11 May 2018: Georgian police detain people during clashes in front of the Bassiani nightclub, Tbilisi. Photo: Mari Nikuradze / OC Media. All rights reserved.
Over the past year, the small country of Georgia has made international headlines thanks to public clashes between liberals and radical far-right groups, exposing a cultural division between these two rival groups in Georgian society. One considers itself liberal and progressive, symbolised by young people with tattoos, piercings and colourful hair, and the other is considered conservative, religious, nationalist and often homophobic.
Disputes between conservative Georgians – the majority in this post-Soviet country – and those who support freedom of choice and diversity have continued since Georgia broke from the Soviet Union, where religious and sexual diversity were tabooed. This heritage still influences values and behaviour in the country. In the 2014 World Value Survey, Georgia was ranked one of the most homophobic countries in the world – with some 86.6% of those surveyed unhappy with the idea of having a gay or lesbian neighbour.
Further developments over the past two months have shaken the government and led to changes in the cabinet. In May, Georgian police organised heavy-handed raids against two of Tbilisi’s most prominent nightclubs. In response, young people took to the streets of the capital to protest the abuse of power by police, calling for freedom of expression and entertainment, as well as an ease on the country’s strict drug policy. The situation intensified two days later when Tbilisi’s clubbers continued their protest, only for ultra-nationalist groups Georgian March and Georgian Idea to gather nearby and hold a counter-rally against young people with “coloured hair and piercings”. Finally, Georgia’s Interior Minister visited the demonstration and asked the young people to disperse due to the “high threat from another group” who tried to break through the police cordon and enter the crowd of “liberal protesters”, as local media dubbed them.
Though the rally finished peacefully, several days later, on 17 May, ultra-nationalist and traditionalist groups, as well as the Georgian Orthodox Church “celebrated victory” by marching on Tbilisi’s central Rustaveli avenue for “Family Purity Day”. A holiday set up by Patriarch of Georgia Ilia II in May 2014, “Family Purity Day” is meant as a counter-event to International Day against Homophobia. Yet more demonstrations followed, with the Orthodox Church calling for a boycott of television channel Rustavi 2 for blasphemy in relation to two recent broadcasts by the opposition-led station. The first programme alleged that the Georgian Patriarchate failed to make public a letter of support for Georgia sent by the World Patriarch during the 2008 war with Russia; the second involved the broadcast of a controversial painting “Virgin Mary with a Toy Pistol” by a TV anchor known for his criticism of the church. Indeed, this painting was used to argue against a draft-law initiated by an Alliance of Patriots of Georgia MP that would allow courts to ban distribution of artworks that insulted “religious feelings”.
All these events have show how the “cultural divide” in Georgia has intensified in recent years – and how Georgian far-right groups are playing a significant role in creating this divide.
14 July: When the “Georgian March” announced itself
The public conflict between radical conservatives and liberals in Georgia traces its recent history to 14 July 2017, when hundreds of Georgians marched down a central Tbilisi street, where Turkish and Middle Eastern restaurants are located, and called for an end to the “uncontrolled migration of Muslims” into Georgia.
Holding crosses, icons and flags, participants of the rally demanded the deportation of illegal immigrants and asked the government to tighten up the country’s immigration legislation. Various ultranationalist groups chanted and carried placards with slogans such as “We will clear our streets of foreign criminals!”, “What is Georgian is for Georgia Alone”, “Go back to where you belong!” One of the leaders of the rally shouted through a megaphone that illegal immigrants had “turned Tbilisi into one big brothel!” Some bystanders urged tourists coming from the far-right marchers’ “target countries” to leave the area and find shelter in shops and cafes.
March of Georgians, 14 July 2017. Photo: Luka Pertaia / OC Media. All rights reserved.
This was a important moment for Georgian far-right groups – for both their apparent unification and entrance into the public sphere. It was the first organised, large-scale demonstration held by far right groups in Tbilisi – and it was the debut for small ultra-nationalist groups who united and made the transition from online activities to offline street demonstrations.
Not everyone in Tbilisi accepted the rally. More liberal residents found it to difficult to hide their anger and embarrassment as they watched the march. Some of them attacked the march’s Facebook page, calling the participants “bigots” and “Nazis”. No to Phobia, a coalition of civil society groups and thinks-tanks, released a statement describing the rally as a deliberate attempt to fan the flames of xenophobia.
Today, dozens of small far-right, ultranationalist groups exist in Georgia, but three of them – Georgian March, Georgian Idea and Georgian Power – are the most well known
Political groups like European Georgia, a party run by ex-ruling United National Movement politicians, have since campaigned against far-right nationalism, seeing their manifestations as part of a Russian conspiracy. A week later, European Georgia held counter-rally titled “No to Russian Fascism”. The demonstrators protested against “Russian occupation, violence, hate speech, racism, and xenophobia”. They said that tactics designed by Russian “soft power” promoting xenophobia and persecution of certain groups were unacceptable.
