Just as festival organizers finished setting up the venue for the final event of the Tbilisi PRIDE Festival on July 8, a mob of several thousand far-right protesters marched to disrupt the event, which they claimed was a “Western plot.” By the time the mob approached the festival venue, the festival organizers and all of the guests of the event were evacuated to avoid confrontation. In 2021, organizers of Tbilisi PRIDE canceled the “March of Dignity” that was organized as part of that year's Pride Week amid violent attacks by anti-LGBTQ protestors. At least 50 journalists were battered, and a violent mob stormed and ransacked the offices of the march's organizers — Tbilisi Pride and Shame Movement, a liberal activists group. To avoid similar confrontation this year, the festival organizers said in a tweet:
🧵❗️We were compelled to cancel the Pride Fest and evacuate the Fest territory. @MIAofGeorgia once again neglected to protect us from violent far-right groups and allowed the mobs to prevent us from exercising our freedom of expression & assembly even in private settings.
— Tbilisi Pride (@TbilisiPride) July 8, 2023
All events organized as part of PRIDE this year were held in closed venue spaces. Last year, despite attempts to intervene and prevent the PRIDE festival, the organizers were able to successfully conclude the event.
In a statement following the violence this year, the organizers accused the Ministry of Interior of “jointly orchestrating” the violent attack with far-right and pro-Russian group Alt Info who disrupted previous PRIDE events.
In July 2022, 20 far rights activists were convicted over their violent attack on the PRIDE march in 2021. At the time of the verdict, Alt Info members who gathered outside the courtroom reacted with rage when the verdicts were announced. None of the accused pleaded guilty, claiming they had not physically attacked anyone during the riots. Additionally, none of the organizers of the violent attacks, which were led by the extremist group Alt Info, were charged.
Police did little to intervene this year, according to reports. Hours before marching to the festival ground, the group gathered at one of the avenues in the capital, where its members delivered statements. Speaking to the crowd, one of the far-right leaders, Shota Martynenko, said, “Our plan is simple, under no circumstances will they be allowed to hold the festival… Now the roads will be closed and the area will be besieged. Whatever resistance we meet on the ground, we will respond accordingly,” according to reporting by Civil.ge.
The police's lack of response raised questions about whether the act was deliberate. In recent months, police have used excessive force against protesters in Georgia, most recently during the rallies against government attempts to adopt a Foreign Agent law. No water canons were seen in the vicinity of the festival venue. One user tweeted, asking whether it was because there were priests in the crowd:
видимо, когда среди протестующих столько священников, применять спецсредства для разгона нельзя, только голыми руками) pic.twitter.com/CVoCB9vJlW
— сологуб (@ivegottheflu) July 8, 2023
Guess when there are so many priests among protesters you cannot resort to special equipment to disperse the crowd, only bear hands are allowed.
Some of the mob members were seen leaving the festival area with yoga mats and soft drinks that were meant for the event participants.
So the anti-pride crowd left the Pride Fest area in Tbilisi, stealing property of the Pride Fest attendants
The Georgian government showed to the world they could not and did not want to control a crowd of a few hundred people who set their aim at sexual minorities. pic.twitter.com/twwZSyqJWC
— Jelger Groeneveld (@jelger_) July 8, 2023
They also tore down and burned LGBTQ+ flags and festival banners and caused severe damage to the premises as well as the property of Tbilisi PRIDE organizers:
Sad news: Our event has suffered severe damage. The stage, star wagon, and stands have been damaged. Thieves have also snatched the drinks from our bars and other valuable items.
We desperately need your help 🙏 Please help out by making a donation. Every contribution matters. pic.twitter.com/tBt6E5zRz1
— Tbilisi Pride (@TbilisiPride) July 8, 2023
The site where the festival was planned also belongs to the Tbilisi Open Air/Alter Visions — the largest music festival in the Caucasus. In a statement issued on July 9, Tbilisi Open Air said the site is rented on an annual basis, and the festival inventory is stored at the warehouse on the festival's site, but the mob broke into the warehouse as well, stealing and damaging festival equipment. The music festival organizers said they were demanding compensation from the authorities, who “encouraged the rioters and contributed to both the disruption of Pride and the deliberate destruction of our festival site, which lasted for hours.”
Meanwhile, according to reporting by OC Media, “Alt Info celebrated as they destroyed and burnt installations on the festival grounds.” After the raid on the festival area, one of Alt Info’s leaders, Zurab Makharadze, while addressing supporters, called for parliament to pass an anti-queer “propaganda” law.
While organizers accused the police of failing to protect the organizers and the participants of the festival, the government had other opinions. Shalva Papuashvili, the speaker of the parliament from the ruling Georgian Dream party, praised the police applauding them for doing their job protecting people’s safety. Meanwhile, the Ministry of the Interior blamed the “excessive turnout” at the festival for the violence, which according to the Ministry, made it “difficult for the police to effectively manage the crowd.”
The festival was organized on a private, registration-only basis. There were only several dozen people at the festival venue at the time of the attack, and no one was injured. Some 3,000 guests registered to attend the festival, said Mariam Kvaratskhelia, an LGBTQ+ activist, in an interview with The Washington Post.
Condemnation from the West
The violence documented on July 8 was condemned by scores of international and local actors. Addressing the European Parliament, its President, Roberta Metsola, said in a statement, “the lives and safety of the LGBTQI+ community must be a priority. People deserve to live their lives free from fear. From here, I want to signal, our solidarity and our support.”
Similarly, the Secretary General of the Council of Europe, Marija Pejčinović Burić condemned the act of violence in a tweet:
— Marija Pejčinović Burić (@MarijaPBuric) July 8, 2023
At home, one of the biggest critics of the violence was President Salome Zurabishvili. In a press briefing, President Zurabishvili said, “Parliament members of the ruling Georgian Dream instigated and openly supported Alt Info.” In a series of tweets, the President said, “The ruling party failed to condemn their own followers, who openly propagate hate speech and incitation to violence,” and that “freedoms of expression and assembly guaranteed by our constitution were both violated.”