TBILISI -- Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili's actions surrounding an abortive LGBT pride march and mob attacks on journalists covering it have sparked a week of public protests and calls for his resignation.
The pall of violence further shrouded Tbilisi this week as mourners honored 36-year-old Lekso Lashkarava, who died days after suffering head injuries when he was swarmed by an anti-LGBT crowd after organizers canceled the July 5 event due to the threat of violence by right-wing groups.
The mayhem is another disturbing chapter in a long-running dispute between Georgian activists seeking public acknowledgement of the plight of sexual and other minorities in the face of stubborn resistance from religious and other ultraconservative elements.
But the debate has taken on added urgency with warnings of a dangerous "dictatorship of the majority" with longer-term implications for this Caucasus country of some 11 million.
Georgian critics and outsiders have questioned the authorities' failure to safeguard a planned peaceful display of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) pride and Gharibashvili's suggestion that it was the government's job to "obey" overwhelming public opposition at the expense of minority rights.
Some of those critics, like the United States, argue that "the credibility of democracy in Georgia" is at stake.
It's shaping up as a test of the political leadership in the home of one of the first pro-democracy revolutions in the former Soviet Union, which achieved major economic and institutional reforms before a lightning war with neighboring Russia and vicious political feuding dealt serious blows to Tbilisi's pursuit of greater integration with the West.
It also saps the beginnings of momentum after an EU-brokered deal got Georgia's parliament back to work following a seven-month boycott by the opposition.
"Georgia has not stood at such a dangerous crossroads for the past 30 years," said Giorgi Mshvenieradze, a lawyer and academic co-director of the National Institute of Human Rights, part of the Free University of Tbilisi.
After news emerged that Pirveli TV cameraman Lekso Lashkarava had been found dead at his home in Tbilisi on July 11, Gharibashvili condemned the violence but doubled down on his insistence that the gay-pride event should not have been planned.
Before a parliament session on July 12 interrupted by angry journalists and opposition lawmakers, Gharibashvili repeated his message of a week earlier, when he said he regarded it as unwise to conduct a pride march in the Georgian capital. But this time he went even further.
"When 95 percent of our population is against holding a propagandistic parade in a demonstrative manner, friends, we will all obey that," Gharibashvili said.
"This is the opinion of the vast majority of our population and we, as the government elected by the people, will obey it," he said, adding, "It will not be the case that the minority always decides the fate of the majority."
Georgia's ombudswoman, Nino Lomjaria, responded before a meeting with President Salome Zurabishvili on July 12 by saying that Gharibashvili appeared to have "declared a dictatorship of the majority."
But she added, "In a democratic society, the rights of all people are protected; the majority doesn't decide whether the rights of the minority will be protected or not."
She also warned against signs that, following Lashkarava's death, "the state authorities are not trying to investigate the crime objectively -- to punish the organizers and perpetrators [of the violence] -- but to discredit the beaten, dead journalist."
Independent lawyers expressed similar consternation at the prime minister's defense of inaction in the face of the threats against minorities.
"Today, unfortunately, the prime minister announced that he rejects the constitutional order that exists in Georgia and intends to introduce a new type of government, where people no longer enjoy the fundamental rights and freedoms guaranteed by the constitution," Mshvenieradze told RFE/RL's Georgian Service. "The prime minister told us that the minority in this country must be bound by the will of the government and violent groups."
Nika Simonishvili, head of the Georgian Young Lawyers Association, called Gharibashvili's statements "dangerous" and indicative of "signs of dictatorship."
Since the violence, Gharibashvili has been accused by dozens of people of deleting or blocking critical comments on his Facebook page in an affront to free speech.
"This creates the illusion that there is no criticism of him," Ana Abashidze, a lawyer with the NGO Partnership for Human Rights, told RFE/RL.
She thinks the removal by a public official of such comments could be regarded as an undue restriction on Georgians' constitutional right to freedom of expression.
"Even obscene comments are protected by [the right to] freedom of expression if they have a political content," Abashidze said. "So, at this time, all the criticism directed at the prime minister is absolutely political and, therefore, protected by freedom of expression [guarantees]."
In recent years, several people have brought legal cases arguing that the state was trampling their rights by blocking their access to visit or comment on the Facebook pages of Georgian Dream members in senior public posts. But none of those cases resulted in verdicts or any sort of precedent -- in two cases because the blocks were removed shortly before the trial.
Here An Opposition, There An Opposition, Everywhere...
Thousands of people marched in Tbilisi on July 6 to denounce the threats against the LGBT community and the violence against journalists. But this time police kept counterprotesters at bay until the gathering dispersed. More peaceful demonstrations have followed.
Journalists and opposition lawmakers interrupted a parliament session on July 12 to protest Lashkarava's death.