Who are influential far-right groups in Georgia?
Today, dozens of small far-right, ultranationalist groups exist in Georgia, but three of them – Georgian March, Georgian Idea and Georgian Power – are the most well known.
Georgian March was established in 2017, and has made itself widely known due to its loud demonstrations and a series of incidents. This organisation is led by Sandro Bregadze, a former Deputy State Minister for Diaspora Issues, Lado Sadghobelashvili, a leader of the Homeland, Language, Religion movement and Gio Korkotashvili, founder of Civil Solidarity. Ideologically, Georgian March is similar to European far-right groups. Its positions includes radical anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric, protecting “family purity” and opposing the liberalisation of drug policies in Georgia.
Georgian Power is one of the ultranationalist groups active on Facebook – the group is made up of young people in their teens or twenties. The group was founded in 2015 and announced itself on the far-right scene by attacking a vegan cafe in Tbilisi in 2016. The story went viral and spread widely through international media outlets.
On its Facebook page, Georgian Power promotes anti-LGBT and anti-feminist narratives, expressing aggression toward civil rights activists, whose quotes, removed from context and shared with images, spark misogynistic and homophobic discussions. The group used to have its base at a military-themed bar in downtown Tbilisi until it closed in 2016.
In this screenshot from Georgian Power’s Facebook channel, the admins riff on an alt-right meme, claiming that if a user sends it to 10 friends, they’ll find love for the end of the year.
The far-right political union known as Georgian Idea is distinguished by its activities among the right-wing radical movements in Georgia. The organisation was founded by a former convict, Levan Chachua, in 2012. Chachua had previously been a member of the Orthodox Parents' Union (OPU), an umbrella group for parents and priests, notorious for its aggressive, often violent demonstrations against minorities. Chachua claimed that the OPU had “the blessing of the spiritual leader” in reference to the Georgian Orthodox Patriarch Ilia II.
Members of Georgian Idea claim that the majority of Georgians don’t believe the “propaganda spun by liberals”. The organisation has already held several large-scale protests since its creation five years ago, including protest rallies against an electronic music festival held in Georgia’s coastal city Anaklia. The ultra-conservative protesters claim that the festival morally corrupts society.
If years ago, activities of Georgian radical far-right groups were fragmented, today this pattern has changed. The ultras have become more organised, openly demonstrating their dominance over vulnerable groups, as well as posing a threat of violence to people “outside of the mainstream”.
How Georgia’s far right are evolving
Today, Georgia’s far right have decided to level up and try their hand at national politics. In April, Sandro Bregadze, one of the leaders of Georgian March, announced that he would participate in Georgia’s upcoming presidential election in October with a Marie Le Pen-style campaign.
“First and foremost we will stop illegal migration to the country and improve the demographic situation,” Bregadze said on his Facebook account. “In addition, the propaganda of homosexuality and immorality should be prohibited and the role of the Church in the development of the country should be increased. We should declare military political neutrality as the basis for restoring Georgia's territorial integrity.”
Georgian far right hold a counter-demonstration on 14 May 2018. Photo: Mari Nikuradze / OC Media. All rights reserved.
However, Tbilisi-based commentators aren’t convinced that far-right groups will win much in the way of votes at the election. “Georgian far-right groups can create an illusion that they have many followers, but in fact, most of them are trolls or wasted supporters,” says Dali Kurdadze, a researcher at Myth Detector Project for Media Development Foundation (MDF). Kurdadze believes that a far-right candidate has a small chance of winning in Georgia’s presidential elections later this year due to the far right’s instability and internal distrust.
“I cannot say that at this stage they can have a great impact or influence on important political processes,” Kurdadze tells me. “Their actions are often destructive, they are spreading information which later turns out to be a lie and disinformation. People don’t trust them anymore. Hopefully, the calls for violence are still unacceptable to Georgian society. However, young people can be a vulnerable group, because they often do not know what they are doing and are easy to influence.”
Journalist Onnik James Krikorian, a consultant for the OSCE and resident of Tbilisi for several years, believes that the far-right are definitely becoming more visible, vocal and active – just as throughout Europe as well as the United States. “As for the potential threat it poses,” Krikorian comments, “it’s worth noting that far-right political parties are making some progress electorally in places and Georgia is not immune from populism either. This in itself is not illegal, of course, but the effect it can have on society and social cohesion is very definitely one of concern.”
