Georgian government crackdown on 'LGBTQ+ propaganda' risks EU aspirations

Georgian government crackdown on 'LGBTQ+ propaganda' risks EU aspirations
The LGBTQ+ community in Georgia is a dynamic underground movement, organising drag shows attended by thousands, yet it has never been able to exercise its right to free assembly. / bne IntelliNews
By Tornike Mandaria in Tbilisi March 26, 2024

As Georgia heads for parliamentary elections in October, with bread and butter issues topmost in voters' minds,  the government has announced a Russian-style plan to ban what it describes as LGBTQ+ "propaganda". 

Georgia, having just been granted candidate status for European Union membership in December 2023, is obligated to enhance standards of human rights protection before opening accession negotiations. The government, once celebrated for adopting an anti-discrimination law that brought the country closer to European integration, therefore now risks undermining its own European aspirations for the sake of potential electoral advantage.

“It is imperative to protect family values and safeguard our future generations from the anticipated irreversible consequences of pseudo-liberal propaganda,” said Mamuka Mdinaradze, executive secretary of the ruling Georgian Dream (GD) party, during a briefing at the party's office on March 25.

The Constitutional Law on Family Values and Protection of Minors aims to ban same-sex or non-heterosexual child adoption, sex change surgery, and any educational programmes or promotions that ‘popularise’ same-sex families or relationships. 

Mdinaradze also hinted at the possibility of banning Pride events, stating that if judged as promotion, a Pride festival would be prohibited.

The ruling party lacks the necessary votes (113) to pass the constitutional amendments, holding only 82 of 150 seats in parliament. However, Mdinaradze said they will initiate specific changes in numerous laws in the near future, with the assurance of their adoption this year, probably after the elections. 

Tbilisi Pride, the LGBTQ+ rights organization, called the proposed bill "homophobic" in a Facebook post.

Constitutional expert Vakhushti Menabde said the ruling party itself admitted that their initiative is against the current constitution. “The contradiction with the constitution is so obvious that it is necessary to change the constitution to implement the idea," Menabde said.

The Georgian Constitution upholds the equality of all and prohibits persecution based on one's opinions and expressions.

According to Menabde, the government lacks the ability to address real issues in the country, such as halting emigration, improving the quality of education, combating poverty, and eliminating economic inequality, so instead has chosen to target phantom concerns. Georgian Dream still leads opinion polls but its support has fallen since the last election.

In the Name of ‘Family Values’

Georgian Dream has of course got form when it comes to LGBTQ+ issues.

In July 2021, the government refused to protect what was supposed to be the first Pride March in Tbilisi, with then prime minister Irakli Garibashvili saying “it won't happen, and we won't allow it… Everything will be as our people, our population want in our country”. 

Violent groups opposing Pride attacked media representatives whom they associated with the Western liberal agenda. They beat dozens of people, broke into and looted the offices of the Pride organisers. The organisers of the violence have not been punished so far.

In 2023, the Tbilisi Pride music festival, which had a closed list of guests, was stormed by a far-right group before it even began, while police just stood by, despite guarantees of safety. 

The LGBTQ+ community in Georgia is a dynamic underground movement, organising drag shows attended by thousands, yet it has never been able to exercise its right to free assembly.

Government officials have even attacked McDonald's over alleged "LGBT propaganda" in a Happy Meal deal.  The book, part of a global McDonald's campaign featuring childhood stories of celebrities, briefly mentioned Elton John's homosexuality, stating that he "got married and started the family he always dreamed of with his spouse, David, and two sons".

Nevertheless it was not always this way. 

In 2014, GD’s support for an anti-discrimination law was seen as a commitment to protecting the rights of all and also paved the way for a visa-free regime with the EU.

In the past Georgian Dream representatives at the Council of Europe consistently opposed legislative changes damaging LGBTQ+ rights. They condemned "gay propaganda" bans in different countries, and even condemned Russia's stigmatisation of LGBT people.

In recent years, however, the rhetoric within Georgian Dream has become increasingly confrontational towards the West, with terms like "LGBT propaganda" being used pejoratively against critics. 

Georgia's predominantly Orthodox Christian population largely disapproves of same-sex relationships, a factor the government seems keen to exploit in mobilising conservative voter bases and gaining the support of the influential Orthodox Church.

Despite accusations from critics both within the country and in the West that the Georgian Dream government has authoritarian tendencies and is excessively close to neighbouring Russia, Georgia was granted EU candidate status in December 2023. 

But with the status came nine conditions, including enhancing the standards of human rights protection. This encompasses the adoption of an ambitious human rights strategy, alongside ensuring the freedom of assembly and expression. 

It also mandates the initiation of impartial, effective, and timely investigations into incidents involving threats against vulnerable groups, media professionals, and civil activists, with the aim of bringing the organisers and perpetrators of such violence to justice.

Critics argue it is clear that the Georgian government crackdown on LGBTQ+ rights now not only jeopardises its relationship with the EU but also reflects an authoritarian tendency and a worrying closeness to the kind of policies followed by Vladimir Putin's dictatorship in Russia, as well as Viktor Orban's hybrid regime in Hungary.