On May 13th 2018, the space encompassing the Parliament building, Kashueti church and Freedom Square, ‘Les Lieux de Mémoire’ in Tbilisi for the most of Georgians, was physically and symbolically divided between at first glance two social groups: citizens standing for freedom of expression and self-declared fascist organization members and their supporters. The latter, led by the group Nationalist-Socialist Movement and Georgian National Unity, gave Nazi salutes and chanted “glory to the nation – death to the enemies”. Space was split up by the lines of police barricades and yellow buses. It was a peculiar event for many reasons. Far-right groups had thronged Tbilisi’s streets showcasing Nazi symbols before, however their protests were more spontaneous and physically isolated from their ideological adversaries. This time, two separate wide-scale demonstrations were taking place within the same spatial and temporal boundaries. This experience echoed recent traumatic events of May 17th 2013, when peaceful pro-LGBTQI demonstrators were violently dispersed by the Orthodox clergy and lay citizens, reportedly around 20,000 people.
Georgian National Unity was founded in 2016, as a non-governmental organization. According to its founding statutes, the organization’s aim is to prioritise a ‘Georgian mentality and worldview.’ Among its goals are listed the: ‘Annulment of the President’s Institute; reforming the education system according to national traditional values; abrogating the anti-discrimination laws; banning the sale of lands to foreigners’ etc. According to internal rules of the organization, ‘racial mingling’, same-sex marriages, converting to certain religions are strictly prohibited. Organization’s symbol is black, while the Nazi swastika is replaced by the Borjgali (sun symbol) and a cross.
“We will get involved in the battle. We will use irons, forks and everything at our disposal.” – said the head of Georgian National Unity, Giorgi Chelidze on May 13 2018 promising to be “brutal” against his opponents.
Later this quote gave an inspiration to netizens create memes, ridiculing Chelidze and his supporters. Irony might be a smart way to confront, however, recent years have shown that extremist groups have become quite active and visible in public spaces, media and social networks.
Who are the actors and what do they want?
They are organized groups and individuals, leaders and followers. The group of actors at first glance is homogeneous, but if we examine more closely, it is quite diverse. While zooming out, they still gather around the same values and the ways of articulation of their protest are similar – verbal and physical violence.
Transparency International Georgia’s report lists some of the organizations (Georgian March, the Agreement of National Powers, the ‘Nationals’ movement, Georgia’s National Unity, Civil Solidarity Movement, Social-Political Movement, Georgian Mission and a number of other individuals) that are interconnected as well as financially and politically linked to Russia. For instance, one of the leaders of the Agreement of National Powers, Dimitri Lortkipanidze, was appointed director of the Y.M. Primakov Georgian-Russian Public Centre. The Centre was founded in 2013 by the International Relations Institute and Gorchakov Public Diplomacy Support Fund established by Russia’s former President, Dmitry Medvedev.
One of the prominent groups is Georgian March, the union of illiberal, neo-Nazi organizations, led by a former deputy minister under the current government, Sandro Bregadze. Georgian March held their first big demonstration of around 2000 people in 2017, in one of Tbilisi’s main avenues in the Middle Eastern retail district, an area largely built by German settlers and architects. They called for an end to Muslim immigration, changing state policy regarding foreigners and banning overseas funding to civil society organizations. In 2018, Bregadze announced his plans to run in the presidential elections and, in his own words, on a “Marine Le Pen”-style platform.
Some individuals and organizations are also associated with Georgian Orthodox Church (GOC) or splinter civil groups of the church who were rarely, if ever, publicly condemned for intolerance by the Patriarchate. Empirical evidence in Georgia suggests that far-right, fascist, pro-Russian civil and political groups, active Orthodox clergy, the ones formally and/or informally affiliated with the GOC, allegedly acted in concert. At the same time, these ideas often accord with the policies of the Russian government, creating strongholds of soft power.
