Civil riots erupted in Georgia this week over the brutal beatings of LGBT activists, specifically a journalist named Alexander Lashkarava. In the wake of these uprisings, per Reuters, many protestors are calling for the Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili to resign among accusations of allowing street violence against peaceful groups.
Lashkarava was just one in a handful of activists attacked by radical groups while planning their march to celebrate Pride, which has since been cancelled (Reuters). Activists had planned five days of LGBT celebrations held in the capital on Monday, but Garibashvili described the demonstration as likely to cause “public confrontation.” The state government is outwardly against the expression of LGBT campaigners, citing fear of counter-protests and violence. Many supporters of the LGBT journalism and activist branches in Georgia tried to speak with lawmakers on Monday but were turned away. Footage showed a few single protestors getting through the front doors of the parliament building in Tbilisi, the capital, but are immediately apprehended (Reuters). Lashkarava was then found dead this week in his mother’s home.
The information was released by TV Pirveli, which was the station he worked for (Reuters). This man’s death was the cause for riots at the Parliament and requests for the resignation of Garibashvili. Many human rights activists and groups throughout Georgia blame the government and believe they strategically place hate groups in the way of pro-LGBT supports and journalists (Reuters). Lashkarava’s cause of death has not yet been released but is being investigated by the Ministry of Internal Affairs in Georgia. The Ministry later released a statement directed at LGBT supporters saying Lashkarava’s “professional activities were illegally obstructed by threats of violence” (Reuters). Public opinion of the Ministry has become hostile, and in turn, this allowed the protests at the gates to come to fruition.
Meanwhile, the President of Georgia, Salome Zourabichvili, has not been ridiculed over the events as Garibashvili has. Zourabichvili visited Lashkavara’s family on Sunday according to a statement she released on her Twitter; “what happened is a tragedy and I send my condolences to the entire media company…it must be investigated and those responsible must be punished.” Over 50 journalists were targeted during the violence, which has prompted Western countries to call on Georgia to “ensure freedom of expression and assembly” (Reuters). In addition, several embassies located in Georgia spoke out against the violence. They issued a joint statement which not only condemned the attacks but called upon authorities to create a safe space for freedom of expression (Reuters).
Zourabichvili continued with her Twitter comments, calling the violence a “violation of the core fabric of Georgia” and “[this] is not the Georgia I know…based on its core values of tolerance”. A spokesperson for the Human Rights Watch released a statement reading, “violent far-right crowds supported by [the] Church & embodied by [an] incredibly irresponsible statement of Prime Minister Garibashvili gathered in Tbilisi center to prevent, Pride March, attacking journalists & breaking into Pride office,” (Reuters).
Those who support the LGBT community in Georgia and freedom of expression thoroughly believe the state government is plotting against peaceful groups. The current Georgian regime is a two-headed animal; the more conservative and traditional Prime Minister and the liberal President. Either way, the government body in Georgia remains strict.
Georgia has a history of restricting civil liberties and political rights. Freedom House currently ranks Georgia as “partly free,” scoring a 60 out of 100 on the organization’s weighted scale. Georgia does hold regular and competitive elections, which came alongside a jump toward improving democracy in 2012 and 2013 (Freedom House). Recently, however, the country has been backsliding as the region’s politics begin to undermine laws and the influence of oligarchs seeps into policy decisions and the media.
According to Freedom House, voter turnout in the October and November elections was an all-time low, coming in just around 26%. These elections were won by the Georgian Dream party, beginning their third term in office. However, the election was riddled with tabulation errors, violent outbreaks, and vote-buying, prompting the opposition parties to boycott the election (Freedom House).
The Georgian Orthodox Church is one entity of the state with a deep hold on the population and uses that grip to promote discrimination of other religions. Many of Georgia’s religious minorities have expressed or reported violence and hostility towards them (Freedom House). Minorities such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, Baptists, Muslims, and others feel that the state does not adequately protect them.
The freedom of assembly in Georgia is another civil liberty that is suffering under the oppressive government. Georgia police have a history of responding to demonstrations with excessive force through water cannons, tear gas, and rubber bullets (Freedom House). Multiple government watchdogs felt as though the police used illegal methods of riot reduction to respond to several protests. There are even reports of the Georgia government denying protection for a planned LGBT march and rally in 2019 (Freedom House).
The rally in Tbilisi, which happened on July 8th, 2019, went well. However, according to Radio Free Europe, the demonstration only lasted 30 minutes. The rally consisted of roughly two dozen protesters, human rights activists and LGBT community members who protested outside the Interior Ministry (Radio Free Europe). Reports confirm the rally lasted only half an hour due to extremist groups mobilizing to disperse the demonstration. There are numerous examples of the Georgian government neglecting the wellbeing of their citizens, especially those in religious and social minority groups. This last week’s attacks on journalists and others represent only a fragment of incidents related to Georgia’s conservative past.
As the LGBT community in Georgia begins to heal from the incident, the ruling Georgian Dream party accused former President Mikheil Saakashvili and his United National Movement (UNM) party of playing a part in the march organization. Prime Minister Garibashvili claims Saakashvili and the UNM wanted to trigger unrest in the country, per Al-Jazeera. Although Georgia’s social views have become more liberal in recent years, the government is so connected to the Orthodox Church that it continues to clash with Western-based ideals. The Church called upon supporters to gather for a public prayer against the march on Monday afternoon (Al-Jazeera).
It is safe to assume that the government in Georgia will face more uprisings and protests surrounding LGBT rights and freedom of assembly. Unless Prime Minister Garibashvili and President Zourabichvili can find common ground with which to govern, the state of Georgia will continue to fall deeper into civil unrest.
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