Far right-wing nationalists attack Pride festival in Georgian capital

Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili on July 8. (Screenshot/Euronews Georgia)

Upwards of 2,000 plus anti-LGBTQ protesters violently disrupted the LGBTQ Pride festival in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi on July 8, scuffling with police and destroying rainbow flags, signs, festival banners and placards in what Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili labeled as “a shame for a country, which has for centuries considered tolerance as its identity.”

Russian freelance journalist Sergei Dimitrov spoke with the Washington Blade by phone from Tbilisi and said that a vast majority of the anti-LGBTQ nationalists he spoke with claimed membership with the group Alt-Info.

The right-wing, anti-Western group rose to prominence for leading anti-queer pogroms in Georgia in 2022 last year, had registered was registered by the National Public Registry Agency on Dec. 7, 2021, as political party with a pro-Russian sentiment, in part Dimitrov noted due to Putin’s war on Ukraine.

According to a spokesperson for Tbilisi Pride, the group and Pride participants were forced had to leave the area where the event was being held. On social media the group posted a warning: “Please do not come to the festival territory! We had to evacuated. The Ministry of Interior could not ensure the safety of the festival.” The group noted that police and failed to protect the event, forcing the evacuation, which was carried out by bus and taxi cabs.

Speaking to reporters, Deputy Interior Minister Alexander Darakhvelidze noted that despite best efforts of the police, “The protesters managed to find … ways to enter the area of the event, but we were able to evacuate the Pride participants and organizers,” he said.

“Nobody was harmed during the incident and police are now taking measures to stabilise the situation.”

Later, Tbilisi Pride accused the Ministry of Internal Affairs, based on public statements by the nationalistic extremists, which indicated that the attack was pre-coordinated and agreed between the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Alt-info.

Dimitrov told the Blade that another Alt-info leader, Shota Martynenko, told reporters present before the event: “Our plan is simple, under no circumstances will they be allowed to hold the festival. Now the roads will be closed and the area will be besieged. Whatever resistance we meet on the ground, we will respond accordingly.”

Georgian news service JAM News, which covers the Caucasus: Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and other parts of the Caucasus region, had reported that in June 2022, the Georgian Interior Ministry detained 26 members of Alt-Info, including its leaders Zurab Makharadze and Irakli Martynenko, as well as Guram and Alexander Palavandishvili. That detention took place as a cautionary measure to prevent violence by the group at the LGBTQ Pride festival week organized by Tbilisi Pride ending on July 2 of last year.

Mariam Kvaratskhelia, the director of Tbilisi Pride, told reporters that Alt-Info and other groups had made public statements and social media posts to incite violence against LGBTQ activists and her organization in the week leading up to Saturday’s Pride events and that the police and Ministry of Internal Affairs declined to investigate.

“I definitely think this (disruption) was a preplanned, coordinated action between the government and the radical groups. We think this operation was planned in order to sabotage the EU candidacy of Georgia,” she said.

“People were not given the opportunity to hold their own event in a closed space that was planned in advance, agreed with the law enforcement officers, which the law enforcement structures had promised to protect,” Zurabishvili said in a press briefing after the event was cancelled. “I want to call on the Ministry of Internal Affairs to actually prevent all violent acts — this is their duty and it is called law enforcement,” she added.

Later on Twitter, Zourabichvili expressed her outrage regarding the cancellation of Pride and the president also took aim at the Ministry of Internal Affairs for what she termed a failure to protect the event and its participants.

The ministry blamed what it alleged was excessive turnout at the anti-LGBTQ rally against the “Pride Festival” which in turn made it difficult for police to effectively manage the crowd, resulting in the evacuation of the festival’s organizers and participants.

Dimitrov told the Blade his impression witnessing the events unfold was that the police were intentionally holding back deployment of additional officers to counter the far-right extremists, instead he noted, the police seemed focused on evacuation of the Pride participants.

Tbilisi Pride released a statement regarding Saturday’s events:

“Today we clearly saw that the attack on LGBTQ+ activists and on the territory of Tbilisi Pride Festival was a joint, well-planned operation against human rights and democracy by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Alt Info.

“Our tax-funded police who ‘guarded’ the festival grounds assured us that far-right groups couldn’t come close, while media and social networks saw footage of police and violent groups coming unabatedly towards the area.

“Members of Alt-info put us in trouble, and the police, instead of disrupting them, made us leave our premises with pre-prepared transport.

“It is clear from the statements of the Ministry of Internal Affairs that they considered this shameful ‘evacuation’ as a victory, and in fact, it was a pre-planned step and a proof of their inaction.

“Ministry of Internal Affairs and Deputy Minister Alexander Darakhvelidze were giving us guarantees of protection during the preparation period, for weeks and even on the festival day, and in return, the police allowed Alt-info members to enter the private, closed area of the festival, attack civilians and cause irreparable emotional trauma.

“Police didn’t block the road leading to the festival grounds to interfere with a violent group; police didn’t use proportional force against the attackers.

“The government did not arrest the organizers of the July 5 violence;

“The authorities did not arrest the organizers of the July 5 violence even when the July 8 violence was announced;

“The government encouraged and supported the violence.

“It was an attack on democracy, human rights and innocent people organized by the Georgian authorities, together with the Putinist violent group, who wanted to use the constitutionally guaranteed fundamental rights.

“We hope that all those who are not allowed to violence, who want democratic and European development of Georgia, will condemn the development developed today.

“Will make things happen and confirm solidarity.”

The leadership of the far-right group saw the evacuation and cancellation as a victory. Zurab Makharadze told reporters that he had assessed the incident as a “victory” saying: “Now the most important thing for our people is not to be arrested.”

The socially conservative South Caucasus nation has passed laws against discrimination and hate crimes, but LGBTQ rights groups say there is a lack of adequate protection by law enforcement officials and homophobia remains widespread.

In 2021, during a regular press briefing, then-U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters that the situation in Georgia was being closely monitored after violent protests against a LGBTQ Pride parade erupted resulting in the death of a TV cameraman.

Protests and violence have marked attempts by the LGBTQ community to rally for Pride month. The first Tbilisi Pride march was to have taken place in June 2019, but organizers postponed it amid protests against a Russian MP who spoke at the Georgian Parliament. A small Pride demonstration took place a few weeks later.

In early July 2021, a violent mob forced the cancellation of a Pride march that was to have taken place. “They declared war against civil society, democratic values and the European course of the country,” said Tbilisi Pride in a statement it released after it officially cancelled the march.

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