Comparatively, Giorgi Gabedava, a leading member of the Nationals Movement was one of the active organizers of violent dispersal of anti-homophobia rally in Tbilisi on May 17th 2013. Gabedava and several other extremists were released as political prisoners in 2012, under the current government. They had previously been jailed for storming TV Kavkasia in 2010 when the attackers had physically abused a number of employees, guests, as well as the head of the TV company during live broadcasting of a program, dedicated to the book Saidumlo Siroba (Holy Crap) by young Georgian writer, Erekle Deisadze. These individuals are also associated with religious extremist organizations, the Orthodox Parents’ Union and the People’s Orthodox Union. Notably, two days after the incident at TV Kavkasia, the Patriarch Ilia II awarded Archpriest David Isakadze, the spiritual leader of these religious extremist organizations, with an embellished cross and the right to wear a mitre. Isakadze and his supporters are notorious for their intolerant and xenophobic sentiments. For instance, they protested the arrival of the Pope Francis in Georgia in 2016. They met the Pope in Tbilisi airport with banners declaring, ‘The Pope is a heretic’ or ‘Antichrist!’
The Union of Orthodox Flock (commonly known as the People’s Orthodox Union) named after St. King David the Builder is an unregistered organization, ‘based on volunteerism’. “One of the key goals of the Union is to defend Orthodox Church from dissidence, to fight against the introducers or instigators of the split.” The organization is known for its conservative views and physical attacks on citizens of different values and positions. Members of the Union of Orthodox Flock, together with another organization with a similar name, the Orthodox Parents’ Union were involved in demonstrations against JK Rowling’s Harry Potter books in 2002 and the film the Da Vinci Code in 2010, an attack on a Halloween party in 2008, demonstrations against the book Saidumlo Siroba (Holy Crap) in 2009 in front of Ilia State University and the Kavkasia TV incident in 2010 mentioned above, an attack on citizens marking anti-homophobia day (second IDAHOTB) on May 17th 2012 and so on.
Illiberal political and civil groups use the GOC for their political legitimacy, as well as GOC’s requests are articulated by the same groups. For instance, the Orthodox clergy from time to time directly or covertly request administrative/criminal charges for ‘insulting religious feelings.’ In 2013, GOC openly backed the law put forward by then-Deputy Interior Minister Levan Izoria; In 2016, Zviad Tomaradze, the head of Demographic Society XXI was the author of the bill, proposed by a Georgian MP from the ruling Georgian Dream coalition; In 2018, Emzar Kvitsiani, a member of Parliamentary party, Alliance of Patriots put forward the bill. To be noted, in 2018 Kvitsiani publicly admitted that in 2006-2012 he had been collaborating with the Russian security services, spreading Russian propaganda. The bill’s author again was Zviad Tomaradze. Furthermore, along with Sandro Bregadze, the former minister under the current government and currently the most prominent face of Georgian March, Tomaradze was a member of the initiative group that in 2016 requested holding a referendum on defining marriage as union of a man and a woman. The same idea had been put forward by some Orthodox clergy, including David Isakadze.
Tomaradze works for another influential actor, Levan Vasadze, founder of the Georgian Demographic Society XXI, a Georgian businessman who accrued his wealth in Russia (1998-2006). Vasadze is widely known for his homophobic rhetoric and allegiance to the GOC. On May 15-17th2016 he hosted the World Congress of Families’ event in Tbilisi, dedicated to Family Purity Day, pronounced by the GOC to counter the symbolism of the May 17 anniversary of the mob attack on LGBTQI supporters.
The World Congress of Families is a U.S.-based organization founded in the mid-1990s as an international umbrella organization for groups supporting conservative social values. The WCF also has close links to Konstantin Malofeyev and Vladimir Yakunin, oligarchs with close ties to the Russia’s government. Another person affiliated with the WCF is Alexander Dugin, the founder of the Eurasianist movement and ultranationalist philosopher, who promotes Russian territorial and ideological expansion. “Together with our Russian friends, we got rid of and defeated first fascism and then communism, both of which came from the West,” Vasadze said at an event in Tbilisi.
There are other examples of collaboration between the Orthodox clergy and self-declared pro-Russian organizations, such as the Alliance of Eurasia, the Institute of Eurasia, Eurasian Choice, the Erekle II Society, etc. According to the Georgian Institute of Politics, the leaders of these respective organizations admit cooperating with Orthodox priests and some representatives of the GOC are actively involved in their activities.
Who and what do they target?
