Conservative civil society in Georgia can be described as nativist. It comprises organizations and groups claiming to fight for the preservation of the country’s religious and ethno-nationalist identities. Some of these organizations claim to be linked to the Georgian Orthodox Church. Their presence and influence have visibly grown during the last decade. The liberal West as well as local pro-western political and civil society groups constitute the primary objects of their resentment, though they also feel threatened by visitors and business from Muslim countries. While only some of the groups are openly pro-Russian, others may be supported by Russia and many of their claims echo the Kremlin’s anti-Western propaganda. Some of these groups also use violent tactics.
The Sorosians and Their Enemies
Most Georgians first became aware of civil society in the early 1990s as something related to Hungarian-American philanthropist George Soros. In response to the collapse of the Soviet system, Soros created a network of foundations supporting civil society in formerly communist countries. While other organizations did this kind of work as well, Soros became the popular generic name in Georgia (like Xerox for copying machines or Kleenex for facial tissues) for Western democracy-promoting foundations, and civil society was understood to be a network of people who got funding from Soros. Consequently, these people came to be called Sorosians—at least, by those who did not like them.
“Anti-Sorosian” may be the best way to describe groups that fall under the heading of conservative civil society in Georgia. They emerged largely as a backlash against the norms and institutions associated with this new civil society. While the Sorosians advocated a distinctly positive agenda, the anti-Sorosians drew their energy from resentment—their ethos is akin to that of a resistance movement.
What were they resisting? Following the demise of the Soviet order, communism was replaced by the new discourse of democracy and human rights. Georgian society generally welcomed this change, but few people had a distinct idea of what these norms and institutions actually meant. New civil society organizations specialized in interpreting and advocating for these new ideas and norms for the Georgian reality. Hence, among the wider public, they came to be identified with the new dominant ideology. This civil society network attracted mostly young, urban, educated people who were genuinely fascinated by Western liberal ideas. (They also might have been attracted by chances to obtain Western funding—something their ill-wishers never forgot to ridicule them for.) However, this milieu was socially too thin to develop into an independent social force, even though it gradually expanded over the years. Its overdependence on the support of Western donors remained its structural weakness. Nevertheless, its informal status as interpreter-in-chief of the new dominant ideology made it disproportionately influential. Close cooperation and eventual integration with the West was the centerpiece of Georgian foreign policy, and all mainstream parties shared the dominant political project of becoming a European-style democracy. No government could fully ignore messages coming from civil society, not least because these groups also had strong ties to mainstream media.
Moreover, this organized civil society exercised influence by sending its representatives to the government. This became especially salient in the period of United National Movement (UNM) rule between 2004 and 2012, when the most important drivers of reform came from the nongovernmental organization (NGO) community. The government of the Georgian Dream party, in power since 2012, has been more diverse, but it has continued, in part, the tradition of appointing prominent civil society activists to government positions. This did not mean that different Georgian governments genuinely followed Western practices of democracy and rule of law, but all of them recognized these norms as their chief point of reference. As a result, according to the anti-Sorosians, the civil society sector set the agenda of change in Georgian society and eventually came to power. To their opponents, civil society groups were local agents of global liberalism, whose forces had taken control of Georgia—and they had to be resisted.
Nativist civil society may not be as articulate and consistent as its Sorosian counterpart, but it has several distinct guiding themes. The central theme is the imagined disjuncture between Western or global liberalism and authentic Georgian culture and identity. In the words of Levan Vasadze, one of the chief ideologues of Georgian nativism, “In the same way in which we used to be occupied by the communist ideology, we are now occupied by the liberal ideology.”1 In a popular phrase, forces of global liberalism conspire to “deprive us of our Georgian-ness.” Although local Sorosian intellectuals and activists are alleged agents of this conspiracy, in the demonology of nativist civil society, the UNM and its leader, Mikheil Saakashvili, were at the heart of this destructive force. To nativists, the UNM’s period in power under Saakashvili was not merely autocratic—quite a few of Saakashvili’s liberal critics would agree with this assessment—but an alien occupying regime.
What is this so-called Georgian-ness that global liberalism wants to destroy? Nativists have never presented a single coherent concept of their project, but the most important perceived threats are seen in areas of sexuality and traditional family relations. Homosexuality is the foremost threat: the most popular figure of speech is that the liberal West wants to turn “us”—or, it is sometimes specified, “our children”—into “pederasts” (in Georgian, this is expressed by the single word gagvapidaraston). From this line of thinking comes the popular denomination of liberals as liberasti—tellingly, this turn of phrase borrows from Russian vocabulary.2 The most emblematic demonstration of the power of nativist civil society in reaction to this perceived threat took place in May 2013, when a huge crowd led by Orthodox priests attacked a small public performance in support of LGBT rights, forcing police to rescue the performers and those who had come to support them.3 Since then, the Georgian Orthodox Church has declared May 17 as “defense of the family day.” Along with the threat posed by homosexuality, female chastity—or the “institution of virginity” (the prohibition of sex before marriage)—is another expression of so-called true Georgian-ness that is under attack by forces of global liberalism.
