LGBT rights and the long road to democracy in Georgia

Following the 2003 Rose Revolution nearly ten years ago, Georgia has been presented primarily as a transition success story. The government under President Mikheil Saakashvili undertook massive reforms to purge the country of its post-Soviet legacy of corruption. Georgia has become a staunch Western ally, has NATO aspirations, and is one of the largest non-NATO contributors of soldiers to Afghanistan (given its population). It's true that President Saakashvili showed questionable political judgment and perceptibly authoritarian instincts at times. But his finest moment came when it mattered most. In October 2012 his political party lost parliamentary elections to billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili's Georgian Dream coalition. Instead of contesting the voters' choice, Saakashvili graciously conceded defeat -- and the Caucasus country experienced the first peaceful transfer of power via the ballot box in its history.

But it's not just the actions of those in power that determine a democracy. It's also the people, and mentalities can be slow to change.

Today, May 17, is International Day Against Homophobia, and Georgian LGBT activists scheduled a rally to mark the occasion in central Tbilisi. It never took place: Thousands of anti-gay protestors, led by Orthodox priests, held a counter-demonstration on Rustaveli Avenue, Tbilisi's main street. Protestors carried images of Jesus and signs reading "Stop promoting homosexual propaganda in Georgia" and "We don't need Sodom and Gomorrah." Some women waved symbolic bundles of nettle to "beat the gay people." The activists decided to move their demonstration just down the street, to (quite ironically) Freedom Square. Chaos ensued. Despite a heavy police presence, the anti-gay protestors stormed the barricades protecting the pro-gay rally; police immediately ushered the LGBT activists out of the area in buses, which their opponents then attacked. As Giorgi Lomsadze of reports, shouts from the mob included "Kill them! Tear them to pieces!" Gay rights activists were chased down as they sought refuge in nearby shops and homes. According to Georgia's Healthcare minister, 28 people have been injured in the violence, though none critically.

The day before, on May 16, the Patriarch of the Georgian Orthodox Church, Ilia II, publicly called on the government to ban the gay rally, saying that it would be "an insult" to Georgian traditions. Members of the homophobe crowd on the streets have expressed similar sentiments. As one protestor put it, "we are against a rally that contradicts our Georgian morals and traditions."

To his credit, Prime Minister Ivanishvili, along with other leading officials, has condemned the violence: "The right to gather peacefully and to freely express one's opinion is fundamental to our democracy. Every Georgian citizen benefits fully and equally from this right. Acts of violence, discrimination and restriction of the rights of others will not be tolerated, and any perpetrators of such acts will be dealt with according to the law." Yet civil society groups have accused police of not properly protecting the gay rights marchers, saying they did not take the necessary precautions but only reacted to the attacks.

This is not the first time that anti-gay violence has appeared on Georgia's streets. Gay activists were also attacked last year by religious protesters (and Orthodox priests) when they held a gay rights march in Tbilisi, though on a much smaller scale. In 2011, a gay Frenchman working in Georgia was brutally stabbed to death after meeting a man through an online gay dating site. Most gay Georgians keep their sexual orientation secret because of such extreme public disapproval.

Indeed, the defeat of Saakashvili's United National Movement at the polls in October 2012 was largely due to a prison abuse scandal that erupted just two weeks earlier. A leaked video of prison guards beating and also sexually assaulting inmates with brooms and cigarettes brought Georgian protestors into the streets for days. Inmates had previously remained silent on the nature of the abuse precisely because homosexuality is such a taboo in Georgia's deeply macho culture. In one of the videos, a raped inmate pleads: "Please don't film this; I will do anything."

Such intolerance of homosexuality is not representative of all Georgians, of course. But the country remains deeply influenced by the Orthodox Church, which played an important role in forming Georgian national identity before and after the collapse of the Soviet Union. (Indeed, according to the most recent poll by the International Republican Institute taken after the parliamentary elections, 94 percent of Georgians polled said they had more confidence in the church than any other national institution.) A group of researchers from Tbilisi's Ilia State University argue that "the GOC [Georgian Orthodox Church] not only plays an important role in constructing collective identity, but has become an uncontestable superego which cannot be wrong and dictates the behavior to Georgians [sic]." In the case of the gay rally, the main "offense" to Georgian culture, heavily-steeped in orthodoxy, would be the assumption that gay people commit the "crime" of sodomy.