Mainly in the fight against liberal values, modernism, democracy and the concept of human rights these groups use distorted narratives of Georgian traditions and symbols to prove the West is undermining the authentic Georgian identity. They also use the Georgian Orthodox Church (GOC) for legitimacy in their fight against different minority social groups, non-Orthodox religious entities and LGBTQI; crackdown on so called ‘illegal migrants’ (foreigners of Asian and African descent); request that the State ban the sale of land to non-Georgians; prohibit foreigners settling in Georgia; they request the government to outlaw NGOs and international organizations, especially the Open Society Foundation, as traitors of the nation; they fight against freedom of expression, nightclubs, art, literature and films. The targets change according to the current political, social and cultural context. Usually, the aggression is directed towards those who manifest their existence and the rights in a public space. Offenders often say, “They can do whatever they want in their bedrooms, as long as they do not take it outside”This formulation demonstrates that non-dominant group have to respect specific boundaries set for them in order to be tolerated and remain subordinated to the majority. The frontline of this conflict is a public space which embodies political power and cultural hegemony. Imagining society as a homogeneous social group, excludes the concepts of individual rights and liberties.
The political and religious context of social hostilities
83.4 percent of Georgian citizens identify as Orthodox Christians. While their trust in state institutions remains low, dominant religious organization, like the Georgian Orthodox Church (GoC), preserves its clout. Understanding the role and the influence of the church is essential to deconstruct how illiberal groups operate.
The post-Soviet history of Georgia can be construed according to the forms of nationalism and political transitions. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the tenure of Georgia’s first President Zviad Gamsakhurdia’s (1991) was characterised by ethnic or ecstatic nationalism. Whilst the second President and former Soviet high-ranking official Eduard Shevardnadze (1992-2003) shifted politics to a system of elite-mediated liberalism. During Shevardnadze’s tenure, ‘nationalism turned into an ‘institute’, which he used as a framework to talk about conciliation and the importance of an alliance with Europe”. President Mikheil Saakashvili’s tenure (2003-2013) is defined by some scholars as a period of civic or ‘revolutionary nationalism’. The State, on the levels of both policy and official discourse, stopped differentiating between its citizens according to their ethnic backgrounds and defined citizenship as a main marker of Georgian identity. According to Georgian philosopher and sociologist Giga Zedania, the new narrative was inclusive, not exclusive. ‘But this trait could not—and did not—take away its revolutionary character.’
The government started protecting the rights of minorities and punishing extremists for hate crimes, however, they did not stop using the church for political legitimacy. Consequently, it was not difficult to observe the rise of religious nationalism, the ideology which makes religious affiliation to Orthodoxy an essential factor in determining national identity. In this case, any challenge to church dominance is seen as a challenge to Georgian nationhood. Living under this paradigm, non-Orthodox, especially, Georgian Muslims are being constantly reproached for their religious identities and their ‘Georgianness’ is often questioned. Eventually, the GOC constructed ‘political Orthodoxy’, ‘through which Georgians would satisfy their patriotic passion by condemning the West’.
As for the current ruling political party, Georgian Dream, there is enough empirical evidence to conclude that the government is particularly loyal to the GOC and neglectful of the offenses committed on the grounds of intolerance against religious minorities and LGBTQI (Assaults on Muslims in Tsintskaro (2012), Nigvziani (2012) and Samtatskaro villages (2013); forceful removal of the minaret in Chela village (2013); nailing a pig’s head to the Muslim boarding school in Kobuleti (2014); physical abuse of Muslims in Mokhe village (2014), and IDAHOTB on May 17, 2013). None of these cases have been fully investigated and alleged perpetrators have not been punished, and some representatives of law enforcement bodies has supposedly verbally and physically abused Muslims. These events, clustered in the first 18 months of the initial Georgian Dream government look symptomatic, rather than coincidental. The high-ranking politicians and MPs regularly demonstrate their discriminatory and biased approaches. Taken into consideration, the GOC’s open support of Georgian Dream in the 2012 Parliamentary elections, the new government knew whom to thank, which later revealed in impunity of the Orthodox clergy, legislative initiatives examined below, and generally, in church-government ideological convergence. Public defence of the GOC became an imperative for many politicians, just as loyalty to the communist faith was decades ago.
In Georgia, members of the GOC regularly fight against fundamental human rights, pluralism and cultural diversity. For instance, the majority of Orthodox clergy were against adopting the law on the elimination of all forms of discrimination in 2014. This was also a result of an EU-Georgia visa liberalization agreement, in which Georgia agreed to increase its efforts to eliminate various forms of discrimination. Anti-discrimination bill was considered by some clergy as “propaganda and legalisation” of a “deadly sin”, because it included “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” in the list of prohibited grounds of discrimination.
