Political change and manifestation of violence in Georgia

In 2012, for the first time in its 22 years of independence, Georgia witnessed the peaceful transfer of power through the ballot box. It was a significant development for the country’s ambitious democratisation agenda. However, the news of religious intolerance in the villages of Nigvziani, Tsintskharo and Chela, where there are substantial Muslim populations, and about violence against anti-homophobia rally participants on 17th May 2013 were a stark reminder to many who were still jubilant about the electoral breakthrough.[1]

Violence is not a new phenomenon for Georgian society. The post-independence period has been marked by two territorial conflicts and ensuing forced displacement, a civil war, opposition crackdowns on several occasions and attempts to overthrow the government, the government’s unaccountability, crude human rights violations, property expropriation, poverty and low standards of living. In a way, government violence towards citizens and people’s violence against each other have become part of everyday life.

Hopes that things would change after the 2012 parliamentary and 2013 presidential elections are still high, because electing a new government meant the rejection of the previous government’s violent practices. Indeed, the new government has become more responsive to citizens, more respectful of their rights and freedoms, and more open to engage civil society in decision and policy making. One might argue that state violence against citizens has decreased. However, a transitional period between October 2012 and October 2013 witnessed an increase in intolerance and even violence against religious and sexual minorities by fellow citizens.

Some explanations offered as to why these incidents have occurred include factors such as the inherent nationalism and fundamentalism evident among Georgians, the radical conservatism of the Georgian Orthodox Church, the new government’s alliance with the Georgian Orthodox Church and the provocations of the United National Movement. Yet, no attempts have been made to understand the root causes of this violence and intolerance and why they have occurred at the particular moment in time. There is no doubt that Georgian society in general harbours traditional and conservative values; however, this characteristic cannot be considered a catalyst of violence in itself.

Reasons why people resort to violence

For the past 10 years, Georgian society has lived largely under authoritarian rule, during which the state constantly suppressed people’s freedom and violated fundamental rights. The government often used violent means to silence political, social, ethnic, religious and sexual differences within Georgian society. It was common, for example, to violently disperse political opponents, jail ethnic minority activists who were portrayed as separatists, forcefully evict internally displaced persons (IDPs) from their temporary shelters, silence critics, carry out mass surveillance and fire state officials on political grounds. A heavily controlled media, especially television, which is the main source of information for citizens, excluded from their programmes different opinions on ethnic, religious or sexual minorities.

As conflict theory scholars put it: “collective recognition of individual grievances…leads to collective protest” and “relative deprivation can lead to collective violence”.[2] In other words, when an individual or a group perceives that their needs and rights are being regularly denied and violated, they are likely to resort to violence to deter these deprivations. The joint grievance motivates them to act together.

In practice, this has meant that Georgia’s deprival of basic human needs of self-expression, security and self-realisation has resulted in a widespread sense of injustice, anger and possibly even irrational hatred, which became evident immediately after the government relaxed its pressure. Many of the violent counter-demonstration organisers and leaders on 17th May included those who were recently released from jail as ‘political prisoners’ and who are now united under the organisation ‘Former Political Prisoners for Human Rights Protection’. Back in 2010, the Muslim community of Nigvziani, which accounts for up to 35% of the village population, started to build a prayer house, but the local government forced them to dismantle the mosque’s foundation.[3] This incident was not reported in the media; nor did the Muslim community express open protest, arguably out of fear of government pressure, and the issue was resolved forcefully. Violence only reproduces violence: thus, in 2013 during the power vacuum created due to ‘cohabitation’, groups who felt deprived, frustrated and neglected came out of the shadows to speak up.

Yet, the emergence of frustrated groups might not automatically result in violence. Such violence is often orchestrated by various actors, who make rational calculations aimed at increasing their legitimacy and support base or creating group cohesion.

The counter-demonstration against the 17th May anti-homophobic rally was organised by a small group of people, who by that time were largely unknown to the public and who were unlikely to gather many people. Nonetheless, the demonstration was joined by clergy, who were in charge of mobilising their congregation. Violence started to spread when a group of young men, many of them former prisoners and clergy, broke through the police barrier.

