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Pride in Tbilisi … A Fight instead of a Party, Part 1

by Hans Verhoeven in Nightlife & Reports , 23 September 2019

Dit artikel is ook in het Nederlands beschikbaar
length: 5 minuten

"Pride started as a protest", one often hears, but what many people forget is that Pride is still a protest in many countries. In Georgia, for instance, where activists tried to organize a Pride and were confronted with violence, gangs of heavies, counter demonstrations, right-wing groups, the Orthodox Church, and an opposing government.

Pride Amsterdam ambassador Hans Verhoeven was in Kiev (Ukraine), Belgrade (Serbia) and Pristina (Kosovo) to support local Pride organizers, and he also travelled to Tbilisi (Georgia) to assist the organizers there. His report:

Pride is a party, but not everywhere. In many countries, the Pride is a fight. A fight with the government, with the church, with right-wing groups, or with all three, such as in Tbilisi (Georgia). In the run-up to the first Pride week ever in Tbilisi, support from the government turned out to be minimal, and the opposition to it extreme.

Right-wing groups and the Orthodox Church soon found each other in their protest against a Pride. Protests that was not only expressed peacefully. As an ambassador of Pride Amsterdam, I support Pride organizers in countries where Pride is not a party, where the government is not always as accommodating and supportive, and the population often treats the LGBTI community with disgust. As in Tbilisi.

In the run-up to the first Pride in Tbilisi, the organizers were already faced with extreme opposition: from the government and politics, the church and right-wing parties. The patriarch of the Georgian Orthodox Church called on the government to ban the Pride. In response to his appeal, a hundred demonstrators gathered on the stairs near the parliament to reinforce their demand for a demonstration permit (and more importantly: protection). A stand-off with hundreds of counter-demonstrators followed until late in the evening. Eventually the LGBTI activists were taken away under police supervision and detained for several hours. The tone was set.

A few days later, I arrive in Tbilisi, full of enthusiasm that it must be possible to convince the government that they have a duty to ensure that Pride runs smoothly. It is an enthusiasm that soon disappears in smoke. Although homosexuality in Georgia should not be a problem on paper, in reality it far from the truth.

From my online diary (prior to my arrival later that day):

Levan VasadzeWednesday, June 19: The consultations today between the EU ambassador and the Georgia Interior Ministry have unfortunately not brought the parties closer together. A permit is not granted. Nevertheless, the Pride organizers want the Pride March to take place.
Businessman Levan Vasadze announced at a meeting with "real men" in Vera Garden in Tbilisi that he would deploy a people's army on 22 June to prevent the Pride March. “LGBT activists will shake hands with the belt...” notes Mr. Vasadze.
On a positive note: an orthodox pastor, Father Ilia, said "immoral people cannot defend general morality" and accused Mr Vasadze of starting a revolution against democracy.

Shortly after arriving in Tbilisi, I consult with the Dutch ambassador, Mr Jos Douma. We have never worked together and have to get used to each other, but he is clearly on our side. The ambassador plays a role in the consultations with the government, which he conducts together with the ambassador to the EU and the US. He informs me about the latest state of affairs. We discuss how we can best help and support the organizers, each from our own role. After this, I went to the address from where the Pride is being organised. There, the local organizers inform me of the latest state of affairs and I meet three other foreign activists. Shortly after my departure, the organizers (and not for the first time) are confronted with violence.

From my online diary:

This afternoon, the accommodation of the Tbilisi Pride organization was attacked and robbed. The organisation moved to a new secret address. The police arrived quickly and arrested some of the perpetrators. The Pride organizers now receive death threats on their (secret) telephone numbers.

The first public event, a theatre performance, went ahead without any problems but was, after the room tenant cancelled the lease yesterday (a few hours after the location had been notified to the police), moved under extreme secrecy to the recreation room of a Baptist care home on the outskirts of the city. Here the report of the very content organizers:

Tbilisi Pride has officially started with the social theatre performance "Caucasian Metamorphosis". The event passed peacefully, without any incidents. Despite all the risks, over 100 people attended the performance. Thank you, brave friends, for support and solidarity! We will change together! #TbilisiPride

On Thursday, the organizers are trying to hand over a petition from All Out, signed by more than 30,000 people, to the Prime Minister, who refuses to accept it. There is a large police presence, which is strange because our arrival has not been notified. Professionally, they keep the counter-protesters at bay who quickly arrive. How do they know we are there?

Newsflash from Tbilisi
This evening, some tourists were attacked in Vera Park by supporters of Vesadze because they were "not masculine enough". The police intervened quickly and arrested the perpetrators.

In the meantime, a popular uprising breaks out in Tbilisi. It has nothing to do with us but everything with a government that only follows its own agenda. The parliament is occupied and later even stormed. More than 100 people were seriously injured by police action, something that does not even make the news in the Netherlands. My report to the home front:

From my online diary, day 2 in Tbilisi
I hope you are still interested in Tbilisi!
The rest of the day I was mainly busy lobbying; keep people informed of the latest developments, speak to the press and share information. This afternoon, two petitions organized by the opponents came online, and I have given them a lot of publicity. Especially since one petition is addressing Trump directly with the request to call his ambassador here. And that would mean that the Pride movement would lose one of its greatest allies! Never before have I sent so many messages in one day.

Millionaire Levan Vasadze, the great opponent of the Pride movement, announced earlier that he would unleash a revolution when the Pride would take place. Well, he has to wait for his turn, because the government must first deal with the revolution of Nika Melia's supporters. They are now on the steps of the Parliament building. “Mr. Vasadze, please await your turn.’
Tension is rising, especially among the activists. Good night there, in quiet Amsterdam.

As tension is rising, the conversations between the three ambassadors and the government are stalling, they have other things on their minds: a revolution is imminent and "we" are out of the picture for the moment.

Next month, the second part: about a failed revolution, the first drone-pride ever, the shortest Pride March ever walked, and running to get away safely.



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