May 2018 has been a critical test for Georgia. Over the past several weeks, a series of events in the capital of Tbilisi have collectively raised questions in some quarters about the actual level of consolidation of Georgian democracy and have challenged Georgi Kvirikashvili’s government to provide an effective response. Since May 12, liberals and conservatives have confronted each other in the streets of Tbilisi. This is normal for any democracy, but in Georgia, the demonstrations and rallies also saw the participation of radical fringe groups and were accompanied by violence, the threats of violence and extremist language (Agenda.ge, May 12; Civil Georgia, May 15).
Simultaneously, for the first time in the country’s history, Neo-Nazi groups staged their own public actions. The authorities managed to prevent bloodshed with great difficulty. However, the problems did not disappear. The threat of violence and further activation of extremist groups still exists (Oc-media.org, May 18).
Mass rallies along Tbilisi’s central avenue of Rustaveli began after police raided the popular nightclubs Basiani and Café Gallery (Civil Georgia, May 15). The Ministry of Internal Affairs explained that the searches were necessitated by evidence of drugs being sold at these locations. And during the last month, several young people died from an overdose of an unknown drug (Civil Georgia, May 9).
During the raid, the police, armed with machine guns, forced all club-goers to run out into the street, and then closed the two facilities for several days. The Ministry of Internal Affairs reported that, as a result of the operation, five drug dealers were arrested. But the police action aroused widespread indignation among young Georgians. They kicked off a rally in front of the parliament building, on Rustaveli Avenue, accusing the government of attacking the “youth lifestyle” and violating their human rights (Civil Georgia, May 17).
Leaders of the associated “White Noise” (WN) movement for the decriminalization and legalization of drugs demanded that the ruling Georgian Dream (GD) party change the law on drug use. A convicted drug addict in Georgia faces several years in prison. “It is a very cruel law, which violates human rights. You cannot punish a drug addict with imprisonment if the person does not distribute or sell drugs. We advocate the punishment of drug dealers but not the drug addicts themselves,” one of the leaders of the WN, David Subeliani, stressed in an interview with this author, on May 22.
Subeliani added that during the club-goers’ peaceful street demonstration, they were approached by an aggressive group that included Georgian Neo-Nazis. “They threatened violence… Interior Minister Giorgi Gakharia came to us and warned that the police would use force against the aggressive groups and the Nazis [sic]. The leaders of [our] peaceful protest decided to stop the rally in order not to provoke violence and to start negotiations with the minister about the decriminalization and legalization of drugs,” Subeliani said.
Ultimately, however, these talks with the government came to nothing. Therefore, the WN leader asserted, the youth action against the government’s “brutal anti-drug policy” may resume any day (Author’s interview, May 22). Georgia’s strict drug laws have attracted growing criticism in society, particularly following the Georgian Constitutional Court’s historic decision last year to declare the consumption of light drugs “a personal affair” (Interfax, November 30, 2017).
On May 17, Georgia, like many countries around the world, celebrated the international day against homophobia and transphobia (Jam-news.net, May 17). Local LGBT organizations planned to gather near the government building on that day to remind the authorities of their responsibility to protect minority rights. But this meeting had to be canceled because of threats from religious fanatics and radical far-right groups (Oc-media.org, May 16). Self-described “Georgian fascists” took to the streets carrying signs resembling Nazi swastikas (RFE/RL, May 17). Human rights defender Elena Tevdoradze told this author that she was horrified to see Neo-Nazis in the streets of Tbilisi. “My father died in the war against the fascists, so I nearly fainted when I saw their Nazi gestures,” she declared (Author’s interview May 24).
One of Georgia’s well-known opposition leaders, David Darchiashvili, expressed concern and surprise in a conversation with this author that “the government does not take adequate measures against the Nazis and other radical groups” (Author’s interview, May 22). It should be pointed out, however, that the police managed to prevent violent clashes that day with great difficulty. At the same time, the police detained four radicals. They have been charged under the administrative code for hooliganism.
As these far-right groups faced off against LGBT activists in Tbilisi, the non-governmental organization Transparency International Georgia published an interesting report entitled, “The Anatomy of Georgian Neo-Nazism.” The study tracks the origin and activities of local radical groups Georgian March, Agreement of National Forces, National Unity as well as Georgian Force. Notably, the report points out that the leader of the Agreement of National Forces, Dmitry Lordkipanidze, simultaneously runs the pro-Moscow Primakov Foundation, in Tbilisi. Similar “pro-Russian relations” are also visible in the activities of other nationalist and radical religious organizations in Georgia, the document concludes (Transparency.ge, May 18).
One of the directors of Transparency International Georgia, Mamuka Andguladze, told the author, “We published the report on May 17—the day against homophobia and transphobia—when certain events occurred in Tbilisi. The groups mentioned in the report were the most aggressive [during the May street demonstrations]. We are continuing our research [into such extremist organizations in Georgia]—there are many new figures connected with the Russian government and the Russian establishment” (Author’s interview, May 20).
In trying to control the street confrontations, the authorities have been determined “not to make sharp movements.” The government fears that forceful actions against these extremist organizations could lead to even more radical street violence. Therefore, the police continue to try to calm the activists, negotiate with them and apply soft measures, including by handing out fines. But the perceived impunity of those openly calling themselves “Georgian fascists,” could harm Georgia’s image abroad and raise doubts, even among its friends, about whether this South Caucasus country is able meet the challenge of protecting fundamental human rights. The Georgian government’s response at this juncture to the various protests and counter-protests that have hit the capital over the past several weeks could set far-reaching precedents regarding freedom of speech, the right to privacy, as well as the rights of minority-members to express themselves.