The event was an opportunity for the hawkish group of clergy to prove their legitimacy and supremacy over more moderate groups within the church in their struggle for the succession of the Patriarch and to demonstrate their power to an audience outside the church, primarily to the government.[4] To achieve these aims, they successfully manipulated people’s grievances and channelled them into violence. The statements of a senior cleric, Bishop Jakob, immediately after the 17th May clashes is revealing:

Let’s have a look at the past; let’s remember 26th May, 7th November [when Saakashvili’s government imposed a violent crackdown on opposition rallies], events that were happening every day in Georgia. Today, these individual [gay rights activists] are condemning us [who attacked the gay right activists]. They’d better not mistake us for those who will stay quiet and not demand a payback… They [referring to the government] were raping people in prison, expropriating property, changing the law everyday… How dare they say we are violent… What happened today was demanded by the nation. You know very well that the United National Movement required two-and-a-half months to gather 5,000 people [for its 19th April 2013 rally]. Today, people came on their own initiative… Several millions would have come [onto the streets] if needed…We don’t threaten anyone, but one day we will be fed up and they [presumably referring to gay rights defenders and NGOs] will get what they deserve.[5]

Reasons for current manifestations of violence and intolerance

The fall of authoritarian regimes is often followed by a difficult transitory period, just like the period after the fall of the Soviet Union or of Former Yugoslavia. Georgia has also undergone a small degree of transition from the previous government of Saakashvili to the new government of Garibashvili under the bigger picture of post-Soviet transformation.

After the change of power, government pressure was lifted and this created a space for articulating the anger and grievances that had been accumulating for years. More freedom in the media has enabled many previously marginalised groups to communicate with the wider public. The anti-homophobia and counter-demonstrations were both announced on TV in advance, and the organisers had a chance to promote their plans and actions. A newly registered organisation called the ‘Nationalist Front’, which also actively participated in the counter-demonstration, openly states that it is a nationalist organisation, demanding an anti-immigration policy, rejecting the construction of new mosques and so on. Such demands were near impossible during the previous government. However, these groups and their activities now have access to the media, including TV, and receive coverage.

Unlike the previous government, this new government’s approach to problem-solving has been to initiate discussions between various religious groups and the government. For instance, the Muslim leaders of Nigvziani and Tsintskharo villages expressed their gratitude to the leader of the Georgian Orthodox Church, Ilia II, for meeting them and condemning the violent incidents as ‘shameful’.[6] This kind of multi-party dialogue can enhance mutual respect and trust. Democracy building and consolidation cannot be achieved through the decision-making of a limited group of people. On the contrary, democratic society involves various groups who negotiate their interests and solve differences through democratic institutions and mechanisms, without resorting to violence.

However, the state cannot rely solely on inter-faith dialogue and remain a mere facilitator of this process. Instead of mere conflict or crisis management, the Georgian government should adopt a more comprehensive approach to protect freedom of expression and religion, enforce the law, develop better civil and human rights education, train local officials from ethnically or religiously mixed settlements, and formulate a clear position on these incidents. The government has a core responsibility to protect and support minority groups. There should be strict legal regulation of intolerance, xenophobia and hate speech, especially in the media. The state should adequately respond to the expression of violence, thus eliminating future violations.

Conclusions and recommendations

For the first time ever, Muslims in Nigvziani are now able to pray in a prayer house.[7] In addition, 2013 witnessed the first ever anti-homophobia demonstration in Georgia, which the new government openly endorsed. Although these incidents turned ugly, lessons can be drawn by the government and society in general for the future.

  • Firstly, violence occurs if various groups in society feel deprived of their basic needs and rights. Their frustration can serve as fertile ground for violent action.
  • Secondly, denying and covering up problems cannot eliminate intolerance and violence. On the contrary, it exacerbates tensions, which are likely to explode when the moment it ripe.
  • Thirdly, violence is often instigated by leaders who strategise their actions, using nationalistic, intolerant discourse to manipulate societal grievances for specific goals.

These lessons indicate how Georgian society and the government should proceed in dealing with violent manifestations. Georgia is taking a long and painful road of social change, on which the government’s decisive position and inclusive policies will be of utmost importance.

