Eastern partners

As Georgia chooses between Europe and Russia, attitudes to homosexuality are caught in the crossfire

It was as discreet a gay-pride rally as could be imagined: a few dozen activists (pictured) in a park in Tbilisi, marking the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia (IDAHOT) on May 17th. The organisers did not announce the location beforehand, and a cluster of anti-gay demonstrators rallying several blocks away apparently failed to notice it at all. On the same day, a conference promoted by the Georgian Orthodox church featured speakers decrying “totalitarian liberalism” and its alleged imposition of tolerance for “sexual perverts”.

But tellingly, the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights demonstrators were protected by a cordon of police. In Georgia, as across the rest of eastern Europe, the rights of sexual minorities have become bound up with the geopolitical contest between the European Union and Russia. The Georgian government’s grudging protection of gay-rights activists is part of its years-long effort to align itself with the EU. As Georgia prepares for the EU’s Eastern Partnership summit in Riga on May 21st, that effort is struggling.

This year’s peaceful IDAHOT was a major improvement over previous ones. Tbilisi activists’ first attempts to celebrate the day, starting in 2012, were violently disrupted; in 2013 thousands of counter-demonstrators turned out, including Georgian Orthodox clerics. Last year the church’s patriarch tried to reclaim the day as a celebration of “family purity”, as cowed gay-rights activists avoided the streets. On May 12th the European Court of Human Rights ordered the government to pay €33,500 ($37,250) to the marchers beaten three years ago, and the police presence this year aimed to avoid an embarrassing repeat. Another LGBT rally in front of the country’s justice ministry, demanding that transgender people be allowed to officially re-register their sex, also went without incident.

This does not mean that average Georgians are growing tolerant towards gay people. In a 2011 survey, 87% of respondents said that homosexuality could never be justified. These attitudes have provided fertile ground for Russian efforts over the past few years to use homophobia to promote an anti-Western ideology. Georgians have been acutely aware of Russian hard power since their country’s devastating loss in the short war over South Ossetia in 2008. But lately, it has been Russian soft power that is growing.

Why it is hard to count how many people are gay
One venue is the mass media. After the Georgian Dream coalition came to power in 2012, it allowed Russian-language media to broadcast in Georgia. (The previous government had banned it after the war.) Russian channels are now the most-watched foreign news source, according to recent polls. Pro-Russian non-governmental organisations have also grown significantly in recent years. Increased trade—Russia is now Georgia’s fourth-biggest trading partner—helps to cast Moscow in a more favourable light, particularly in rural areas.

Such soft power has an effect. Support for joining Moscow’s Eurasian Economic Union has risen from 11% in November 2013 to 31% today. Roughly two-thirds of the population remain in favour of joining NATO, and slightly more approve of Georgia’s association agreement with the European Union. But 26% now say that Georgia should abandon Western integration in favour of Russia.

One reason is disappointment with the West. While most Georgians perceive Russia as a threat, events in Ukraine suggest that Western hand-wringing is little match for Russian determination. Georgian efforts to get closer to the EU and NATO have so far yielded few rewards. Georgia will not receive the visa-free travel from the EU that it had been hoping for at the Riga summit this week. On May 19th Georgia’s president, Giorgi Margvelashvili, told the Associated Press that the EU’s indifference was sabotaging Georgia’s pro-European foreign policy: “The basic message is that Europeans don’t care about you, you are abandoned, you don’t have a choice and the Georgian European choice is doomed.”

In fact, the government has long been prepared for disappointment on the visa-free travel issue, says Kakha Gogolashvili of the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies, a think thank. Georgian citizens, however, have not. “The problem is high public expectations. The promise of visa-free travel would play a crucial role in raising public optimism about the European integration process, which is threatened by Russian propaganda.”

Understanding Russia’s war on the West
Georgia’s economic woes are another reason for popular disaffection. Buffeted by the recession in Russia and the crisis in Ukraine, the Georgian lari has lost roughly 30% of its value since November 2014. Exports fell by 10% in the first quarter of the year. In its most recent outlook, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development downgraded its 2015 growth forecast for Georgia from 4.2% to 2.3%.

The poor economy has hurt the government’s popularity. The government has also not been very aggressive at promoting the benefits of closer ties with the EU and NATO to the public, or explaining the shortcomings of the Eurasian Union. The recent appointment of Tina Khidasheli, Georgia’s spirited new defence minister, may signal a more pro-active approach. But with Europe preoccupied with internal problems and unwilling to make generous offers to countries on its periphery, it is not clear how much she will have to work with.

Georgians have been waiting for their reorientation towards the West to deliver decisive results ever since the Rose Revolution of 2003. Instead the benefits have been halting and gradual, and for many, inflated expectations are turning to disappointment. Full membership in the EU or NATO may yet be as far off as full social acceptance for Georgia’s LGBT minority. The question is how long the country can strive to reform itself for a Europe that is not prepared to give it much in return.

Source – The Economist