These groups periodically request that the State limit freedom of expression in traditional media, social networks and art. Some Orthodox priests allegedly physically abuse civil rights activists. Other priests condemn writers, journalists and human rights organizations from the pulpits. Official press of the GOC is saturated with homophobic, intolerant and insulting statements against people of different religious identities.
Taking into consideration rapidly accumulated wealth and documented corruption within the church, some scholars argue, that real motivation of the Orthodox clergy is far from fundamentalist doctrine and there is predominantly an economic interest behind their religious requests to the Georgian government. In other words, the church is bargaining with the State.
Religious extremism and attacks on minority members is not a new phenomenon in Georgia. In the beginning of the 1990’s, radical groups within Orthodox Church started continuous persecution of non-Orthodox. Despite hundreds of documented physical attacks on members of religious minorities, predominantly Jehovah’s Witnesses, including people being hospitalised, and places of worship and religious literature being destroyed, the alleged attackers were not punished. The State not only neglected hate crimes but also acted in collusion with offenders. At this time serving clergy of the Patriarchate and affiliated groups personally organized and participated in violent physical attacks on the non-Orthodox and human rights activists. The impunity with which such actions were treated encouraged further social hostilities. Later the protests swirled up against books, paintings, theatre plays, films, universities, and media, everything that questioned dominant narratives and established frameworks of thinking. Illiberal sentiments were fostered by the most respected religious authority, the Patriarch Ilia II himself. In his sermons, he condemned what he called ‘extreme liberalism’.
Modern-day digital actors
Initially illiberal, socially conservative groups were represented in physical public spaces and later various groups with different digital profiles emerged. This is related to the increasing popularity of the internet and social networks. In a country with a population of 3,907,131, there are 2,100,000 Facebook subscribers.
Illiberal digital groups shape the modern Georgian discourse of nationalism. Central topics are religion and history, namely, the authority of religious and historical persons used for social mobilisation – pictures of saints, kings and writers, quotations or videos are the main tools used to keep users involved and active.
The flow of information from these Facebook pages is well targeted, fills up the ideological vacuum and strikes a chord with ultra-nationalist sentiments, which makes it easier to maintain and even increase the audience. Information is spread by public Facebook pages, as well as semi-closed Facebook groups (e.g. Georgian National Awaking, Nationalists, Georgians, National self-consciousness, Nationalistic Legion). They are divided into thematic categories such as nationalists, Georgia and/or Georgians, News, World and others. For instance, the group of Emigrant’s personal page with 18 000 members, is a very active group. Accounts with individual names or news web-pages spread information, share links of their own or other agencies on topics, such as gender, political parties, poems, advertisements, religious news or current issues. Besides their online activity, they often go to streets, hold public demonstrations or small gatherings around the city centre to mark some historic dates or protest new legislative initiatives.
Observation of the emergent violent groups suggests, that they construct their identities in opposition to imagined enemies. The difference is a sign of threat – cultural ‘others’, religious minorities, immigrants, LGBTQI and organizations that ‘plant’ liberal values. Religious extremists, socially conservative populists and neo-fascist groups and individuals endeavour to acquire dominance on urban public spaces. Who wins the space, his/her ‘Georgianness’ is reaffirmed. Revanchist City, the concept of Neil Smith might be applicable in Georgian case. He suggests, that revanchist anti-urbanism represents a reaction against the supposed “theft of the city, desperate defense of a challenged phalanx of privileges, cloaked in the populist language of civic morality, family values and neighborhood security. […] it portends a vicious reaction against minorities, the working class, homeless people, the unemployed, women, gays and lesbians, immigrants’’. The whole process is about rediscovery of the enemy within, rather than fathoming real external threats.
Counter -demonstrations, producing Facebook pages and other digital content, shows that they fight for physical and digital public spaces but only when these spaces are busy /occupied by so-called liberal groups. From a very short observation it can be assumed that these groups need demonstrations against homophobia, ‘clubbers’ gathering against police raids, public events of religious minorities, or Halloween party to reassert their existence. These groups also have political aspirations. The leader of Georgian March, Sandro Bregadze, named as the Presidential candidate for October 2018 elections, recently stated: “I will not be the candidate of the Americans or Russians. I will be the presidential candidate of the Georgians”. Based on the increased activities in public, as well as in online spaces, it can be assumed that these groups have become more proactive, instrumentalizing twisted notions of Georgian nationalism. As for motivating factors of the followers/supporters, they might be various – pragmatic, as well as a continuum of ideological, social and psychological factors, identification of which, requires a particular examination.