In a commendable step, some high-ranking officials openly expressed support to minority groups a few days before the 17th May anti-homophobia demonstration. The then Prime Minister, Bidzina Ivanishvili, the Minister of Justice, Tea Tsulukiani, and the then Minister of Interior, Irakli Garibashvili, explicitly stated that sexual minorities have rights equal to the rest of Georgia’s citizens and are entitled to the same freedoms. This is the first such statement of its kind from high-ranking politicians. The State Minister of Reintegration [now renamed the Minister for Reconciliation and Civic Equality], Paata Zakareishvili, voiced his support for ethnic and religious minorities on various occasions. The Minister of Defence, Irakli Alasania, visited a mosque with a group of Georgian army members to meet Muslim leaders. Such actions and statements send a clear message that the state does not discriminate against citizens on ethnic, religious or sexual grounds.

Yet, beyond the rhetoric, the government’s response to the 17th May violations was inadequate according to leading Georgian and international human rights organisations. Only five people, including two priests, were arrested, fined and released. One human rights group argues that the inadequate government response to the first religious intolerance incident in the village of Nigvziani has actually caused conflict to spread to other regions.[8] This is because groups can become easily mobilised to take collective action, knowing that others have successfully done it before and got away with it. There is also a danger that radical and conservative groups can attract more people, because social, political and economic grievances are still acute in society.

The government should consider dealing with groups and institutions which often propagate intolerance and trigger violence. It should make it clear that mobilisation of one group of people by the clergy against another group is unacceptable and dangerous for social harmony.[9] The government should particularly watch out for aggressive, xenophobic and nationalist rhetoric by local clergy, who mobilise their congregation against neighbours and friends of different religious background, also keeping an eye on local government and police officers who either fail to react or provoke tensions. Such measures may be painful and less popular today, but will bring positive results in the medium and long term. Georgia now has a unique chance to become a genuine, stable democracy, maybe even serving as a model for the Caucasus region.

Structural solutions are required to reduce people’s grievances. Relations between the Christian and Muslim population in the village of Nigvziani are still tense and the government needs to address their grievances. Unfortunately, the government has neglected the importance of psychological rehabilitation, as a transitional justice mechanism, for those who suffered in the past. Democratisation, protection of minorities and human rights, access to justice, rule of law and elimination of poverty should all remain high on the Georgian government’s agenda. As one academic puts it: “Peace is development in the broadest sense of the term.”[10]

[1] Details of these events are available here: ‘Violence prevails in aftermath of thwarted gay rights rally’, Civil Georgia, 17th May 2013, available at http://www.civil.ge/eng/article.php?id=26066(this link will open in a new window); ‘Minaret conflict in Chela, Georgia, still unresolved’, Democracy and Freedom Watch, 12th November 2013, available at http://dfwatch.net/minaret-conflict-in-chela-georgia-still-unresolved-23762(this link will open in a new window); ‘In rural Georgia, a clash of prayers and prejudices’, Transitions Online, 20th December 2012, available at http://www.tol.org/client/article/23526-in-rural-georgia-a-clash-of-prayers-and-prejudices.html?print(this link will open in a new window).

[2] E. Azar (1990). The Management of Protracted Social Conflict: Theory and Cases. Hampshire: Dartmouth; and J. Burton (1990). Conflict: Human Needs Theory. London and New York: Macmillan and St Martin’s Press.

[3] ‘Crisis of secularism and loyalty towards the dominant group: The role of the government in the 2012–2013 religious conflicts in Georgia’, Human Rights Education and Monitoring Center (EMC), Tbilisi, 2013. Available at: http://emcrights.files.wordpress.com/2013/12/crisis-of-secularism-and-loalty-towards-the-dominant-group-emc.pdf(this link will open in a new window).[4] See C. Fairbanks (June 2013). ‘Weighing what we do for democracy in the South Caucasus’, Heinrich Böll Foundation Conference Publication. Available at: http://www.ge.boell.org/web/52-1568.html(this link will open in a new window).

[5] Bishop Jakob’s appeal on 17th May 2013 is available at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kBfRMijMFUE(this link will open in a new window).

[6] EMC, 2013, Op. cit.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.[9] ‘Demonstration against minaret in Georgian village’, Democracy and Freedom Watch, 29th November 2013, available at http://dfwatch.net/demonstration-against-minaret-in-georgian-village-74274(this link will open in a new window).

[10] Azar (1990), Op. cit.

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