MOSCOW—Beka Gabadadze, an LGBTQ activist for Queer Association Temida, was at his office on Monday afternoon in the center of Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, when he heard loud voices and screams of what sounded like a huge crowd storming the building outside.
The next thing he knew, somebody was climbing onto the balcony, so he quickly took the queer-themed materials off the walls and hid in the bathroom, where he was quietly crying, horrified and shocked.
Dozens of the attackers were crashing and smashing furniture at the next-door office belonging to Pride Tbilisi—in alarming images later widely shared on social media.
What happened next would break many hearts in Georgia, a small but proudly democratic country in the South Caucasus. Activists and journalists describe it simply as “a war.” Groups of nationalist thugs tore LGBTQ flags into pieces, and chased and violently beat up LGBTQ activists and reporters all over the capital of Tbilisi for two days, on Monday and Tuesday.
The first Pride in the history of Georgia and the entire Caucasus was supposed to be a celebration of dignity for the local activists, a manifestation of visibility. The march was due to take place on Monday afternoon on Rustaveli avenue, the central street in Tbilisi.
Tbilisi Pride tweeted, “We would like to state that the #PrideMarch will not take place today. The authorities did not ensure the security of the community and our supporters. We can not go to the streets full of violent people backed by the authorities and patriarchate and put people’s lives at risk!”
Giorgi Tabagari, director of Tbilisi Pride, tweeted: “I don’t have words. This is not a democratic country. this is not Europe!” Tabagari added the Georgian government “failed us. they failed Georgian democracy!”
“The thugs were organized and financed by Levan Vasadze, the leader of a hate movement,” Gabadadze said.
On Tuesday evening the clashes continued when hundreds of people came out in solidarity with LGBTQ people and the beaten reporters.
“It’s hell here. There is a crowd of about one thousand beautiful, peaceful people on one side and some badly smelling of alcohol wildly violent men,” photographer Dmitry Gomberg told The Daily Beast from the scene on Tuesday evening. “I don’t see Vasadze, but there are a couple of Orthodox priests with the attackers.” Once again the nationalists attacked the peaceful activists and threw stones at the demonstrators. “One television cameraman was beaten, they threw stones, bottles, and eggs at us,” Griffin told The Daily Beast on Wednesday.
The violence aimed at them did not stop LGBTQ people and their allies from showing their pride. On Tuesday, Tbilisi Pride tweeted photographs of a large crowd of pro-LGBTQ equality supporters gathering in front of the Georgian Parliament.
Tabagari later tweeted a video of LGBTQ supporters singing the Georgian national anthem, writing, “This anthem, flag, and country itself belong to us too! and we are not gonna give up on any of it! #TbilisiPride21 is now over and [I] can’t express how happy I am now. We made it!”
Maria Sjodin, deputy executive director of international LGBTQ advocacy group OutRight International, told The Daily Beast, “Any attacks on basic human rights—freedom of assembly, freedom of expression—are serious. Pride events are a litmus test for democracies. Whenever a government won’t allow a Pride event or, in a case like this, where they won’t protect the activists and basically say to groups, ‘You shouldn’t be doing this, we can’t protect you’—that is a very serious concern. We absolutely see this kind of violence and campaigns and anti-LGBTQ voices in Georgia and in other countries. At the same time, of course, the movement and the strength of the LGBTQ movement there, the fact they are organizing, is a positive sign. The government of Georgia must step in and protect the LGBTQI activists.”
Sjodin also hoped international governments would “step in, and tell the Georgian government to investigate the attacks. It’s important governments hold each other accountable.”
Sjodin said that what had happened in Tiblisi was the latest example of a Pride event being attacked in a place where nationalist populism was resurgent. Prides may be commercialized celebrations in countries like America, “but in places like Georgia they are still protests aimed at raising awareness of the need for human rights and equal treatment,” Sjodin said.
Tbilisi’s mayor Kakha Kaladze supported the victims of the attacks. However, the Georgian authorities were criticized for not doing enough to protect Pride organizers and supporters.
