Georgia’s crackdown on gay rights conflicts with its EU ambitions – POLITICO

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Georgian officials are using homophobia to boost their chances in the 2024 elections. But that won’t help it gain EU candidate status this year.

From DATO PARULAVA in Tbilisi

Illustration by Dato Parulava/POLITICO

Since Georgia applied for EU membership in 2022, its government has pursued the country’s European dream in unconventional ways.

The European Commission clearly sets out a dozen points that Georgia must meet in order to achieve EU candidate status. Apparently that seemed too easy to the country’s ruling Georgian Dream Party, so they spiced things up.

First, the government arrested an outspoken anti-government journalist. Then it tried to pass a Russian-style law on “foreign agents.” Heads of state and government, including Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili, have criticized MEPs for wanting to involve Georgia in Russia’s war against Ukraine. In recent months, it has allowed direct flights to Russia to resume. And in blatant disregard for human rights, Georgia’s government is holding emaciated ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili in prison, despite warnings that his mistreatment is jeopardizing the country’s EU dreams.

Add to that the recent crackdown on LGBTQ+ rights, and it’s particularly hard to tick off the 12 points that specifically call on Georgia to strengthen protections for vulnerable groups by bringing violent offenders to justice.

Garibashvili speaking at a conservative conference in Budapest in May claimed that LGBTQ+ “propaganda” was destroying traditional family values. In this speech he promised “not to allow the violence of the minority against the majority”.

Speaking to Parliament on June 30, Garibashvili said of sexual minorities: “It’s public knowledge what’s happening in Europe and America… It’s a disaster!” initiate “gay propaganda”.

Ultra-conservative and far-right groups used precisely this rhetoric to mobilize hundreds of supporters to protest and storm the annual Tbilisi Pride Festival in Georgia last Saturday. The protest groups were organized by the far-right Alt-Info group, which beat journalists with no repercussions during Pride month two years ago.

Now, EU officials are unsure how to respond to Georgia’s bid for candidate status in late 2023. If they opt for a merit-based approach that could delay granting that status, they risk frustrating the country’s largely pro-European populace, who fear their government is lining up with Russia.

“Only three out of 12 points have been fully met and the chances of all being ticked off are slim considering how little time is left” before the EU presents its assessment, said Vano Chkhikvadze, EU integration program manager at Open Society Georgia Foundation. “If the EU decides to give Georgia candidate status, it will largely be a political decision.”

But if Critics say the EU is choosing to move Georgia forward, a message to the government in Tbilisi that they can get away with anything.

In the Georgian Dream Toolbox: Homophobia

In Georgia, where the majority are Orthodox Christians, acceptance of sexual minorities is low and the government uses LGBTQ+ people as a distraction from the most pressing issues of rising prices and poverty.

“The government gives them an artificial enemy, a scapegoat,” said Tamar Jakeli, co-organizer of the Tbilisi Pride Festival. “Instead of solving economic problems, the government gives them gays to hate.”

So while Georgia would like to join the EU, the government of the Georgian dream appears to be more likely to win next year’s parliamentary elections and has therefore decided to step up its fight against homophobia.

“They are actively trying to sabotage Georgia’s EU candidacy,” said Mariam Kvaratskhelia, co-founder of Tbilisi Pride.

While the EU flag waves in the wind in front of the Georgian Parliament, a black metal cross is hoisted directly below. It was installed by the Alt-Info group in 2021 when they hit dozens of journalists and tore down the EU flag during a homophobic rally. Although the Georgian government reintroduced the EU flag, it left the cross untouched.

“To me, when I look at it, it symbolizes violence against minority groups, attack on Georgia’s democracy, on peaceful citizens who want to exercise their basic human rights,” Kvaratskhelia said.

As he prepared to hold the annual queer pride festival in Tbilisi last Saturday, Jakeli, the co-organiser, initially hoped the police would not allow far-right groups to crash their event, as he believed that the government would not jeopardize Georgia’s candidacy for EU membership. But just hours before the festival began, attendees were evacuated by police in minivans when a violent mob stormed the venue.

“Is this the day I get beaten to death?” Jakeli said she’s been thinking.

Homophobic mob stormed Tbilisi Pride festival venue in Tbilisi Dato Parulava/POLITICO

Police did little to stop the riot, although the head of the Georgian parliament said the police did a good job of protecting queer activists.

“These violent groups are openly pro-Russian and also have good ties to the government. …People have said that before [the government] is actively trying to sabotage Georgia’s EU candidacy. And now I believe it too,” said Kvaratskhelia.

But not everyone in the country’s leadership agrees with the ruling party’s homophobic policies.

Georgia’s President Salome Zourabichvili – who was initially welcomed by Georgian Dream as an independent candidate but has increasingly criticized the government’s anti-European policies – has called on the ruling party to take responsibility for the consequences of promoting violence.

If the government decides to give the green light to the government’s proposed “gay propaganda” law, it will not only deal a potential blow to Georgia’s queer community, but to the country’s European aspirations as a whole. President Zurabishvili has already promised to veto the bill if it comes to light.

“I believe that the Georgian people will oppose this bill just as they opposed the Russian-style agent law,” said Luka Ablotia, a Tbilisi Pride Festival volunteer.