Saturday, March 2, 2024

Everyone in Georgia needs to calm down

A more measured and less provocative understanding of where and what Georgia is and isn't is desperately needed before both sides of the social divide cost the small South Caucasus republic any semblance of a better future.

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There is nothing more tedious than the expatriate resident who declares he is leaving his country of residence to move on to bigger and better things. These people usually make a great show of hosting farewell parties and then spend their remaining days smugly boasting to those poor unfortunates who are to be left behind. 

Of course, it rarely lives up to the loudmouths’ expectations. Why, I recall one chap in Georgia – an American, which probably won’t surprise you – who spent his days savagely criticising Georgians online and in hipster bars (and worked teaching English to naïve young women for a living), and then announced with great bombast he was returning to home to take up, of all things, a senior executive position back home. Whether because he was singularly ill-suited to this job or perhaps because it never existed, things didn’t go as he’d boasted they would, and the next thing I heard was that he was working in a souvenir shop peddling ‘INTERSTATE 95’ license plates to Japanese tourists. Easy come, easy gone. 

None of that, I must point out, surprised me all that much. But what I did find perplexing was that despite having left the apparently stifling confines of Georgia to live the American Dream, this man would not stop posting online about the place. He was absolutely everywhere: there was no post on any Tbilisi-related group that he wasn’t active on, commenting on matters as though he was still there. I resolved never to be like him or any others of the same ilk, and on returning to the UK I have done my best to focus on our own politics, with the only foreign affairs being the heavyweight sorts of Europe, Russia and the US.

Yet, sadly Georgia just won’t let me. No sooner do I leave than the country that it erupts, once again, over the LGBT Pride parade, with religious right-wingers and nationalists going berserk and attacking, of all people, a bunch of journalists. There have been various incarnations of this: most notoriously there was a violent reaction to an iteration in 2012, although back then it was another event called the International Day Against Homophobia. 

So here I am, once again casting my mind back to Tbilisi when I’d thought I’d left the dear old place behind. And, as ever, whenever I consider Georgian socio-political relations, I realise that my face has taken on the proportions of Alec Baldwin when accused of violence against a paparazzi photographer – cringing but defiant.

I won’t waste your time going into the specifics of the events, not least because they resemble their previous incarnations so closely, but here is a brief summary: the LGBT advocacy groups wanted to hold a Pride rally, nationalistic and religious Georgians, therefore, flooded the streets, and – predictably – raided the group’s office and removed the rainbow flag. It seems that this gave them a taste for flag-wrecking since they then proceeded to burn the European Union flag in front of Parliament.

Par for the course, as they say.

What is my view? Well, since you ask, I feel a few strong reactions: first, immense relief for now being comfortably burrowed into the countryside of Cornwall, where people’s main concerns are fish and beer. A more prevailing emotion is a deep desire to bang the heads of all those involved together – have they forgotten the Russian troops on their border?

Georgians will complain at length about their lost territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, although only apparently until they have to consider the thought of one chap playing two-backed beastie with another bloke. 

This has been something I’ve felt ever since the 2012 rallies – if the traditional types had the same fire in their bellies for the Russians as they do for gays, the 2008 war would have been the most catastrophic Russian military defeat since Tsar Nicholas II’s disastrous war against Imperial Japan in the early 20th century. 

But it takes two to tango, as they say. I’ve met many of the LGBT advocacy types in Georgia, and I’d be lying if I said I was overly impressed. They are the sort of people who are actively looking to be offended: they aren’t alone in this, since their ideological brothers and sisters in the modern left-wing movements that afflict the Western world are much the same. It is incredibly tiresome to have to walk through a conversational minefield before inevitably causing an explosion of “I can’t believe you just said that!”. If the discussion is ever about policy, things also always get personal – and then, if they are dealing with a traditional Georgian man rather than my restrained self, they then get physically attacked, and then complain about it. 

This is not to condone violence against anyone for any reason, but a little logic would go a long way here. If I walked into a Birmingham mosque with a packet of bacon and a pornographic magazine, I can guess what the result would be. Georgia is not ready for LGBT pride parades, and putting them on year after year has produced the same result – a violent reaction from those who believe gay rights to be an attack on their nationhood and culture – a ridiculous idea that I’ll come to in a moment.

