TBILISI, Georgia — Two dozen stunned pro-gay rights protesters stood in a stranger’s kitchen last week. Blood streamed down a young woman's face where it had been struck by a rock.
Outside the building, an angry mob was gaining in numbers and ferocity as the protesters’ outnumbered police escorts frantically debated how to evacuate them.
“All this crowd, like zombies, they simply wanted to kill us. Not beat or humiliate, they simply wanted to kill us,” said Nino Kharchilava, one of the protesters. “At some point, I definitely thought, ‘We’re going to die here, and that’s it.’”
Using their bodies as shields, the police eventually formed a narrow corridor through the throng of Orthodox Christian counter-protesters to a minibus the police had appropriated for their ad hoc escape plan.
A widely circulated video shows Orthodox protesters accompanied by priests assaulting the minibus, breaking windows with rocks and fists and trying to drag the terrified activists out as the van slowly made its way through the crowd.
The confrontation took place on International Day Against Homophobia (IDAHO), when Kharchilava and her fellow activists were headed toward a small rally in the center of the Georgian capital. They were representing the Women’s Initiatives Supporting Group (WISG), an NGO that promotes gender education.
Tens of thousands of anti-gay protesters organized by priests thwarted the demonstration by breaking through police lines and chasing the activists.
Twenty-eight people were injured in the incident, which drew condemnation from human rights organizations and Western embassies.
The chaotic display has set the stage for an unpopular standoff between the highly influential church and the government of billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, who became prime minister after his Georgian Dream coalition won parliamentary elections last October.
That’s helped raise concerns about the country’s direction months before a looming presidential election in October.
Some believe the confrontation may have prompted the government to divert attention this week by arresting the head of the main opposition party, a close ally of outgoing President Mikheil Saakashvili, Ivanishvili’s bitter rival.
That would not be nearly enough. The leader of the Georgian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Ilia II, is the country’s most popular public figure by far with an approval rating of 92 percent, according to a recent survey.
Many Georgians see the Orthodox faith as central to the identity of a nation still emerging from 70 years of communist rule. Ilia II is particularly revered for having presided over a sweeping rebirth of Christianity since the Soviet collapse in 1991.
Irakli Vacharadze, executive director of the LGBT rights group Identoba, which organized the IDAHO demonstration, said the church’s power was made clear during the police preparations for the event.
Although his organization coordinated security arrangements with the authorities weeks in advance, police failed to arrive with batons and other crowd-control equipment on the day of the protest.
Videos of the demonstration later revealed priests commanding officers to step aside. It wasn’t a matter of protesters breaking through, Vacharadze said, but rather of the police “opening the gates.”
Cory Welt, a Georgia expert at George Washington University, says the government faces a dilemma because punishing protesters — including priests — “could compromise the government’s legitimacy among a large segment of the population.”
Ivanishvili has condemned the attacks, saying that being a member of the clergy will provide “no alibi” for committing violence on May 17. Six people, including two priests, have been charged with small offenses, however many question whether the government will have the stomach to do more.
Although surveys show homophobic attitudes run deep in the Georgia, WISG director Ekaterine Aghdgomelashvili say the counter-protest would have never reached its scale and intensity without the church’s mobilization efforts. Its action was more a power play than a protest against policy, she says.
“This was not a demonstration against LGBT people,” she said. “This was the Georgian Orthodox Church showing its power to the new government. We were just the pretext.”
But the church isn’t the only concern for those worried about the country’s future.
On Tuesday, prosecutors announced the arrest of Vano Merabishvili, head of Georgia’s United National Movement Party and a key figure in the previous government. He and another former minister were charged with funneling state money to their party’s campaign.
A polarizing figure who long headed the police as the country’s interior minister, Merabishvili presided over a radical but effective reform of a notoriously corrupt force. He was also accused of abuse of office, cover-ups and mass surveillance of opposition politicians.
Joao Soares, chairman of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, criticized the arrest, saying in a statement that “putting your political opponents behind bars will not help solve any problems, on the contrary, it will create new ones.”
Merabishvili’s arrest is the latest and highest-profile in a series of detentions of officials from the previous regime. With the government conducting an investigation into the country’s brief war with Russia in 2008, there’s speculation Saakashvili may be next.
He remains highly popular in Western capitals for leading the Rose Revolution in 2003 that toppled the country’s corrupt post-Soviet government. He has combated low-level corruption and kickstarted the once-moribund economy with liberal reforms. But he’s also been criticized for authoritarian tendencies and missteps connected to the 2008 war.
Columbia University’s Lincoln Mitchell, who published two books about Saakashvili’s administration, says crony capitalism and the bending of laws in favor of the ruling party have broadly tainted the government.
“On the one hand, of course [Merabishvili] probably committed crimes that would land him with jail time if those crimes were prosecuted,” he said. “On the other hand, at one point does it stop making sense to keep arresting high-level people?”
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Georgia’s beleaguered LGBT activists believe Merabishvili’s arrest is a distraction from a greater threat to the country. Since the demonstration, random attacks against people suspected of being gay have spiked, Aghdgomelashvili says.
Vacharadze says Georgia’s greatest danger is that “the secular state is under threat.” He points to sermons since the rally by priests who have announced it immoral for women to swim in the sea and sunbathe. He believes other social groups will soon be targeted.
Although a Facebook page for a Friday rally called “No to Theocracy” has gathered more than 2,000 RSVPs, he says that “the church is victorious and searching for more power.”