Four independent TV channels, including Pirveli, devoted a full 24 hours of broadcasting on July 14 to black screens with the names of the journalists injured the week before and demands for justice.
But Gharibashvili has largely responded by painting LGBT organizers and government critics as tools of the United National Movement (ENM) or other elements of the opposition. He alleged that Pirveli and two other TV stations were "directly run" by former ENM founder and ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili along with "stolen finances." Their agendas therefore reflect those of the "revanchist radical force," he said, in a reference to the ENM and its former leader.
Gharibashvili also said Shame -- one of the groups organizing the abandoned LGBT march -- is "fully run by Saakashvili's organizations."
He has also suggested that opposition "provocateurs" might have been behind the violence. The prime minister said investigators were "working on several versions" of events on July 5, including one in which "the revanchist radical force is also behind these provocateurs."
The far-right Georgian group Alt-Info, which was granted a national broadcast license despite being banned by social-media giant Facebook for homophobic and xenophobic content, has echoed those and other accusations of an opposition conspiracy behind the violence and subsequent protests.
Zura Makharadze, one of Alt-Info's founders, described it as "an emotional wave" that was aimed at replicating the unrest of June 2019, when protesters tried to storm parliament after a visiting Russian legislator was shown addressing fellow Orthodox lawmakers in Russian from the parliament speaker's chair. Hundreds of people were hurt in that unrest, including two people who each lost an eye when police opened fire with tear gas and rubber bullets.
"This will be an attempt to gather a critical mass in front of parliament and do what they've been doing for so long...making revolution using the sacral sacrifice card," Makharadze said.
Who's Counting, Anyway?
Right-wing nationalist groups have in the past stubbornly challenged LGBT events and any robust defense of LGBT rights, despite antidiscrimination legislation and hate laws that are some of the region's strongest.
The Tbilisi Pride group that helped organize the event blamed the government, the Orthodox Patriarchate, and "radical hate groups" for the "organized violence" that took place on July 5 "on the basis of homophobia."
Prominent clergy within the Georgian Orthodox Church had spoken out against the event and priests were among the crowds of anti-LGBT counterdemonstrators, as they have been at past events opposing calls for tolerance toward sexual minorities.
A spokesman for the Georgian Orthodox Church issued a statement saying "the Patriarchate is not responsible for what happened" and pledging that individual clerics would be held accountable for any wrongdoing.
Georgian Young Lawyers Association head Simonishvili challenged what he described as Gharibashvili's "manipulation of the numbers" in suggesting that 95 percent of Georgians disapproved of the LGBT event.
"Whose count is that? This figure has no connection to reality," Simonishvili said, adding that "the prime minister showed us that he evaluates the issue quantitatively and not qualitatively...[and] that what is important to him is how many people will reject this or that issue and not how this issue is regulated by the constitution."
Organizer Tbilisi Pride in a statement countered that "the two opposing sides that Gharibashvili spoke about do not exist." It added, "When the state equates peaceful civil protest with radical hate groups that threaten people's safety, health, and lives, it is a sign of dysfunction."
Halting Any Momentum In Parliament
A longtime associate of billionaire Georgian Dream founder Bidzina Ivanishvili, Gharibashvili returned as prime minister in February to staunch an intraparty crisis over the rule of law.
He replaced fellow Georgian Dream member Giorgi Gakharia, who resigned after the arrest under politically fraught circumstances of ENM leader Nika Melia in a case that "deeply troubled" Tbilisi's allies, including the United States.
At the time, the country was already mired in a "political stalemate" after partly boycotted elections won by Georgian Dream that required EU mediation on a deal to get parliament functioning again.
Announcing the cohabitation deal in a joint statement with President Zurabishvili in April, European Council President Charles Michel called it a "starting point" for the Georgian political establishment's "work towards consolidating Georgia's democracy and taking Georgia forward on its Euro-Atlantic future." The statement cited the need "to avoid any form of destabilization."
Now, a mere three months later, the political landscape appears nearly as fraught as a result of lingering tensions and anger over the anti-LGBT violence.
Western governments have expressed shock at the perceived lack of protection for minority groups and journalists.
Leading opposition parties in Georgia have demanded Gharibashvili's resignation and indicated on July 12 that their intentions are to eventually bring a no-confidence vote in his government. But the math in parliament -- where Georgian Dream holds 84 of 150 seats -- makes such a proposition difficult without massive defections.
Kornely Kakachia, director of the Georgian Institute of Politics, this week urged the relevant officials to take responsibility for their mistakes.
"In such a crisis, in a normal country, the prime minister, the interior minister, and the city police chief would resign under all scenarios," he told RFE/RL.
He said his conversations with contacts abroad suggested that the international "tone toward Georgia has changed significantly" as a result of this month's violence.
Kakachia warned that "if the situation continues like this, all this may lead to a very serious civil confrontation...[and] take us back to the '90s."