A number of Georgian conservative groups have been gathering outside the Tbilisi Public Service Hall in an attempt to prevent foreigners from registering ownership of agricultural land in the country.
The groups gathered for a second day on Tuesday, however, police secured a corridor for those attempting to enter the building.
On Monday, they stopped some they believed were foreign citizens from entering the premises.
In one instance caught on camera by On.ge on Monday, protesters prevented a Spanish man from entering the building until he proved to them he was Spanish. Once they learnt he was married to an Iranian woman, the crowd again prevented him from entering.
The protest followed a ruling by the Constitutional Court on 7 December temporarily lifting a ban on foreign citizens buying agricultural land in Georgia.
Constitutional changes that will reinstate the ban will enter into force after the inauguration of Salome Zurabishvili as Georgian president, scheduled for Sunday 16 December.
Protesters said foreigners were using the 10-day window to register ownership of agricultural lands in Georgia.
[Read more on controversial 7 December Constitutional Court decision on OC Media: Georgia temporarily lifts ban on sale of agricultural land to foreign citizens]
Protest organisers distributed posters calling on Arabs, Iranians, Turks and ‘other foreigners’ not to buy a land in Georgia as they would ultimately ‘lose [their] money’.
On Monday, protesters led by, among others, Ada Marshania and Emzar Kvitsiani from the parliamentary opposition group the Alliance of Patriots, stopped their cars in front of the Public Service Hall blocking the motorway.
Later, the two unsuccessfully attempted to lead protesters into the Public Service Hall to demand a meeting with Justice Minister Tea Tsulukiani.
Protest leaders under investigation
Protests on Tuesday were far smaller than on the first day, with only several dozen participants. Speakers at the protest claimed they did not intend to enter nor picket the Public Service Hall, but only to express their grievances.
They claimed that several members of the protests, including conservative leaders Konstantine Morgoshia, Guram Palavandishvili, and Dimitri Lortkipanidze were summoned by police for questioning.
Morgoshia is one of the leaders of the Georgian March group, who have become known for organising anti-immigration rallies in recent years.
Lortkipanidze, a former MP, currently heads the Yevgeny Primakov Georgian–Russian Public Centre, which operates under the Moscow-based Aleksandr Gorchakov Public Diplomacy Fund.
Palavandishvili, a conservative, anti-abortion activist, chairs the Society for Protection of Children’s Rights. He has been detained several times after organising counter-rallies against pro-equality gatherings.
Other members involved in the protest included Jondi Baghaturia, head of non-parliamentary opposition party Kartuli Dasi, leaders of the Georgian Idea party, and Zviad Tomaradze, who chairs several non-governmental organisations and frequently authors conservative draft legal initiatives submitted to parliament.
The Interior Ministry confirmed to OC Media that they had opened an investigation for ‘violation of human equality’ on discriminatory grounds, which carries a maximum two-year prison sentence.
Authorities under fire from both sides
Protest organisers boasted on Tuesday that their efforts had ‘yielded results‘.
‘After the cancellation of the moratorium, so far, not an inch of Georgian land was sold to any foreign citizen’, conservative activist Alexandre Palavandishvili claimed in a live Facebook video broadcast from the gathering on Tuesday.
A day earlier, Georgian Justice Minister Tea Tsulukiani called on protesters to stay calm as their protest was not necessary. She insisted that no foreigner had been registered as a new owner of agricultural land that day.
Speaking to Palitra News on Monday evening, Emzar Kvitsiani, an MP from the Alliance of Patriots, urged Tsulukiani to update the public with a similar statement by the end of every day, confirming that no land was sold to a foreigner.
Tsulukiani’s comments were criticised by several local rights groups, who called on the authorities to do more to tackle xenophobia in Georgia.
On Monday, 10 leading rights groups urged the police to intervene to ensure conservative protesters could not target foreigners.
They lambasted the government for having no strategy to tackle racism and xenophobia and for ‘encouraging violent acts’ by ‘adopting discriminatory laws against foreigners’.
Giorgi Kandelaki, an MP from the opposition European Georgian party, called Monday’s gathering a ‘pro-Russia, extremist group’ and the ‘face of Georgian Dream and Bidzina Ivanishvili’, posing as opposition.
Rejoining the rally after being questioned by police, Dimitri Lortkipanidze called the ‘actions of [Interior Minister Giorgi] Gakharia’, and their ‘allies’ among non-governmental organisations, ‘another example of liberal fascism’.
Guram Lortkipanidze, who also returned to the protest in front of the Public Service Hall on Tuesday, admitted that it was unlawful to stop and question people they believed were Muslim foreigners.
But, he claimed this was necessary as Muslims were Georgia’s ‘historical occupiers’ and had waged ‘jihad’ against Georgia.
Ramaz Gagnidze, one of the leaders of ultra-conservative Georgian March group, claimed at Tuesday’s rally that Georgia had recently agreed to receive a large number of refugees from Syria — something he said a number of European countries had refused to do.
On 10 December, Georgia signed the UN-initiated Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration agreement with 163 other United Nations states.
The agreement aimed at ‘fostering international cooperation among all relevant actors on migration’.
The agreement specifically ‘upholds the sovereignty of states’ and UN Secretary-General António Guterres insisted on Monday that it would not impose migration policies on member states.
Nevertheless, a number of countries including central European and Baltic states as well as Bulgaria joined other Western governments with hardline anti-immigration policies in refusing to sign the document.
According to official data obtained by the Institute for Development of Freedom of Information (IDFI), from 2012 to October 2017, Georgia granted refugee status to 5 Syrians, while 90 were granted humanitarian status.
The protest leaders called on the public to stay vigilant for the next few days.