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Rise of the illiberal civil society in Georgia and its organisation

Article by Mariam Uberi

July 18, 2018

Rise of the illiberal civil society in Georgia and its organisation

Aggression and violence towards liberal groups have risen significantly in Georgia since 2017. The rise of Neo-Nazi groups has been partly consolidated as a protest in response to the government’s migration policies and as a need to protect national identity from emerging ‘threats’. Noting the emergence of some of these groups and their likely backing from the Russian Federation, local politicians and business people are possible in some instances. However the identification of many of these group is not easy as they often belong to informal entities, which makes it equally difficult to trace their source of funding.

The Georgian authorities have officially identified Russian propaganda as a threat and committed to tackle it through number of ways. The Orthodox church has officially asserted their support to Georgia’s aspiration to join the EU-Atlantic family, however, there are number of cases, when  preaching of some radical clergymen support the aggressive narrative against ‘foreign settlers’[1] or seek to justify Russian aggression.[2] Research lists a number of the most prominent ultra-right groups, their objectives, whether they have tacit backing from the Church, or whether state authorities are effective in counteracting Russian soft power, threats and identify possible ways out.

Georgian March

Georgian March is an informal union that comprises several ultra- right groups. The organisation came into public view in 2017 under the name of Georgian March as they galvanised a protest against the incident related to an Iranian national. Whilst a foreign national faced criminal charges, their demands were grossly political, demanding to curb immigration, expel illegal immigrants and implement a more restrictive immigration law, as well as introducing a ban on foreign funding of civil society organisations.[3] Under the aegis of Georgian March, its members launched number of offensive rallies and protests, ranging from burning down the LGBTI flag, ambushing a TV journalist for insulting religious sentiments to making rape comments and organising rallies in front of the offices of the Open Society Foundation Georgia.[4]

In their bid to identify unlawful activity by foreigners, Georgian March announced completion of citizen patrols alongside with the units of the Ministry of Interior. The purpose of the patrol was to create an alternative citizen unit, an idea that did not come to fruition as it was ignored by the authorities.[5]After the incident with the TV journalist for insulting religious feelings of followers of the Orthodox Church and refusing to apologize, some members of the Georgian March ambushed his car but were later arrested. However, the current members of the Georgian Parliament, from the pro- Russian Party Alliance of Patriots acted as bail guarantors. Prominent members of the Georgian March include members of the government office and the parliament, with the most recognisable members being Sandro Bregadze, a former Deputy Minister of Diaspora Affairs known for his homophobic statements and Dimitri Lortkipanidze, a former MP and former Head of the Human Rights Committee at the Georgian Parliament. It also includes members of another pro- Russian political party, Nino Burjanaze’s Democratic Movement,[6]Guram Palavandishvili[7] a host of the ‘With Palavandishvili’ show on Palitra TV News and Zviad Tomaradze an author of controversial draft laws proposing punishment for insulting religious feelings, the prohibition of activities of civil society organisations and banning abortion.[8] A number of NGOs launched a complaint against this particular host with a demand to investigate the violation of the Code of Conduct for Broadcasters on hate speech and discrimination.[9]Some members of ultra-right groups are also heads of other NGOs, created with the purpose of safeguarding national religious institutes, demographic society, national values and other related issues. These organisations that are chaired by Z. Tomaradze include the National Religious Institute, Georgia’s Demographic Society 21 and Nation and State. The chairperson of the board is Tamar Chiburadnize-Lomtadze, who at the same time is the chairperson of the board of ‘Georgian Demographic Revival Fund’. This fund, in turn, is under the patronage of businessman Levan Vasadze, a close associate of the Patriarch and critic of liberal European values.

According to the report by Transparency International supporters of the Georgian Demographic State are Shio Mujiri (Patriarch’s co-regent), businessmen Lasha Papashvili, Mamuka Khazaradze, Badri Japaridze, Zaza Nishniadze, a member of the ruling Georgian Dream party Dimitri Khundadze, alongside former chairman of the Parliament’s Healthcare and Social Issues Committee and one of the founders of Palitra Media Goga Tevdorashvili. Bidzina Ivanishvili, the former Prime-Minister, is believed to have provided support to the Fund.[10]

