Georgia may be touted as the most pro-Western country in the South Caucasus, but the recent backlash against LGBT activists in Tbilisi underscores how wide the cultural divide is when it comes to defining democratic values.
While most Georgians condemn the violent May 17 attack on an anti-homophobia rally, many do not see the core issue as having anything to do with a lack of tolerance, a right to freedom of assembly or respect for minority rights. Rather, many see the central issue as a matter that goes to the heart of Georgia’s national heritage and cultural identity: should Georgians be expected to embrace a lifestyle seen as common in the West, but unsuitable for Georgian society and incompatible with the teachings of the country’s main unifying force, the Georgian Orthodox Church?
Many Georgians would answer no to that question. After years of jumping through hoops to meet Western demands, some say they have seen no results – popularly defined as economic prosperity and territorial security – out of the process. How showing greater respect for gay rights, an issue often misinterpreted in Georgia as meaning general avowal of personal homosexuality, will change that situation leaves many at a loss to explain.
“If the West wants us, they have to take us as we are,” declared Georgian Orthodox Church Bishop Iakob of Bodbe and Tsurtaveli in response to international criticism of the attempt to drive LGBT activists from Freedom Square, an event in which he took part.
Criticism coming from the West about the May 17 events appears to be doing more to fuel resentment than fostering soul-searching. “Whoever -- America or Europe -- comes to us as a friend, we will be friends, of course. But if it wants to dictate its own [agenda], we will not accept that,” said a Tbilisi tobacco stand worker named Nodar.
One Tbilisi printing shop clerk agreed. “In general, [the West] has been treating [Georgia] like a little child: ‘If you will behave well, we will take you to ride the rides” said Manuchar. “That is having a really bad effect on people.”
The explanation for such sentiments lies, in part, in the context of current times.
“Georgian society at the moment is very poor, very frustrated, very unhappy and…caring [more] about economic and survival issues [than self-expression],” said political scientist Marina Muskhelishvili, co-founder of the Centre for Social Studies in Tbilisi. “Nobody can expect that it [Georgia] will become European in a moment … and tolerate all lifestyles and all behaviors.”
In recent years, as Georgians have grappled with economic, political turmoil and perceived encroachments on their country’s sovereignty, interest in all things seen as intrinsically Georgian – in particular, the Church -- has increased. The issue of gay rights, as Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili explained to European diplomats on May 24, is “relatively new to us,” news outlets reported.
Against that backdrop, international calls for respecting those minorities’ right to assemble can come across more as demands to change “core values,” said Koba Turmanidze, country director of the Caucasus Research Resource Centers (CRRC), which runs annual surveys on values in the South Caucasus. “[I]t is hard to say whether people understand that no one asks you to become gay, no one asks you to marry a person of your gender; you are just asked not to beat these people up,” Turmanidze said.
While Georgian television reported Western diplomats as expressing “surprise” at the attack on LGBT activists, in reality, the display served as “maybe [a] very good reminder” that Georgia, though “going ahead fast” toward democracy, has not yet arrived at its final destination, observed political scientist Alexander Rondeli, founder of the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies in Tbilisi (GFSIS).
Muskhelishvili cautioned that the cultural divide could widen if Western governments do not listen more and lecture less. “For many years, Western partners were promoting [the] development of Georgia. But in many cases they were following their own vision of what is on the agenda” within the country, she said.
Women’s rights, for instance, are “not a priority” for Georgians since they are more concerned with “how to feed their family” than about “who is the boss in the family,” she noted.
Representatives of the US Embassy and European Union's mission in Tbilisi did not comment when queried on the cultural-divide question.
The Georgian government should do more to inform the public about the role civil rights plays in any partnership with the West, said Viktor Dolidze, chair of the Parliamentary Committee for European Integration. At present, many Georgians see the prospect of membership in the European Union or the North Atlantic Treaty Organization purely in terms of the benefits of enjoying a greater degree of stability and prosperity. Few are taking into account the fact that membership in such organizations will require Georgia to harmonize its values with EU and NATO norms, Dolidze added.
With time, though, more and more Georgians will come to understand the challenges, said GFSIS’s Rondeli. “Only now, [a] generation of Georgians understand[s] they have to have [a] modern, democratic, inclusive, nation state,” he said. “And now, people are starting to understand that it is very difficult to achieve.”
Molly Corso is a freelance journalist who also works as editor of Investor.ge, a monthly publication by the American Chamber of Commerce in Georgia.