Perhaps one of the impacts caused by Bregadze’s decision will be the formation of new splinter groups. After Bregadze made his decision to run public, Gia Korkotashvili, Georgian March’s most high profile member, left the group. Korkotashvili said that he didn’t plan to become involved in politics, but would keep friendly relations with other activists. Instead, he would like to establish a “Popular Patrol” to watch out places where “foreign nationals spread drug addiction, prostitution, paedophilia and other crime”. The patrols will be equipped with video cameras to record “offences” before calling the police. So far, Korkotashvili’s idea is yet to be implemented.
Hate speech, xenophobia, homophobia against LGBT persons, which are the main focus of far-right groups’ messaging, continue to be widespread problems in Georgia. According to the latest report by the Council of Europe’s anti-discrimination body, the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI), despite certain progress, far-right activity and ultra-nationalism are still problematic issues for the country and its government to cope with.
In 2012, the Georgian government amended the Criminal Code to introduce racial, religious, national, ethnic, homophobic or transphobic intolerance as aggravating circumstances in criminal offences. Since then, Georgia regularly reports hate crime data to different international organisations.
According to OSCE data provided by Georgia’s Ministry of Internal Affairs, the number of crimes committed on a hate speech basis has gradually increased since 2012. While 13 cases of hate crime were recorded in 2012, and there is no available data for 2013, in 2014 there were 19 crimes, 2015 – 20, 2016 - 44 crimes. Moreover, the Georgian Ministry of Internal Affairs recently released a report claiming 53 people were arrested for hate crimes in 2018, including racism and xenophobia, bias against Muslims and different sexual orientations.
Where do Georgian ultras find their supporters?
Facebook is the main environment where far-right groups recruit their followers and distribute their messages mostly composed of fake news from different online media outlets, including Russian, far-right European and American media sources. Their targets of abuse are mostly foreigners, Muslims and LGBT community, as well as NGOs and western organisations.
Georgia doesn’t have any research or statistics about ultra-nationalist groups and their activities, but some commentators claim that there are now about 20 active far-right groups on Facebook. Most of their users and followers are young people. To show that they have many followers, sometimes far-right groups create fake accounts, which actively share, comment and engage in the promotion of ultras ideas.
According to Dali Kurdadze, although Georgia’s far right use social media to communicate and spread their propaganda, they are also covered by some Georgian online outlets – mostly tabloids focused on gossip and catchy headlines. “Unfortunately, this coverage has boosted their popularity and they are visible in social media newsfeeds more often because these media outlets talk about them.”
Regarding national media channels, ultra-nationalists catch their attention only when there is a major event to cover.
Ties with Russia
Georgian far-right groups deny connections with Russia, but some experts highlight their use of talking points similar to those of Russian groups, calling them channels of Russian “conservative soft power”. Indeed, parallels exist between the values and ideas of Georgian far-right nationalist groups and the type of social conservativism promoted in Russia, including Euroscepticism, homophobia and support for the role of the church in daily and political life.
“For civil society it is very hard to reveal direct connections between Russia and far-right groups in Georgia, because this doesn’t happen openly,” says Dali Kurdadze. “But if you follow and study Georgian ultra-nationalist messages and their targets, it coincides with Russian technique of disinformation and propaganda.”
“If you follow and study Georgian ultra-nationalist messages and their targets, it coincides with Russian technique of disinformation and propaganda”
Giorgi Goguadze, Deputy Director at Georgian Center for Security and Development (GCSD), highlights that if you compare far-right agenda and narratives, they are almost identical with Russian. For example, both Georgian and Russian far-right groups demonise migrants, different religious and sexual orientation groups, and call for the protection of tradition, religious values and national identity, as well as often using hate speech.
“Russian interest is behind the ultra-nationalist groups both in Georgia and in Europe,” says Goguadze. “Supporting and empowering far-right groups is the Kremlin’s way of destabilising, spreading chaos and revising human rights and western values. In Georgia, Russian propaganda matches far-right groups’ rhetoric that getting closer to the Euro-Atlantic family will cause cultural erosion of the nation. A lot of myths are created malignance of West and in contrast showing how generous ‘coreligionist’ Russia is.”
According to Goguadze, the rising xenophobic, homophobic and anti-immigration rhetoric in Georgia “pours water on Russia’s mill”, which tries to move Georgia out from of the west’s orbit, where the country has been heading since gaining independence from the Soviet Union.
Georgia faces many obstacles to overcome before becoming further integrated into European structures. In conditions where European Union countries are increasingly struggling with the prospect of standing up for an inclusive and tolerant society, the rise of ultra-nationalist rhetoric and campaigning in Georgia negatively impacts the country’s pro-European pathway and drags it closer to Russia.