Other movements linked to the Georgian March

There are other movements that are either founded by the leaders of the Georgian March or are united under more or less similar values of protecting Georgian traditions, nationalism and religion. A ‘Civil Solidarity Movement’ is registered at the home address of one of the leaders of the Georgian March. Its board members include a businessman and a former prosecutor, freed from prison as a political prisoner. The purpose of the movement is to restore ‘justice’ and monitor whether promises made by Bidzina Ivanishvili’s team had been met. Its members are largely businessmen and political prisoners who suffered damages during the United National Movement rule. Another socio-political movement known as Georgian Mission called for the respect to citizens of all ethnic backgrounds and called upon everyone to work together towards united and strong state. One of the individuals who showed up and gave speech at a Georgian Mission rally in 2016 is a current member of the board of the Public Broadcaster.[11] The ‘’Georgian Idea’’ is another unit, who actively participated in promoting a protest of organised by Georgian March in July 2017. In 2015 it was registered as a political party that organised a press conference in international press centre of Russian news agency RIA Novosti in Tbilisi. The political party ran for the 2016 Parliamentary elections. The party list submitted to the Central Electoral Committee listed Sandro (Aleksandre) Bregadze as a candidate for the majoritarian election.

The Georgian National Unity

Georgian National Unity was established in 2016 with a view to carry out ‘peaceful and united policy, and protect Georgian mentality and its values’.[12] According to the Public Registry, they have a Chairman and a Royal Chancellor. Georgian National Unity vowed to protect Georgian traditions and respect foreign nationals, as long as, they do not insult the Georgian worldview. He does not explain what the Georgian worldview means but it is mainly related to Georgian traditional values and conservatism.  It also falls short of the European liberal views. The leader of National Unity in an interview with the press spoke with pride about being called a ‘Nazi’, organisation members wear arm bands similar to the Nazi swastika, and they greet each other with Nazi salutes. The organisation rules its members have to adhere to, including tough physical test and a ban on marrying anyone non-white. The leader also claimed that its members have a license to carry weapons. He admitted that during protests, they rely on the help of their ‘striker squads’ to ensure order during protests.[13]The leader of the party studied towards his master degree in International relations in Belarus and was later refused an internship at the Ministry of Foreign affairs.[14] It has to be noted that a similar Russia-based organisation called the Russian National Unity had been an active supporter of the Russian government and took part in armed conflict in Chechnya in 1994 and then in Donetsk in Ukraine.[15]

May 2018

On 11-13 May of 2018 Georgian special forces and law enforcement agents raided Tbilisi night clubs on the stated grounds of tackling drug dealing, resorting to excessive use of force. This sparked protests of clubbers and other young people, adding a demand for a more humane drug policy in Georgia. At least two ultra-right groups, Georgian National Unity and Georgian Idea, staged a counter demonstration with a demand to stop ‘LGBTI propaganda’ and a protest against ‘drug dealers’.[16]The Georgian National Unity members marched towards the protesters some wearing masks and arm bands in burgundy similar to the Nazi swastika. Its leader also threatened that they will be very “brutal” against any mistakes protesters can make-as they held church candles and announced the creation of a “national guard army to protect [the] motherland.”[17]In another bid to avoid confrontation between the protesters, the police prevented these groups from approaching the Parliament building and arrested another leader who threatened the demonstrators and attempted to breach the cordon. Some cases of violence and assault have been reported as members of the groups called for breaking up the rally, while some counter-protesters managed to break through and physically assault the pro-night club protesters. According to the Public Defender’s’ office the police cordon between the protesters and the neo-Nazi groups had significantly decreased the risk of escalation. Nevertheless the Minister of Interior told the peaceful protesters to disperse, since they could not guarantee their safety. In another attempt to gear up against LGBT propaganda and a so-called ‘drug dealers’, Georgian March created the ‘Agreement of National Powers’ that called for the protest rallies on 14 and 17 May. These rallies were later postponed.[18]


The existence of links between Russia and the funding of ultra-right groups are highly possible. One of the leaders of Georgian March, Dimitri Lortkipanidze had left the party, only to be appointed as the head of the Y.M.Primakov Georgian Russian Public Center two months later. The Center was founded in 2013 by the International Relations Institute and Gorchakov Diplomacy Support Fund in Russia. The Fund, which was established in 2012 by the order of the then President of the Russian Federation, Dmitry Medvedev is believed to be one of the ways Russia is able to channel its soft power.[19]The Primakov Centre finances-free Russian language courses in Georgia and supports the development of economic, charitable, social and cultural ties. Under the aegis of Gorchakov Fund, Russian business people and journalists met with Georgian wine makers,[20]organised sports tournaments with the participation of Russian and Georgian tennis players and hosted Russian art academy students in Georgia. It also aims to create a favourable public opinion on Russia abroad. In its recent statements, the spokesperson of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs mentioned that the Georgian-Russian relationship has increased significantly, air-plane flights have been resumed and restrictions on visas had been removed. The spokesperson also mentioned improved contact in the sphere of public, cultural and scientific ties. Moreover the appointment of one of the leaders of the Georgian March as a head of the Primakov Fund suggested that the increase of Neo-Nazi activities may fall within the interests of Russia.[21]

