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Tbilisi Pride Festival cancelled after police fail to confront extremists

Police watch on as supporters of Alt Info set fire to and destroy the festival grounds. Photo: Tata Shoshiashvili/OC Media.

A festival planned for Saturday afternoon as part of Tbilisi Pride week has been called off after Georgian Police failed to confront supporters of the far-right extremist group Alt Info.

Despite making public statements guaranteeing the safety of the event and bringing crowd-control equipment to the site, police deployed to protect the event did not use force to stop the several thousand far-right protesters from entering the festival venue, just hours before it was due to start.

Alt Info celebrated as they destroyed and burnt installations on the festival grounds, as the police watched on. Several were also seen looting.

In a statement on Saturday, Tbilisi Pride accused the government of being complicit in the attack on the festival.

‘Today’s developments indicate that today’s planned events were pre-coordinated and agreed upon between the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the violent group Alt-Info’, the group said.

The speaker of the parliament, Shalva Papuashvili, praised the police’s actions stating that the police had ‘done their job’ of protecting people’s safety, as ‘no one was injured’.

In a press briefing after the festival was cancelled, President Salome Zurabishvili said Alt Info had been ‘instigated’ and ‘openly supported’ by ruling party MPs and representatives of ‘various branches of the party’ on social media.

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She decried that the constitutional rights to freedom of assembly and expression had been violated.

‘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’, she said.

‘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.’

Several Western diplomats were quick to condemn the violence, with some appearing to criticise the authorities for their failure to protect the festival. The Czech Ambassador, Petr Mikyska, even hinted that the day’s events could impact Georgia’s EU membership bid.

‘Shocking pictures from Tbilisi Pride’, Mikyska tweeted on Saturday. ‘Constitutional rights, freedom of assembly violated, police unable to protect citizens. Is this a specific way to European Union? In my humble opinion, definitely not.’

Western diplomats were present in talks between Tbilisi Pride and the Interior Ministry prior to the event, in which the government guaranteed that they would protect the event.

Addressing supporters outside parliament on Saturday evening after ransacking the festival site, one of Alt Info’s leaders, Zurab Makharadze, called for parliament to pass an anti–queer ‘propaganda’ law.

Zurab Makharadze addresses supporters in front of the cross Alt Info installed on 5July 2021, as they attacked journalists and queer rights activists in the streets. Photo: Mariam Nikuradze/OC Media.

In recent weeks, Georgian Dream officials as well as the Georgian Orthodox Church have regularely spoken about the need to legally regulate queer ‘propaganda’.

[Read more: Georgian Orthodox Church calls for ‘queer propaganda law’]

A deliberate failure by police?

The ease with which protesters entered the festival site have led to speculations that the government had no intention of protecting the event, despite their insistence to the contrary.

OC Media’s correspondents observed police giving little to no resistance as members of the group approached and entered the venue.

Alt Info had announced their plans well in advance, gathering as scheduled on Vazha Pshavela Avenue and marching for over four kilometres uphill to the festival venue above Lisi Lake unopposed.

The several-thousand-strong protest was similar in size to the one during last year’s Pride Fest, which police prevented from reaching the festival site without issue.

The police response was markedly different to their approach to several anti-government protests in recent years, which have seen police deploying heavily armoured riot police, tear gas, water cannons, and sonic cannons against protesters.

Police deploying a water cannon against protesters against the foreign agent law in March. Photo: Mariam Nikuradze/OC Media.

In addition to Tbilisi Pride, several other civil society organisations, including the liberal anti-government group Shame, accused the government of directly cooperating with Alt Info.

‘Based on the situation we witnessed today, we believe that police and Pro-Russian groups acted in unison and coordinated their actions’, Shame stated.

While defending the actions of the police, parliamentary speaker Shalva Papuashvili conceded that ‘the fact that the event failed as a result of aggression is a problem.’ 

However, he said the police were ‘acting within their capabilities’ and that ‘everything has its limits.’ 

‘I know that the police were preparing in advance because there was information in advance about the attempt to disrupt the event. The main thing is that they protected people’s safety.’