgia’s ‘propaganda law’ the draft legislation proposes to ban same-sex couples from adopting, prohibit gatherings which popularise same-sex relationships (effectively banning future pride events), limit marriage to genetically male and female couples (preventing many trans people from marrying), prohibit gender-affirming surgery, and restrict official documents to displaying a person’s genetic sex only. If passed, the legislation would undoubtedly be one of the most punitive anti-LGBTQ laws in all of Europe. 


In May, the government also approved a new ‘foreign agents’ bill. Dubbed the ‘Russian Bill’ by the hundreds of thousands of demonstrators who took to the streets to protest it, the new law will - like its Moscow-inspired equivalent - force NGOs to declare themselves as “pursuing the interests of a foreign power” should they receive more than 20% of income from international donors. The legislation is likely to dramatically affect the operations of Georgian LGBTQ+ NGOs, given domestic funding is not an option for such organisations. But given the legislation aims to address “pseudo-liberal values”, it would appear that this is its core purpose. 


The EU took days to respond with what was ultimately a meek statement after member states Slovakia and Hungary blocked any stronger language or action from being taken. With Europe’s Radical Right seeming increasingly emboldened almost by the day, Georgian Dream may have finally given up on paying lip service to the EU, just at the moment Georgia’s LGBTQ+ community needs its protections most.


Article By Ross Othen-Reeves


Bibliography


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