Role of the Orthodox Church

Georgian Orthodox church enjoyed great trust from public and has unequivocal support from the Georgian state authorities too. It has a constitutional recognition of the “Special role of the Apostolic Autocephalous Orthodox Church of Georgia in the history of Georgia”[22]and its relationship with the state is governed by the 2002 Concordat marking a separation between the Church and the State. According to the 2017 survey of the Public Opinion, the church enjoys 84% of approval from the population.[23] However, as suggested by the Kremlin Influence index 2017[24] that measures Russia’s influence of the information on the state, propaganda is often channelled through Georgian Orthodox Church and is evident in cases of anti-western propaganda.[25]The Patriarch of Orthodox Church Ilia II repeatedly confirmed its support for Georgia’s integration into the European Union and NATO. The Church however, leads isolationist policies towards the Western Christian organisations where in separate cases, its anti-Western statements of its clergy suggested indirect influence of the Russian Church.[26]In addition, the ‘traditionalism, conservatism, national values and the idea of unity’ greatly valued by the ultra-right groups are largely propagated by the Church.[27]In the most recent move, the Georgian Orthodox Church decided to dispatch a priest from the Russian church with a view to serve the Russian parish in Georgia. This information had been agreed by the Russian synod with the Georgian Church.

In an apparent bid to step up the response against anti-western propaganda, the EU and NATO information centre organised a high level meeting of the Orthodox Church representatives in Brussels in 2017.[28]The EU Global Strategy document marked the event to be successful and thought it to be a good example that helped a shift towards more positive public attitudes about the EU and its values.[29] On the ground, however, it did not necessarily stop other clergymen from delivering messages in support of the aggressive Russian narratives. On 13 May 2018, in an ill formed attempt to de-escalate tense confrontation between two groups of protesters, the Patriarchate claimed that youth protesters had brought a “negative vibe” which had in turn provided the grounds for the counter-protest.[30]Through this statement, the Patriarchate had chosen to take sides and justify the violence perpetrated by right wing groups.

Recognition of Russian soft power and its responses.

In 2016 Georgia had reaffirmed its aspiration towards joining the Euro-Atlantic family through a unanimously adopted resolution by the Georgian Parliament. It further stated that it will continue a rational and principled policy towards Russia, to mitigate the foreign policy threat with a view to maintain ‘stability in the region’.[31]The Georgian authorities first mentioned Russian propaganda in political documents in the beginning of 2017. As a result of long lobbying on the part of civil society, the Georgian government approved a document naming the propaganda as a threat to Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic integration and the strengthening pro-Russian and anti-Western forces.[32]It also mentioned that ‘soft power’ aimed at weakening state institutions including the Ministry of Defence. In relation to EU and NATO integration policy, the document aimed at adopting messages after a detailed review of opinion polls analysis of target groups, principle misperceptions and information gaps in society. Its annual report on activities produced to address these objectives. However, it was criticised by the coalition for Euro- Atlantic Partnership on issues of strategic communication around Georgia’s aspirations for membership of the EU and NATO. The coalition found the action plan failed to respond to ‘hybrid challenges, including the information warfare’ and found it be incoherent. It also dubbed the activities conducted ranging from ‘waste management training’ to ‘tree planting events’ and ‘hour of garden birds’ to be missing the main target. It then offered its readiness to cooperate with the authorities and highlighted the need to establish mechanisms for strategic communication and enhancing the political will to make it work.[33]