It also ignores the progress that has been made. Ten years ago there were no gay bars in Tbilisi, and the idea that there could ever be such a thing would be a proposition as dangerous as it was laughable. But now there is a place, and even more which are LGBT-friendly. They are mostly left alone by the Georgian traditional types, who, while never having gotten over their hatred for the whole concept of homosexuality, seem to have adopted a mostly ‘live and let live’ attitude – at least as long as matters are kept out of the public eye. 

Another failing of the LGBT advocates in Georgia is their inability to fully understand matters in the West. I’ve heard ‘Oh you’re so lucky to come from a country where people are LGBT friendly’. Of course, whatever they’ve seen in the West, be it in central Amsterdam or Berlin, will support that notion. But it is hardly ubiquitous. An English gay friend of mine told me that he has received a lot of abuse in his time, and just a few miles from where I sit there one half of a gay couple running a pub was attacked; the latter was so violent and upsetting that they left the village and moved elsewhere. A damn shame – they ran a fantastic pub and were friendly to everyone.

But soft! Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Who is that flying to the rescue with his blue cape of gold stars to pour oil on these troubled flames? Why, it’s that inconsistent superhero, European Union Man. I can reveal here that the identity of this masked crusader is none other than Charles Michel, President of the European Council, that same man who declared in the wake of the incident that “LGBT rights are NOT a marginal issue. In the European Union, we don’t discriminate, we integrate”. You can tell he’s serious because he put ‘not’ in caps. I like clarity in my statesmen –sorry, statespeople. 

You can see why he’s hardly making the situation any better. The Georgian Orthodox Christian traditionalists and their friends are adamant that ‘gay’ and ‘Western’ are fast becoming synonymous. Indeed, I’ve met Georgian men who absolutely believe that Europeans are actually all gay.

Quite what they think being gay actually is I have no idea. They seem to think it’s some sort of addictive drug rather than an innate character trait. But Michel is hardly proving them wrong, nor is he sending a particularly good message to countries such as Hungary and Poland, which have had similar issues of their own. 

Where do I stand, you wonder? Well, on my own two feet – I find both sides of the debate utterly tedious and could wish that neither religion nor what people want to do with the bits between their legs had such an effect on politics. Europe and the US will soon lose their patience with Georgia, and it’s not worth losing the progress of the last two decades over this. 

So, like Tony Blair standing in front of Downing Street sending a stern televised message to Saddam Hussein, to all parties I say this: traditionalists, calm down. Nobody is trying to take your children away to turn them gay. If the Christian faith is your guiding light, ask what would Jesus do. I can’t see him beating up gays with his ‘love thy neighbour’ marketing campaign.

To the Pride types – well, I’m sorry. Georgia demonstrably isn’t ready for any LGBT parades, and I’m not sure what you’re hoping to achieve. Awareness? To be fair, you are drawing attention to your plight, but you wouldn’t be in any plight if you could refrain from trying to hold rallies. That rainbow flag wasn’t taken down until a few days ago, after all. And remember, too, that nobody out of Lord Byron, Oscar Wilde, Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King lived to see the fruits of equality. It takes time and Georgia is at least decades, if not centuries, behind the West. Drawing attention to Georgia’s divided society isn’t going to move the country closer to Western culture or notions of equal rights any time soon. 

For the Georgian government…well, you’re doing yourself no favours either. The police have been on the downturn for years, but allowing a violent mob to form and assault media representatives is a new low. If you’re still actually trying for NATO and EU membership, which I’m beginning to finally doubt, you might want to fix this. 

And to the European Union – you couldn’t be doing your image any more damage with public declarations like those of Charles Michel. It isn’t going to build bridges by telling the majority of the Georgian population that they are misguided, even if they are. Think less about virtue signalling, and more about geopolitical strategy. Adopt the same thinking towards Poland and Hungary while you’re at it or accept that the EU project either doesn’t work or is not what it claims to be after all.

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