Performing Queerness: Tbilisi Pride and the struggle between Georgia’s liberal and conservative values7 min read

 In Analysis, Caucasus, Civil Society
The history of Pride in Georgia has proven to be indicative of the value-based divide that exists within contemporary Georgian society. Recent homophobic attacks in Tbilisi have displayed that this cleavage—between liberal and conservative ideologies—has continued to widen under the Georgian Dream party. As data collected by International Social Survey Programme suggests that Georgia could be the most homophobic country in Europe, the roots of this conservative surge must be questioned.

On 5 July 2021, Tbilisi Pride and the Shame Movement were stormed in a counter-protest to the upcoming March for Dignity Pride Event. The attack was organised by far-right anti-Pride activists, as well as clergy members of the Georgian Orthodox Church. As attackers tore down pride flags from the balconies, ultra-nationalists stood in crowds cheering and waving the Five Cross Flag proudly in the air. 

Over the course of the day, the violence escalated further as the counter-protesters attacked journalists, with London-based advocacy foundation Justice for Journalists registering 107 reported attacks on 54 media workers. Reports from journalists on the ground suggest that police presence remained scarce and relatively inactive despite the bloody scenes unfolding before them. The shocking scenes sent ripples through the LGBT+ community in Georgia. With no police presence guaranteed for the event, Tbilisi Pride was forced to cancel its March for Dignity fearing for the safety of its activists. However, this event was much more than a one-off tribulation for the Georgian LGBT+ community; rather it was part of a long history of contention regarding the country’s identity and values.  

Sexual relations between two adults of the same sex are always wrong / OC-media 
Georgia’s ‘in-betweenness’

In recent years, value-based indicators have become key symbols of regional solidarity. The importance of these normative values can be clearly seen through the politicization of LGBT+ issues by both the EU and Russia. For the EU, LGBT+ rights have become a cornerstone of the liberal values of tolerance and freedom of expression. On the other side, Russia has pushed towards conservative ‘traditional family values’. 

Georgia rests in a liminal space between the liberal discourse of the EU/West and the socially conservative discourse of its northern neighbour, Russia. This delicate balancing act has proven difficult to perform for the Georgian government, with clashes between the divided population becoming more violent with each year. Moreover, when considering Georgia’s strained relationship with Russia following the fallout from the 2008 Russo-Georgian War, questions should be posed regarding the level of influence Russia truly has over Georgia’s conservative values.

Illiberalism in Georgia: Foreign diffusion or domestic pressure?

Russia’s anti-LGBT campaigns, such as the controversial gay propaganda law’, have become a well-known indicator of Russian conservative values. As it dubbed the EU Gayropa, Russia’s gender order was diffused out into its regional sphere of influence. Although Russia lacks a clear systematic approach to norm diffusion, formalised vehicles of influence can be seen through institutions such as the Russian World Foundation, the Gorchakov Fund and similar ‘soft power’ efforts across the post-Soviet space. Through this new gender order, Russia sought to mobilise “traditional family values” and its conservative conception of morality as an opposition to the liberal ideals put forward by the EU/West. 

While Georgian actors have been careful not to show a clear pro-Russian stance as not to ostracise the ultra-nationalists and their focus on ‘Georgianness’, links to Kremlin disinformation remain prevalent among far-right organisations. A 2019 report conducted by Transparency International suggests that Russian hybrid warfare has become a real threat to Georgian society. Within the report, the Russian government is accused of disseminating anti-Western disinformation throughout both Georgian offline and online spaces, with many of these narratives relating to value-based issues such as LGBT rights. A key example of this is the close ties between the Primakov Georgian-Russian Public Centre — supported by the Moscow-based Gorchakov Fund — and the far-right Georgian March movement, known for its anti-LGBT street rallies. Nevertheless, the incumbent Georgian Dream party appears to have done very little to tackle the issue of Russian disinformation among Georgian far-right organisations.

Despite this, Georgia’s rise in far-right discourse cannot be solely attributed to Russia’s influence. Given Georgia’s complicated history with Russia, domestic pressures must not be overlooked. The most notable actor within Georgia is the highly influential Georgian Orthodox Church (GOC) which continues to lobby against LGBT+ equality, akin to their Moscow Patriarchate counterparts. Yet, while the Russian Orthodox Church holds some level of influence over the GOC, it appears that the GOC’s illiberalism is more so a matter of coinciding values rather than coercion. By hijacking LGBT+ events such as the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia events in 2019 through its own Family Purity Day, the GOC have shown that their voice is a loud one within the debate over queer rights. The popularity of the GOC as a symbol of Georgian nationalism has further established a conservative alliance between Orthodox religion and far-right activism within the country. 

However, things have not always been smooth sailing for the ultra-nationalist camp. Following the Rose Revolution of 2003 and Mikheil Saakashvili’s subsequent presidency, a radical neoliberal transformation has threatened the ideological influence of the far-right in Georgia. As the country continues to openly seek the distant prospect of EU accession, the issue of LGBT+ rights have become a powerful divisive factor between the “progressive” and “backward” Georgians.

The EUropeanisation of LGBT+ rights

As demonstrated by the questionable results of the Eastern Partnership (EaP), the EU has a tendency to diffuse norms through a top-down process which often overlooks the nuances of the lived realities within its eastern neighbours. Pride events are a great example of the performative nature of the value-based indicators that serve as a litmus test for EU membership. Instead of focusing on the reality of queer experiences, to some extent EU-funded Pride events have become more about universalistic concepts such as freedom of expression. With this in mind, many Pride events often appeal more to the international community rather than the queer people within this country itself.

LGBT+ issues have served as a key example of Georgia’s struggle with ‘EUropeanisation’. The ruling Georgian Dream party have displayed a propensity to favour performative acts of solidarity with the West, whilst treading carefully as not to ostracise its conservative voters. In 2013, former Prime Minister and Georgian Dream founder, Bidzina Ivanishvili, announced that sexual minorities have the same rights as any other social groups’ in Georgia, calling for the protection of LGBT+ activists. Only three years later, the party decided to place a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, despite the issue not being a priority for queer people in the country. The cited reason for this decision? To prevent ‘certain groups’ from stirring up homophobic sentiment within Georgia.

Similar statements were echoed by current Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili, who deemed the planned Pride March for Dignity ‘unreasonable’, claiming that it was organised by the ‘radical opposition headed by Saakashvili’’ with the aim to create ‘unrest’ in society.  Equally, by failing to condemn far-right extremism, Georgian Dream’s commitment to the protection of its queer communities appears weak, and further encourages this ultra-nationalist behaviour. What appears clear is that the government failed to ensure the safety of its LGBT+ community, resulting in the horrific scenes that took place on 5 July. 

By straddling the line of symbolic progressive actions and conservative reinforcement in an attempt to appease the EU and while also keeping the far-right close, Georgia has failed to protect its own people. If the government is truly committed to ensuring the safety of its population, it must fully commit to improving the lives of those in its queer community. Likewise, the EU must carefully consider the localities of its value-orientated actions by speaking with the queer communities within Georgia about their specific needs. Otherwise, we risk seeing similar violence occur again.

Featured image: Flags / Amanda Sonesson
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