The National Cyber Security Strategy of Georgia for 2017-2018 named cyberattacks and cyber-crimes organised by the Russian Federation as a major threat. The documents also stated that Russia’s actions aimed to hinder Georgia’s integration into Euro-Atlantic structure and identified a need for further legislative changes and enhanced international cooperation to tackle Russian cyber-attacks.[34] Yet, another report from the State Security services, for the first time, cited threats stemming from the foreign intelligence services-as they attempted to stir up anti-Western sentiment in the Georgian society, damaging Georgia’s image as a reliable partner.[35]Alongside this document, in 2014 Georgia supported the Council of Europe Resolution on counteracting neo-Nazism and right wing extremism. It recognised a sophisticated nature of the past symbols and structures ‘including party logos reminiscent of swastika’ and highlighted a need of an early intervention including manifestation of neo- Nazism, disrespectful of their violent or nonviolent nature.[36] Prior to this Georgia adopted a Freedom Charter law banning totalitarian and Nazi symbols and propaganda. The law, however, does not specifically define these symbols, lacks an effective enforcement mechanism, and has an inefficient commission responsible for identifying these symbols, making it cumbersome. Nevertheless, the authorities have not been prompt in mitigating threats by the Neo-Nazi march using hate speech in central Tbilisi. The Prime Minister later mentioned that the law is not effective in fighting against neo-Nazi groups but according to the Minister of Interior, it did not hinder authorities to react on the breaches perpetrated by the members of the counter rally.[37]The National Ombudsman identified number of alleged criminal law violations committed by the counter protestors and urged the authorities to conduct an effective investigation into these violations.

The members of the counter-protest were charged under the Code of Administrative Offences on hooliganism and disobedience to the police and were subsequently fined.[38]There has been no information on criminal charges, except for one charge officially stated on the site of the Ministry of Interior.[39] The Ministry of Interior stated that that there were criminal investigations underway on members of the counter-rally. Finally, the removal by bus of peaceful protesters to protect them from the counter rally by the Georgian authorities was met with some discontent. A leader of the civil society organisation[40] and a political party-agreed on the opinion that the authorities gave similar responses to both groups. This was previously echoed by the European Court of Human Rights in its 2015 decision against Georgia, where it stated that the right to counter-demonstrate cannot ‘‘extend to inhibiting the exercise of the right to demonstrate.’’ The whole situation has echoes of a similar incident of 2012, where Georgian authorities removed the members of the flash mob on the International Day against Homophobia to protect them against the threats from the counter rally. On this occasion, the ECtHR held that members had a right to hold a demonstration without having to ‘‘fear that they will be subjected to physical violence by their opponents’’ or facing repercussions for holding opinions on ‘highly controversial issues affecting the community’.[41]

Finally, Georgia in 2014 signed a European Association Agreement with the European Union and took a commitment to enhance rule of law and good governance. A 2017 joint communique initiated by Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova on rethinking Eastern Partnership highlighted a need to increase efforts for stronger resilience towards Russian hybrid challenges and threats. The joint Communique then thought to hold special hearing in EU Parliament on hybrid challenges and acts of aggression by Russia and increase individual resilience through more robust democratic reforms and vibrant societies and credible state institutions.[42]

Ways forward

This essay shows that Georgia has been effective in identifying threats posed by the Russian propaganda. Its responses, however, have not been effective or proficient. Georgia needs to make the communication strategy and its activities under its action plan more consistent and well-coordinated between cross sectoral agencies. It also showed that some strategies contained a more detailed vision on how to address these challenges including improved legislative framework and a better international co-operation. Further analysis showed that Russian meddling can be seen within some ultra-right groups, whilst there is no direct link with others. To this end, it is important for the State to identify these organisations, inform the general public about its threats and tackle the myths on ‘threats to identity and a statehood’ through clearly communicated counter narratives.

As shown, civil society in Georgia has been active in advising a government on strategic communication. Establishment of a Coalition for Euro-Atlantic Georgia by leading NGOs is thought to be a good example. The Georgian authorities, however, need to show more openness towards cooperation, making its interaction more substantial and consistent. This essay further identified a need to amend the law for it to tackle the challenges of neo Nazi groups.

On a more general level, Georgia needs to follow its obligations under the PACE resolution on raising awareness through education at an early age. It needs to provide cross- sectoral strategies to prevent and combat neo-Nazi ideology with a view to reduce breeding grounds for its ideology.

About the author: Mariam has worked as a researcher with Democracy Reporting International on polarization and populism in Georgia. Prior to this she researched issues related to ill treatment and discrimination in prisons and health care settings taking cases before regional human rights courts. During her work as a strategic litigation lawyer in Georgia, she reviewed cases related to violations occurring during and after the Georgian-Russian armed conflict. Mariam holds an LLM in international Human Rights Law from University of Essex and an MA in Political Science from Central European University. She was greatly assisted by Mamuka Andguladze from Transparency International Georgia.