The Saakashvili regime's Ataturk-style modernization campaign has brought Georgia into the 21st century, but it clearly didn't go far enough. Democracy relies not only on the presumption that the authorities will play by the democratic "rules of the game," but also on the broader recognition that all citizens are entitled to the same rights. In this respect, Georgia still has a long way to go.

Arianne Swieca is an Editorial Assistant for Democracy Lab. 



Pushing back against Libya's extremists

The people of Libya were invariably forced to express their support for Muammar Qaddafi for over 40 years in order to ensure their personal safety. The intolerant and authoritarian nature of Qaddafi's regime constrained Libyan's political, civil, and religious rights by curtailing their freedom of expression and thought, freedom of association, and free access to information.

Authoritarian and autocratic regimes abuse the rule of law in order to protect themselves and their interests from scrutiny and accountability. Since toppling Qaddafi from power, the people of Libya now have an excellent opportunity to protect and safeguard all the aforementioned freedoms. In the last year alone, Libya shot up 23 spots on the World Press Freedom Index. But, these freedoms are in danger of being compromised not only the political level, but also social and religious ones too.

In December 2012, journalist Amara al-Khattabi was jailed on defamation charges against the judiciary (under a Qaddafi-era law) after publishing a list of 84 judges implicated in corruption cases. Also in December, an Islamist militia arrested female activist Magdulien Abaida twice in Benghazi after suspicions that she was linked to the Libyan Jewish community in diaspora. Magdulien had to flee the country and was granted asylum by the United Kingdom. Religious intolerance has flared in more drastic incidents where Sufi mosques and shrines have been destroyed by Salafi groups. Christians have also been targeted throughout eastern and western Libya. This is just a small showing of what is allowable in present-day Libya.

Pushing back against intolerance is a movement called al-Tanweer, or Enlightenment. Formed in 2013, they're trying to re-engineer the Libyan mindset to encourage critical thinking and discard their history of submissiveness. For the past 36 years, Libyans were forced to submit to Qaddafi's ideology and live by the Green Book, written by Qaddafi himself on his political philosophy. Books and knowledge were tightly controlled under the former regime. When Libya was liberated, people symbolically built bonfires, burning their mandatory Green Book copies.

One of the first major events organized by the movement was to organize a second hand book fair. The event was a huge success with its offering of over 7,000 donated books, all for sale for under $15. The event attracted a high-profile audience including the Culture Minister Habib Mohammed al-Amin and former Prime Minister Abdurrahim el-Keib, among other officials and dignitaries. The fair spoke volumes about the appetite of Libyans for reading and expanding their awareness.

Ahmed el-Bokhari, a writer and co-founder of Tanweer, stresses the movement's objective to "encourage and empower creativity and innovation" as well as thinking conceptually out of the box.

This is especially important as Libyans navigate their way and work to set new foundations. Part of the movement's vision is to "encourage tolerance and help establish a Libyan identity that absorbs all the ethnic, religious, and ideological differences in a healthy democratic environment."

The Libyan revolution brought with it an unprecedented space for previously-denied freedoms, but it also brought with the rise of extremist groups and ideologies. Many backward cultural barriers and values have been reaffirmed. According to Ahmed, "cultural and social barriers that have been widely entrenched in the Libyan society will be one of the obstacles that would face the movement's mission and progress towards establishing a new reality based and knowledge and reason."

However, it is not just social and cultural barriers that are at play. There is an increasingly influential and violent extremist minority in Libya, and even the name "enlightenment" could put the movement at odds with such intolerant extremist minority. However, Tanweer activists are aware of these possibilities. "We chose this name to give ourselves distinct presence among Libyans and to help counter these extremist minorities and the culture of intolerance in the name of religion, ethnicity, or ideology in the Libyan society through knowledge, reading, and books."

The precarious security situation in Libya will make the work of movements like Tanweer difficult. Nevertheless, they are determined to expand their activities by establishing a complete center for creativity, innovation, and critical thinking in Tripoli that would serve as their base to reach out to the rest of Libya.

"Only through freedom of thought ... [can we] build a new Libya with a distinct and unique identity, a Libya that is able to integrate in the global community and add to the human heritage and civilization." It will take a while before certain freedoms are fully protected by the law, but movements like Tanweer are pivotal to counter any religious, cultural, or social intolerance. Through the power of knowledge and reason, the forces of intolerance that have so far targeted different segments of the Libyan society can be confronted.

Mohamed Eljarh is the Libya blogger for Transitions. Read the rest of his posts here.