A peaceful protest against intolerance turned violent in Tbilisi on May 17, when a mob - led by Georgian Orthodox priests and their followers - swept past police barricades and tried to attack a group of human rights activists attempting to celebrate the annual International Day Against Homophobia.
While police managed to keep injuries and clashes to a minimum, critics claim law enforcement did not do enough to protect the anti-homophobia activists' or their right to protest. Meanwhile, local media reported in the evening that 20 people had been injured, with ten treated in hospital; five of them police officers.
Television reports have focused on the sheer size of the mob, which numbered thousands as it marched down Tbilisi's central avenue and overtook police officers who were attempting to divert them away from the anti-homophobia event planned to take place in the city's Freedom Square. The event, which had been announced several days in advance, was cancelled as police evacuated the activists in buses and patrol cars before the crowd broke through the barricades.
While major clashes between the groups were avoided, a journalist and a police officer were reported injured in the melee and the crowd attacked a bus believed to be carrying activists from the event. US Embassy Charge d'Affaires Bridget Brink was reportedly caught up in the fracas, although she was not harmed.
Human rights advocates and civil rights groups, as well as members of the opposition, have accused the police of failing to stop the Georgian Orthodox priests and their followers. Kakha Kozhoridze, chairperson of the Georgian Young Lawyers' Association, said there was the impression that police "closed their eyes to certain violations."
"Police had the resources, but it looks as if the security measures were not well organized," he said, noting that non-government organizations had warned the police and law enforcement agencies to prepare for violence several days before the event.
Indeed, the clash was widely anticipated by most. Last year, fights broke out at a similar event when priests and their followers tried to stop activists from marching down Tbilisi's main avenue.
Patriarch Ilia the Second - the head of the Georgian Orthodox Church and widely considered the country's most influential figure - had called on the government to ban the anti-homophobic protest the day before the event, referring to it as propaganda for gay and lesbian lifestyles. "As it is known, a rally of sexual minorities and their supporters is planned on the Rustaveli Avenue on May 17, which aims not at resolving the real problems of these people, but at speculating by this issue," the patriarch said in a written statement.
"That would be similar to liking the actions of a drug addict and making a public display of drug addiction. Our people have different aspirations and for that reason it is understandable their sharp protest against this and similar rallies," he added, before generously noting that "sexual minorities" are free to live "their private life without restrictions."
Homosexuality is still widely condemned in Georgia, a country where the conservative Georgian Orthodox Church wields considerable influence. Much like the rest of the former Soviet Union, Georgians tend to take pride in their traditional society. Unlike post-sexual revolution generations in Europe and the United States, sexual minorities and unconventional partnerships are seen as largely taboo, and prejudices against gay and lesbian Georgians appears to run across the generational divide.
As many as 32% of lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) Georgians have been physically attacked over the past two years - and 87% feel they have to deceive their father or brother about their sexual orientation, according to a report by feradi.info, a Georgian visual data site. The situation is even worse in neighboring countries. In Russia, a 23 year-old man was tortured and sodomized to death earlier this month after neighbors learned he was gay. Moscow refused to allow a parade on May 17th, citing there is "no need" for the event.
In Central Asia, a member of parliament in Kazakhstan, Kairbek Suleimenov, told the press on May 17 that gay relationships should be outlawed. The head of the Community Fund in Kazakhstan, however, claims that 10% of the population is homosexual, reports Tengrinews.kz.
A recent survey by the Open Society Foundation found that Albania is the most homophobic country in Europe, where allegedly 53% of the population believes "gays and lesbians should not be free to live life as they wish," Balkan Insight reports. Opinions are slightly more tolerant in Moldova and Turkey, however, were anti-homophobic events have been held peacefully.
In Georgia, while popular support for LGBT rights may be low, politicians have also tried to maintain a more measured tone. During a press conference on May 14, Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili told journalists that Georgian society just needs time to accept sexual minorities as equals. "I have said multiple times previously that sexual minorities are the same citizens as we are," he said. "Society will gradually get used to it."
After the violence on May 17th, however, Justice Minister Tea Tsulukiani was more circumspect. "Both groups had the right to express an opinion and protest ... The most important thing was that police managed at maximum to avoid confrontation between the conflicting groups despite the extreme tension," she told journalists.
"In the future I hope opposed parties in our society will understand better that both groups have the right to exist for one simple reason: both of them are citizens of our country, humans and we are all members of the same society," she intoned.