Pride and Politics

Today, Tbilisi Pride called off the “March of Honor” in light of threats, intimidation, and actual violence against journalists and activists.  This was not at all unexpected: in my predictions post, I had given it only a 30% chance that all three announced Pride events would go on as planned, and only a 10% chance that the police would succeed in protecting Pride.

I do have to admit that I did not anticipate the attacks on journalists in particular.  It’s not exactly surprising, though; people had shown up to these events spoiling for a fight and, without Pride activists around, they struck out at targets of convenience – journalists viewed as biased in favor of the activists – and attacked the offices of Pride and related NGOs such as the Shame Movement.

I’ve been following reactions closely on twitter and a few related narratives keep popping up, attempting to place this even within the context of the broader West vs. Russia narrative.  I will admit to having been fooled by this narrative in the past – assuming that if UNM was pro-Western then Georgian Dream must be pro-Russian – but this isn’t actually the way politics works.  Georgian politics aren’t polarized in the way US politics are, where if you are on the Red team you hate everything associated with the Blue team, and vice versa.

Claims that these events were carried out by pro-Putin groups, and pose a threat to Euro-Atlantic integration or EU candidacy, are based on this flawed narrative and assumption of US-style polarization.  They’re a vast oversimplification, and are insulting to Georgians, who do in fact have the agency to select political positions on their own without urging from Brussels or Moscow.

I’ve written about the extreme homophobia in Georgia numerous times before, and you simply cannot discount it.  Putin does often capitalize on homophobia both domestically and abroad but it doesn’t come from him.  It might be accurate to say that anti-LGBTQ+ groups in Russia’s region are playing into Putin’s hands when they create unrest in countries that Putin wants to destabilize but it would not be accurate to say that these groups are acting out against LGBTQ+ activism out of allegiance to Putin.  Many of the Georgians involved in anti-LGBTQ+ violence are nationalists and “patriots” who absolutely detest the Russian occupation of Georgian territories and think Putin is a monster.  I’m not saying that none of them have pro-Putin sympathies or ties – many of them do – but calling these groups pro-Putin is totally obscuring the actual issue, which is that homophobia is a much bigger problem in Georgia for LGBTQ+ rights than Russian influence.

Now, does it matter if the homophobes are homophobic out of a genuine hatred for LGBTQ+ people, or because Putin is feeding them homophobic propaganda?  I believe that it does.  It matters as a matter of truth and also as a matter of pragmatism: the solution to pro-Putin mob violence is very different from the solution to genuinely homophobic mob violence.

Furthermore, the idea that the LGBTQ+ rights struggle in Georgia is a proxy for the struggle between Russia and the West for influence plays into the narrative that LGBTQ+ rights are a foreign import rather than a genuine Georgian phenomenon.  This matters greatly when dealing with nationalists who think that LGBTQ+ Georgians are actually foreign agents.  Everyone who is saying that the international community and the EU in particular should punish Georgia for not upholding LGBTQ+ rights is ignoring the fact that this would inflame the nationalist sentiments that are fueling a lot of the anti-LGBTQ+ rage that we’re seeing.  Remember, the prevailing narrative ten years ago was that there were no gays in Georgia – that literally all of the LGBTQ+ rights activism in the country was foreign influence and foreign provocation.  LGBTQ+ Georgians have done a lot to challenge that narrative – have sacrificed a lot – and while international solidarity helps, there’s a limit to how much it can help.  Georgia needs to face this issue internally.

In general, the international community can put pressure on a country, and criticize a country, but there’s a limit to how much pressure they can bring to bear before people inside the targeted country start feeling like the international community is encroaching on their sovereignty.  EU representatives know this – they’ve all studied the same international relations field as I have –  and so while I expect to see strong condemnations of violence and statements calling on the Georgian government to prosecute the offenders and do better next time, I would be absolutely shocked to see actual sanctions or penalties applied by Georgia’s international partners.

Yes, it’s true that this represents a failure of the Georgian state to meet its obligations to human rights.  However, when a country fails to do something, cutting off ties with them doesn’t fix the failure.  It just removes incentives to do better.  If the EU does indeed see LGBTQ+ rights as a major priority, they will want to continue dialogue and cooperation with a country like Georgia in order to continue to exert soft power on the country to change its behaviors with respect to LGBTQ+ rights.

Of course, the cynic in me says that the EU doesn’t ascribe much importance to LGBTQ+ rights at all, and is more concerned with economic and strategic geopolitical concerns, and would never in a million years compromise the economic and strategic potential of increased partnership with Georgia over a mere social issue like the right to freedom of assembly for minority groups.  Georgia is no China, but the international community’s anemic response to the Uighur genocide is a good demonstration of the general principle that economic and strategic geopolitical concerns absolutely and always trump internal human rights issues.

In any case, for any international body to sanction Georgia or cut ties with Georgia over this issue would be against their own interests and also would most likely be counterproductive in terms of advancing LGBTQ+ rights in Georgia.  Again, I’d be shocked if it happens.

Another narrative I’ve seen is that this is somehow a “challenge” to Georgia’s “fragile democracy.”  It isn’t, and again, this is insulting to Georgians.  When antifa and neo-Nazis clash in the US no one clutches their pearls about how it’s a challenge to fragile American democracy – even after the neo-Nazis killed a woman in Charlottesville.  Obviously a democracy in which one group can’t exercise its civil rights is not a full democracy, but take the long view here – LGBTQ+ activists have been steadily pushing the boundaries in terms of what civil rights they can exercise for a decade now, and rather than persecuting them the only criticism we can fairly level against the government is that they are not going far enough to protect these activists.