[1]Father Teodore explaining why it is not ‘good’ to have foreign settlers in Georgia.

[2]As an example, The Kremlin influence index 2017 cited a newspaper article in one of church editions in which Ruis Urbnisi metropolitan, episcope Iobi assessed Russian bombs during the 2008 Russia-Georgia war as punishment sent from heaven. Experts noted that “separate religious servant are distinguished for their aggressive obedience to narratives of the Russian Orthodox Church.”

[3] Imedi News, Who are members of the protest and what are their demands?.–vin-arian-da-ra-undat-aqtsiis-organizatorebs. July 2017. See also, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. International Religious Freedom Report for 2017,’/religiousfreedom/index.htm?year=]=]2017&dlid=280908#wrapper

[4] Transparency International, Anatomy of Georgian Neo-Nazism, May 2018., May2018.

[5] Ibid.

[6] A former member of the Party: Burjanadze-Democrats.

[7] His narratives contained included homophobic and xenophobic expressions. Non-governmental organizations addressed self-regulation body of the Palitra News with a complaint. The Georgian National Communications Commission ruled that there was a violation of the independence principle, use of hate speech and discrimination.

[8] Transparency International (2018)

[9] No to Phobia.

[10] Transparency International (2018)

[11]Transparency International (2018)

[12]Tbiliselebi. How females are accepted as members in the fascist organizations and who they are allowed to fall in love with, June 2018,

[13] Ibid.

[14]Studio ‘Obiseqtivi’. Announcement of the leader of the Georgian National Unity, Zaza Chelidze, 2017,

[15]Anticor„Священной войны за Новороссию  (Holy war for New Russia), August 2017,

[16]Radio Free Liberty, Tbilisi rally continues after protestors dismantle camps, May 2018,


[18]Transparency International (2018)

[19]Transparency International (2018).

[20]Russian Journalists and Businessmen are meeting Georgian Wine Makers.

[21]Transparency International (2018)

[22]Article 9. Constitution of Georgia.

[23]Georgia Today: IRI Survey: Dissatisfaction with National Institutions Increases in Georgia, May 2018,

[24]Via Tabula, Kremlin Influence index-measures the ability of the Russian government to influence the information of other countries, 2017,




[28]The visit of the representatives of the Georgian Orthodox Church in Brussels. 2017.

[29] EU Global strategy Report: A year of action to address ‘predictable unpredictability’, (p.16)

[30]The Statement of the Patriarchate of Georgia, May 2018,

[31]Resolution of the Parliament of Georgia on the Foreign Policy of Georgia Georgian Parliament.  Para 7. , 2016,

[32]Office of the State Minister of Georgia on European and Euro-Atlantic Integration. Communication Strategy on Georgia’s Membership to the EU and NATO for 2017-2020, April 2017,

[33]Coalition for Euro-Atlantic Georgia offers partnership to government on issues of strategic communication about Georgia’s membership to the EU and NATO, 2018,

[34] Government of Georgia, National Cyber Security Strategy of Georgia for 2017-2018, January 2017,

[35]The Security Service of Georgia. 2018. The Report of the State Security Service of Georgia., 2017,

[36] Council of Europe, Parliamentary Assembly: Counteraction to manifestations of neo-Nazism and right-wing extremism. The European Convention on Human Rights in Vrona versus Hungary, it stated that participants of the political party that worn armbands quite similar to those of offers of the Arrow cross (responsible for the reign of terror in Hungary in 1944/45). It took the view that marches with participants that were dressed in this way were objectively capable of wounding “historical sensitivities” and also the according to the court, the verbal and visual demonstration  of power alone amounted to an infringement of then Hungarian law, in the light of historical experience.

[37]Netgazeti: GakhaL The law to fight against neo-Nazi groups are not at all effective, May 2018, http://netgazeti.gnews/278310/,

[38]Netgazeti: Members of the counter rally were fined by 400 to 500 lari, May 2018,

[39]The Ministry of Interior started an investigation into the alleged threat charges made by a member of the Georgian National Unity, May 2018,

[40] Interview with Giorgi Mshvenieradze, Georgian Democracy Initiative (GDI) and Tamar Kordzaia, former MP and a Political Secretary of the Republican Party July 2018.

[41] Identoba and Others v. Georgia (application no. 73235/12),

[42]Joint Communiqué Strategic Rethinking of the Eastern Partnership, 2017,

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