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Ultraconservative and anti-Putin protesters face off as queer activists hold impromptu pride

10 July 2019
Members of Tbilisi Pride (Salome Chaduneli /On.ge)

Queer activists held an impromptu queer pride march in Tbilisi amidst threats from homophobic groups. That same day, ultra-conservative protesters faced off with anti-Putin protesters at the Georgian parliament after failing to thwart Tbilisi Pride.

Queer activists waved rainbow flags as they marched in front of the Interior Ministry on 8 July, demanding Interior Minister Giorgi Gakharia resign for failing to protect queer people and their freedom of expression. Law enforcement had previously said that they wouldn’t be able to protect queer activists if they marched in the streets, due to the high risk of violence.

That morning, ultraconservative groups, priests and far-right leaders among them, roamed the streets of Tbilisi looking to thwart the Pride march.

Homophobic groups marching in the streets on 8 July. The poster says ‘A man will never be called a wife’ (Tamuna Chkareuli /OC Media)

However, Tbilisi Pride organisers had put their plans on hold when it became known that the march’s planned time and location had been leaked online.

In the evening, unbeknownst to anti-Pride groups, who had by then gathered at the Georgian parliament to face off against ongoing anti-Putin demonstrators, Tbilisi Pride organisers and supporters marched in front of the Georgian Interior Ministry, calling on Giorgi Gakharia to step down.

‘We came here today, because we think that this is the most important place to protest right now’, Mariam Kvaratskhelia, one of the organisers of Tbilisi Pride said.

She added that, ‘the system is using aggressive forces in order to suppress peaceful protests’.

‘First it was queer people, now it is the organisers of anti-occupation protests to whom the Interior Ministry has denied safety guarantees, citing “security” as concern. And this happens in light of their demonstration of force, when they shot bullets at Georgian citizens’, said Kvaratskhelia.

She added that queer people were denied the right to protest while aggressive groups roamed freely in the streets.

‘We announced the Pride March as we wanted several hundred of us to come out and march peacefully to have our say, however, the Interior Ministry refused to talk to us’, said Kvaratskhelia.

She said that they plan to appeal to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) as they have been deprived of the right to peaceful assembly and protest.

Tazo Sozashvili, another organiser of Tbilisi Pride, said that Minister Gakharia had left Tbilisi’s queer community defenceless.

‘Where are the results of the investigations launched several weeks ago? Why is Levan Vasadze still free, why does he continue terrorising free citizens?’, Sozashvili said.

The previous day, businessman Levan Vasadze, one of the leaders of a far-right, homophobic group, had threatened queer activists, saying that he and his supporters would break through any police barriers and would physically drag people out of the march.

Tbilisi Pride was brief, lasting from roughly half an hour. Having learned that the march was happening, Vasadze and ultra-conservative groups rushed to the scene. But by then the Pride march was already over.

On 9 July, Tbilisi Pride issued a statement, saying that the event had ‘achieved some significant results’, such as an increased visibility of the queer community.

‘The Georgian authorities’ actions vis-à-vis Tbilisi Pride constitute a firm backsliding in the protection of human rights. It is clear that the ruling team perceives allowing a brief and peaceful demonstration of LGBTIQ activists and allies in Tbilisi to be politically disadvantageous for itself; the authorities have shown us that fundamental human rights are neither protected in Georgia nor there is any political will for its protection’, said the Tbilisi Pride statement.

Showdown in front of parliament

Prior to the failed attempt to disrupt the Pride march at the Interior Ministry, ultra-conservative activists held a counter-protest in front of the Georgian parliament, where they confronted anti-Putin demonstrators from the For Freedom group.

The latter have been protesting for the last 18 days at the time, calling for the resignation of the Interior Minister after police disrupted protesters on 20 June with tear gas and rubber bullets.

Anti-Putin rally on 8 July (Tamuna Chkareuli /OC Media)

The two groups were separated by riot police and lines of buses, though minor confrontations still occasionally flared up. Ultra-conservative protestors were reported to have harassed a For Freedom activist on hunger strike and a woman suggesting that all present should be ‘against [Russian] occupation’ was escorted out of the area by police.

Police at the 8 July rally (Tamuna Chkareuli /OC Media)

Misha Mshvildadze, a prominent speaker from the For Freedom group, vowed that he and his fellow protestors would be ‘peaceful but principled’ in their attempt to reclaim the area in front of parliament from the ultra-conservatives, and called on the Interior Ministry to react to ‘violent calls’ by groups he said were ‘supported by Russia’.

The 8 July protest (Tamuna Chkareuli /OC Media)

The priests on the ultra-conservative side of the divide held a collective prayer in front of the parliament to ‘cleanse’ the area.

A priest at the ultraconservative rally (Tamuna Chkareuli /OC Media)

For Freedom demonstrators called on the opposing side to unite with them in protest against Russian influence and the Interior Minister. But the ultra-conservative protestors refused the call to unity, and responded by shouting homophobic slurs.

The leaders of the ultra-conservative groups have mixed feelings regarding Gakharia’s resignation, while they mostly endorse the protest regarding Russian intervention.

Levan Vasadze (left) (Tamuna Chkareuli /OC Media)

Levan Vasadze said he had nothing against ‘people protesting occupation’, however he did not agree that Gakharia should resign.

Another leader of the protest, Guram Palavandishvili, said that he didn’t care about either ‘deoccupation or Gakharia’.

The face-off lasted until morning and eventually both groups left the scene.

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