The backlash against the pro-Russian extremist group Alt Info has escalated following Russia’s war against Ukraine, taking both legal and grassroots forms.
On Tuesday, a group of residents in Mestia, the largest town in the historical north-western Georgian region of Svaneti, protested against the newly opened offices of the Conservative Movement in their town.
Alt Info, the far-right group behind the Conservative Movement party, have faced condemnation and calls for their leaders to be prosecuted after they led crowds last July in Tbilisi that ransacked the offices of queer rights group Tbilisi Pride and liberal movement Shame!. Violent groups also attacked journalists that covered their anti-Pride protests.
Alt Info have faced renewed backlash following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The group’s leaders have extensively used their namesake TV channel to advocate closer ties with Russia and to criticise Georgia’s NATO membership aspirations, accompanied by occasional misleading information about the war in Ukraine.
Giorgi Naveriani, a 29-year-old resident of Mestia, told OC Media that he found their office in his town ‘unacceptable’, protesting it on Tuesday during their small demonstration in support of Ukraine on Mestia’s central Seti Square.
Nata Japaridze, a 29-year-old skiing and trekking guide from Mestia who organised the protest, told OC Media that they managed to mobilise around 100 people to protest on Mestia’s central square, while some beeped their car horns in support.
The group later moved outside the offices of the Conservative Movement party, pelting eggs at it and leaving Ukraine’s national flag outside.
Japaridze said that opinions were mixed about their protest in Svaneti and that they had ‘offended’ some, including family members of those employed at the office.
‘My answer was that I would have been more offended if my family members were representatives of a Russian party’.
‘Generally, Svan people do not like to protest outside unless something extreme happens, but I do think something urgent is actually happening’, Japaridze said.
The demonstration on 1 March was primarily meant to express support to Ukrainians, including those stuck in Mestia, and to protest statements about Ukraine made by the government.
However, It was the second time the same group of local residents protested against the new office of the Conservative Movement, after doing so on 24 February, the day Russia’s invasion begun.
Japaridze told OC Media the office space owner had vowed to break the lease with the party within several days.
The Conservative Movement’s new regional office also faced protests by locals in Ambrolauri, a city southeast of Mestia in the historical region of Racha, on 27 February. A group of protesters held their rally outside Alt Info’s offices there, opened that day, calling them ‘traitors’.
The regional head of the Conservative Movement in Svaneti is Giorgi Ratiani — an employee of the State Security Service (SSG) until recently according to regional news outlet Mtis Ambebi.
The SSG have been criticised by local rights groups, including the Democracy Research Institute (DRI) and Social Justice Center, for their failure to outline a clear policy on how to tackle violent extremists groups in Georgia like Alt Info.
On 25 February, DRI called on the government and lawmakers to ‘take decisive action against organisations supporting radical ideology and/or persons associated with such organisations’ and to ‘take steps to ensure transparency of funding sources of radical ideology organisations, their organisers and/or persons associated with such organisations’.
Two days later, parliamentary opposition groups Strategy Aghmashenebeli and the Republican Party appealed to the Georgian National Communications Commission (GNCC) to ‘suspend broadcast of Russian and pro-Russian information channels’, followed by an online petition to support their cause.
‘Our demand is based on the answer [to the Russian invasion] by the civilised world and also on our security concerns as Georgia is occupied by Russia and Russia intends to opppose Georgia’s sovereignty, territorial integrity, and our Euro-Atlantic course’, Teona Akubardia, an MP from Strategy Aghmashenebeli said during a briefing at Parliament on 28 February.
Alt Info, despite being tolerated by Georgian regulators, especially so after they registered as a party, faced another wave of clampdowns by Facebook last week.
[Read more on OC Media: Facebook takes down pages tied to Georgian pro-Russia extremists]