“I received a text from the mayor after they beat me. It said, ‘It was catastrophe today; police told us to stay away from the pride, they did not protect us, since there was no order to arrest the attackers,’” Griffin told The Daily Beast. “The President of Georgia, Salome Zourabichvili, also supported the LGBT victims and journalists.”
Paris-born President Zourabichvili, Georgia’s first woman president, has criticized sexism, death threats, and violence from the first days of her presidency. “What happened is not the Georgia I know… It’s not the Georgia based on its core values of tolerance,” Zourabichvili said Tuesday.
But it Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili is the most powerful figure in Georgia, and he blamed LGBTQ activists rather than the nationalist thugs for organizing a demonstration in a public place, which potentially could cause a “civil confrontation.”
CNN reported that the Georgian Interior Ministry had now launched an investigation into the attacks on Tbilisi Pride and another LGBTQ organization, and another investigation into the violence against media and the “illegal interference in their professional activities.”
A 51-year-old businessman with strong ties in Russia, Vasadze is known in Georgia as a radical religious fanatic and a conservative nationalist. Vasadze has recently declared he was emerging as a new political leader of a new conservative political party, somebody pushing Georgia to turn into Moscow’s ally, a religious country.
Vasadze has been organizing “people’s units” to fight against LGBTQ communities since 2019, bringing his supporters together for “congresses of real men.” Authorities banned his illegal organizations, but Vasadze continued to call for violence against LGBTQ people. “If the police go against us, we’ll have to resist,” he said.
Vasadze’s supporters from his movement, Georgian March, are also targeting the country’s most respected independent reporters. His “real men” are also attacking peaceful demonstrators and journalists for wearing bright clothes, or for having a tattoo or piercing on their skin.
Georgian radicals brought knives with them, and cut the TV crews’ wires, so there would be no live coverage of their attacks. A group of radicals violently beat up Dato Koridze, a Radio Free Europe journalist, when he was filming a documentary about an LGBTQ activist. “They insulted me for my pierced ears and when I said I was working for Radio Liberty, they began to beat me much harder, mostly on my head,” Koridze said.
Guga Griffin, a correspondent of Formula, a Georgian television channel, and an LGBTQ supporter, was wearing a red shirt when he arrived to cover the pride march on Monday.
He had a microphone in hand when 4 or 5 men rushed to him. The attackers were yelling he was supporting LGBTQ people, and not them, the right side—as they put it. “These fascist homophobes declare: ‘Homosexuals should never live, exist in Georgia, that the Church should be the main power,’” Griffin told The Daily Beast in an interview on Tuesday.
Many European countries condemned the violence, their embassies issuing a collective statement, reading, “Violence is simply unacceptable and cannot be excused. Those who incite or threaten violence or commit violent acts are interfering with the efforts of Georgia’s law enforcement professionals to uphold a safe and secure environment. They should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. We call on all Georgia’s leaders and law enforcement to act swiftly to protect those exercising their constitutional rights to freedom of expression and assembly, to protect journalists exercising freedom of the press, and to publicly condemn violence.”
Compared to its neighbor states and regions in South and North Caucasus, Georgians have genuine respect for democracy and for their fundamental human rights. Both Georgian civil society and authorities made small steps towards tolerance and calling citizens to have respect for each other. The Georgian parliament adopted an anti-discrimination law in 2014. The legislation banned all forms of violence and discrimination against sexual minorities.
Moscow is watching the violent development in Georgia. One of the key propagandist television shows, Evening with Vladimir Solovyev, devoted time on Tuesday to LGBTQ issues on Tuesday. The presenter, Solovyev, mocked gay people and blamed the U.S. State Department: “The West’s enforcing of liberal dictatorship resulted with State Department pushing Georgia to punish opponents of the dispersed march.”
Tbilisi also witnessed police attacks on peaceful demonstrators back in 2007, when the government used police forces to disperse an opposition rally. Police used water cannons, gas, and rubber bullets, and more than 350 demonstrators reported injuries. Police also attacked several journalists and destroyed their equipment. Mikheil Saakashvili, the then President of Georgia, resigned after the violent clashes on the streets, only to be re-elected in the following year.
“This time it is the Prime Minister, Irakli Garibashvili, who has to resign, after failing to protect the peaceful demonstration,” Koridze said.