Taking into consideration the rise of the far-right in European states, the image of Europe and the West is seen through different lenses: Europe N1 is a place of LGBTQI, infidels, people against family and ‘traditional values’ and the Europe N2 with far-right, ultranationalist, patriot groups who defend ‘traditional values’ (Hungry, Poland, Germany, etc.). Basically, this paradigm is seen in the light of the contradiction of tradition and modernity, the old and the new, conservative and liberal. This binary is beneficial for those groups who are in search of enemies to maintain their own image and justify their existence
Moreover, these groups capitalise on the growing discontent and concerns of Georgian citizens due to economic problems, unemployment, growing inequality and the unresolved issue of territorial integrity to buttress their xenophobic agendas and scepticism towards the EU-integration process and democratic institutions in general.
Authors: Ekaterine Chitanava is a human rights activist and the director of a non-governmental organization, Tolerance and Diversity Institute (TDI), based in Tbilisi, Georgia. Her work is focused on freedom of religion and belief as well as minority rights. The organization is providing free legal aid to people experiencing discrimination on religious, ethnic and/or racial grounds in Georgia, as well as conducting various educational activities, state policy research, legal analysis and sociological studies. From 2009 to 2011 Ms. Chitanava, as a journalist was regularly writing for Georgian analytical magazines and international outlets. She was also producing short documentaries about religious and ethnic minorities in Georgia for the Tolerance Centre under the auspices of Public Defender. Currently she is contributing to Forum 18, different international media outlets and academic journals.
Katie Sartania graduated from the faculty of social and political sciences of Tbilisi State University, she holds a BA degree in sociology. Her research interest includes the minority groups, post-soviet space and social media. Since 2014 she has been involved in research of different social groups, concentrated on minorities (religious; ethnic; IDP groups) in Georgia. She has authored a number of articles on social issues. Currently she is an independent researcher based in Tbilisi.
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The video featuring counter-demonstrator far-right group members, Kviris Palitra, May 2018, https://palitranews.ge/video/chven-vart-kartveli-fashistebi-danarchenze-pasukhi-metaurma-gastsa-sakartvelos-erovnuli-ertobis-tsevrebi-kashvetis-tadzarshi-mividnen
 Drug raids in two leading clubs in Tbilisi in the early hours of 12 May, 2018 and the police’s heavy-handed tactics, caused an outcry among the youth and drug policy activists, prompting calls for the resignation of the Prime Minister and Interior Minister. In response to the large-scale rally in front of the Parliament building, self-declared fascist, Nationalist-Socialist organization members and Georgian March organized counter-demonstrations. The endeavor to win the public space by human rights activists and the youth protesting the takeover of freedom of expression was finally unsuccessful. With the argument that they were unable to protect the demonstrators from aggressors, State officials asked the organizers to stop the rally and promised them to revise the punitive policies on drug use.
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 Although According to the polls of National Democratic Institute (NDI) in 2018, the church’s favorability has significantly dropped to 56 percent from almost 80 percent in 2015. The reason for this decline could be an active media coverage of the corruption inside the GOC and the scandal around the alleged poisoning of Patriarch Ilia II.
 Vachridze, Zaza. 2012. Two Faces of Nationalism and Efforts to Establish Georgian Identity. Identity Studies in the Caucasus and the Black Sea Region, Ilia State University, p 82-87. http://ojs.iliauni.edu.ge/index.php/identitystudies/article/viewFile/47/35
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 Minaret back up in Georgian village Chela, Democracy and Freedom Watch, November 2013http://dfwatch.net/minaret-back-up-in-georgian-village-chela-79904-24443
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 Internet World Stats, Asia Marketing Research, Internet Usage, Population Statistics and Facebook Subscribers, 2,100,000 Facebook subscribers in Dec 2017, 53.7% penetration, https://www.internetworldstats.com/asia.htm#ge
 To be noted, national narratives are often distorted, the attitudes of Georgian historical figures, including the Orthodox clergy, regarding the West and tolerance towards cultural minorities are misconstrued.
 Smith, Neil. 2005. The New Urban Frontier. London: Routledge.
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