Georgia is democratic and you can see that when you turn on the news and see opposition MPs criticizing the PM for his criticism of Pride – in other words, there is democratic dialogue within government about the problem, which is how democracies work.  It’s messy and imperfect but it’s the way modern societies build consensus around contentious issues.  In fact my main criticism of Saakashvili was that he did not build consensus around important issues, which meant that even when he had a great policy reform, by dragging the majority of the population kicking and screaming toward that reform, he undermined its sustainability.  It seemed to me that when GD came into office they repealed a lot of Saakashvili’s programs just because Saakashvili had done them, and not because they needed repealing.  Again this is related to the issue of outside pressure – when there’s an issue that most of the population doesn’t support you can’t just coerce them into supporting it.  It would be better if we could criticize the PM’s regressive statements on Pride without having to witness actual violence first, but the violence doesn’t mean democracy is broken here any more than it has on any of the many, many occasions when civil rights protests in the US have been met with violence.

Now I don’t want to push this counternarrative too much because the apocalyptic lamentations about the end of Georgia’s ‘fragile’ democracy have their utility.  It’s good to motivate pro-democracy Georgians to support LGBTQ+ rights in the name of democracy even if they personally don’t care for LGBTQ+ rights.  In fact I saw some of this after 2013.  I think we’ll see a lot more of it now.  I think that Georgians telling each other that today’s events mean the country is horrible and not worthy of joining the EU is probably good.  But I think that foreigners trying to impose that narrative on Georgia is probably bad.  And also, I don’t think it’s true, so there’s that.

Last point on these narratives: there are a lot of calls for some kind of punitive action against the Georgian state as a whole, and I’m not on board with that.  As I said above, it’s not likely to induce the state to get better – rather, it’s likely to remove the state’s incentives to improve.  I also want to say that I think it’s part of a larger mindset I see a lot in progressive circles where the way to win at politics is by flexing your power – by cutting off or deplatforming or shaming the person or entity that has violated your principles.  Certainly that can work sometimes but in the case of a country like Georgia we have to acknowledge the realpolitik: progressives aren’t the ones with the power.  You can’t deplatform the Partriarch when he has an 87% approval rating, no matter how much he might deserve it.

Instead, look at this chart of Georgian public opinion about the Church:

In five years, their performance rating has gone from 75% “good” to 50%, and from 2% “bad” to 12% “bad”.  When the Patriarch calls for a “prayer session” that results in more than 50 journalists from a broad spectrum of media companies assaulted and the attendant national and international bad press, what do you think happens to those numbers?

This is a case where we need good, old-fashioned liberal free speech.  Let the Church elders spread their hatred and bigotry, and let the Georgian people see who they are and decide for themselves.  They’re even provoking dissent from within the ranks of the clergy, with some going so far as to call the homophobic violence “primitive”.  When I see Georgians on social media, and even on Georgian news programs, they’re all denouncing the violence, and most are denouncing the homophobia as well.

This is why, as bad as today was, when viewed against the bigger picture I think we’re still making progress overall.  We’re in the midst of a generational shift and events like today’s accelerate that shift.  And just comparing this year’s Pride events to 2013, it’s notable that even though the march was canceled (well, likely postponed – if I know Pride they’ll hold a guerilla march in the coming weeks) the screening and Pride Fest still went on.  Two out of three ain’t bad, and it’s certainly more than most of us could have imagined eight years ago.

I say all this not to minimize the hurt and disappointment that people are feeling now – in fact I encourage people to express outrage at the violence and oppression – but to remind people not to give up hope.

The one potential problem that some people have pointed out that does have some credibility is that far-right groups could also see this as a victory, and become emboldened to do more violence in the future.  That probably depends on the state’s response, in terms of arrests and prosecutions.  That would be a great place for activists to focus pressure now and indeed NGOs like TIGeorgia have already issued statements to the effect that if the government doesn’t act now, the environment becomes more dangerous for everybody.  This is true but even if these groups are in fact temporarily emboldened, Georgians only have so much tolerance for violent vigilante groups attacking NGOs and journalists and further violence will continue to cost the Georgian right wing legitimacy and eventually force the government to act, one way or another.  I just can’t see any scenario in which this situation precipitates a slide into actual mob rule and failed statehood in Georgia.  And yes, I have accused the Georgian government of being a failed state – after the last time they failed to protect Pride – but that was rhetoric; it’s satisfying to say, but the truth is Georgia is no more a failed state now than the US was on January 6th, and in many ways is less of one.

I’ll end with this: there are many on twitter who are, quite rightly, placing blame on the Church and on Georgian Dream politicians whose statements inflamed tension and seemed to greenlight the violence.  There’s a story going around that the politicians made these statements in order to appease the Church and garner votes.  Politicians pandering to the religious right is nothing new or surprising, but again here I think that we were actually seeing the genuine inclinations of these politicians.  In other words, I don’t think they were calculating and decided that this was the politically wise course; rather, I think they just stumbled into this trajectory out of a mix of stupidity and latent homophobia.  I suspect the opposition is going to be able to capitalize on this and I wonder if it could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back – GD already has a tenuous hold on political power and has been embroiled in a political crisis since October.  If they are indeed gambling on netting votes via this situation by appealing to Church leaders with homophobia, that gamble may backfire.  Combined with the Ninotsminda orphanage scandal (credible allegations of child physical and sexual abuse by clergy requiring the government to intervene) I wouldn’t be surprised if the whole edifice comes crumbling down, with the Church and Georgian Dream feeding off each other in a far-right-wing death spiral while the rest of the country looks on in utter disgust.


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