TBILISI, Georgia— Just before midnight on Thursday, an anti-Russian demonstration turned bloody as police forces deployed tear gas canisters and rubber bullets at a massive crowd gathered in front of the Georgian parliament. Those at the head of the demonstration tried to enter the chamber.
By dawn on Friday, ministry of interior forces had dispersed the protest. Some 240 people had been injured and more than 300 detained. Later that day Speaker of Parliament Irakli Kobakhidze resigned.
But those demonstrating in the capital of the small Black Sea country feel that his resignation is not enough. Protests are set to continue with many now demanding early parliamentary elections.
All this has come as Georgia was getting ready to hold its first Pride Parade, and with some trepidation after violent attacks on gays in years past. The timing is not entirely coincidental, and it certainly is dangerous.
Details about the march planned for this weekend were kept secret because of safety concerns, including death threats to organizers, and it was clear the Georgian Orthodox Church, along with henchmen claiming to act on the side of God, were determined to stop it with whatever means necessary.
After the brutal events of early Friday morning, the organizers of the Pride Parade postponed the march for several days saying, “We could not permit ourselves to contribute to further escalation of tensions in the country. We will not allow pro-Russian, Neo-Nazi groups to weaken Georgia’s statehood.”
Now it is not clear when or even if the parade will take place.
According to the local news site civil.ge, the organizers of Pride feel that the Georgian government “has no desire to protect the LGBTQ community against radical groups financed from Russia.”
Meanwhile as a result of the anti-Russian protests on Thursday and Friday, Russian President Vladimir Putin issued a statement suspending all passenger flights from Russia to Georgia after July 8. He also called on Russian travel agencies to cease temporarily vacation tours to Georgia and for all Russian tourists in Georgia to return back to Russia. How any of this will be enforced is unclear.
Despite the typical narrative of pro-Kremlin media outlets claiming that the protests on Thursday were a coup attempt as well as a “Russophobic provocation,” Russian tourists need not worry. But it is true that a hell of a lot of Georgian people are furious with Russia’s government—and their own. And the resignation of the parliament speaker is unlikely to dissuade protestors who believe that Georgia is run by an informal ruler, the billionaire oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili. The problem with informal rulers is that they don’t resign because they are not held accountable for their actions.
Today in Georgia, Russian influence seeks to build up the already close ties between the Orthodox Church and the state. The Russian parliamentarian whose address to the Georgian parliament from chair of the speaker of the parliament—the faux pas that brought thousands into the streets—was about building ties among Orthodox countries with, of course, Mother Russia primus inter pares.
And one way to build that solidarity, uniting orthodoxy and government, is to find common enemies, including and especially LGBT people.
The Georgian church has called on the government to block Pride to prevent the “sin of Sodom.” Though it claims not to condone violence, the Georgian Orthodox Church claims that the march will end in conflict and incite violence.
Ultra-nationalist groups are threatening just that, and it won’t be the first time violence has been used in Georgia to prevent an LGBT demonstration in the name of “traditional family values.”
This exploitation of the Georgian perception of traditional family values is similar to what the ideologue Aleksander Dugin and his ilk are doing in Russia to help Putin consolidate power.
In Georgia a leading role is played by the pro-Russian activist millionaire Levan Vasadze. He is a key figure in the World Congress of Families, denounced by LGBT defenders at the Human Rights Campaign as “an American organization exporting hate.” Vasadze is fighting what he portrays as a cultural war against homosexuality, liberalism and ultimately European Union values.
In a video address on June 15 Vasadze called for groups of anti-LGBT groups to assemble and “patrol” the streets to prevent Pride demonstrations. “We will come to you everywhere, we will break through any cordon and we will overwhelm you,” Vasadze threatened.
Vasadze claims to be a nationalist but, as with many who’ve embraced that label, his actions enable the Kremlin’s agenda more than they help assure his own country’s sovereignty.
Polls show the Orthodox Church here has an extremely high approval rating. It is the most trusted institution in Georgia. Yet the Orthodox Church makes no effort to separate itself from Vasadze’s hate speech and his calls for violence.
Quite the opposite. The culture war that pro-Russian far-right activists like Dugin and Vasadze dream of heated up dramatically in Georgia on May 17, 2013, when peaceful demonstrators celebrating the International Day Against Homophobia were violently attacked by groups that believed that they were carrying out the bidding of the church.
The Georgian Orthodox Church did nothing to discourage that belief. And it isn’t just homosexuality that’s come under attack. Last May, the same Christian activist, ultra-nationalist and neo-Nazi groups attacked another demonstration, known as the Rave-olution, that was protesting draconian measures by the Georgian government against the Tbilisi’s night clubs.
In the hours before dawn on Friday, with tear gas, rubber bullets, riot gear, and firehoses the Georgian government doubled down. As tear gas canisters rained down upon the Kashveti Church across the street and just days after issuing a statement that it could not guarantee the safety of those participating in Georgian Pride, the Georgian government seemed to be making enemies of enemies, but there is little chance they’ll become friends.
A group of men retreating from the protest cursed as canisters hit the church. They stopped, turned back around, and ran back into the smoke as more and more rapid blasts continued firing from that direction.
They were soon followed by a larger group who began chanting “Sarkatvelo” (Georgia) heading back toward Parliament where riot police continued to wait. Some protestors attempting to flee from the projectiles hid behind that same church.
As mopeds zipped by on sidewalks, ambulances made their way back and forth between protestors coughing from tear gas and young Georgians handing out water and masks. Police then began to use fire hoses and rubber bullets to disperse the crowds which were being pushed further and further down the main avenue of the capital and away from Parliament.
All of this plays into the Kremlin’s strategy of dividing its enemies along ideological lines by stoking all sides of any conflict that emerges.