Eastern Orthodox Christianity, rather than the general Christian religion, is considered the stronghold of true Georgian-ness and, according to nativist civil society, it is being targeted by the forces of Western liberalism. The West attacks the Orthodox faith both by promoting atheism and promiscuity and by supporting the proselytizing efforts of Western Protestant sects.4 As a result, nativist groups are often associated with the church and are sometimes led by activist clergy or present themselves as allies and defenders of the true faith.
Conventional xenophobia is another popular expression of the nativist mindset. Paradoxically, however, it is targeted not against Westerners but mostly against Muslims. This fear appeals to references in Georgian history: until it was annexed to Russia in the nineteenth century, Georgia was dominated by the Muslim Ottoman and Persian empires—the ethnically Georgian but religiously Muslim population in the autonomous region of Adjara is a legacy of that time. For Georgian nativists, only Orthodox Christians can be true Georgians, so Islam is a threat to Georgian identity. This creates religious tension in Adjara and some other regions of Georgia where Adjaran Muslims were resettled during the last several decades. Moreover, Georgia’s liberal economic policies, especially since 2004, have attracted a number of investors from Muslim-majority countries like Turkey, Iran, and Arab states. Many restaurants, bars, and other businesses from those countries are patronized primarily by Muslim visitors. All of these factors make the perceived problem of Muslims in Georgia qualitatively different from that faced by rich Western countries, where refugees fleeing war and poverty may be seen as a drain on national budgets. In Georgia, they are a source of investment. Nevertheless, this situation does not stop Georgian nativists from expressing fear of and resentment toward Muslims, regardless of their nationality.
The Geopolitical Dimension
Most nativist groups deny being pro-Russian and describe themselves as defenders of Georgian cultural values, though some of them openly call for a closer alliance with Russia. In a country that has an ongoing territorial conflict with Russia, it ought to be damaging to be considered an ally of the aggressor. Liberal critics of these nativist groups routinely define them as pro-Russian or Russia’s fifth column, while analysts tend to describe them as a tools of Russia’s “sharp power.”5
How real and important is this Russian link? There are two parts to this inquiry: Are these actors directly (such as financially) supported by Russia? And how pro-Russian are they in their agenda? When it comes to the first question, analysts insist that there is at least circumstantial evidence of some groups being actual beneficiaries of Russian support.6 However, it is the link between ideas and agendas that constitutes the better yardstick.
Almost everyone in Georgia recognizes that Russia is an aggressive imperial power occupying 20 percent of the country’s territory, specifically the regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. However, nativists typically excuse Russian behavior by saying that all great powers are inherently imperialist and Russia is no different. According to one popular dictum, “Twenty percent of Georgia is occupied by Russia, but the other 80 percent is occupied by the United States.” According to their argument, a small country like Georgia does not have the choice to be fully politically sovereign; rather, it may only choose which outside power dominates it. In this framing of the problem, Russia may be the preferred choice, as it shares a religion and has been actively fighting the threat of aggressive Western liberalism. Moreover, it is often hinted that the conflict with Russia, deplorable as it is, is actually the result of a Western conspiracy that used Georgia—as well as Ukraine—to weaken Russia. The nativists’ logic is that if Georgia refuses to play the West’s dirty games, then its conflicts with Russia, including the territorial ones, may be solved.
By presenting Western liberalism as a threat to authentic Georgian culture, nativists share the core thrust of Russian propaganda. They also openly or tacitly recognize Russia as the leader of the international resistance movement against this ideological and cultural aggression. Only Russia can protect Eastern Orthodox religious tradition from destruction, which is an alleged motive of global Western-liberal conspiracy. Ideologues of Russian anti-Westernism and illiberalism, such as Alexander Dugin, are the direct inspiration for many Georgian nativists, and quite a few groups have direct contacts with Dugin’s Eurasian movement. Whether Georgian nativists advocate this because they benefit from Russian funding or because there is a genuine meeting of kindred souls is an open question.
The Georgian Orthodox Church may be considered the foremost actor of conservative or nativist civil society in Georgia. The church is a historically dominant religious organization in Georgia that went through a spectacular renaissance after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, establishing itself as by far the most formidable moral power in Georgia. The level of trust given to the church far surpasses faith in any other Georgian public institution.7 Yet the variety of opinions within the church, and the resulting internal disagreements, are becoming increasingly public. Its official position, expressed by its holy synod, is that the church supports Georgia’s policy of European integration. However, the largest and most influential part of the church has close contacts with the Russian Orthodox Church, which is an active agent of Russia’s anti-Western propaganda efforts. Many high- and middle-level clergy are vocal critics of Western liberalism and often openly support pro-Russian policies. It is widely believed in the Georgian analytical community that the church is the main purveyor of Russian soft power in Georgia.8
Until the August 2008 war with Russia, no political party of any influence contested Georgia’s pro-Western path and everyone at least paid lip service to liberal values. Since 2009, the taboo has been broken, with several political parties trying to capitalize on anti-Western sentiment. The Alliance of Patriots Georgia (APG) was the first such party to clear the 5 percent threshold and enter the Georgian Parliament in October 2016.
A number of NGOs present themselves as advocates of Orthodox values allegedly threatened by Western influence. The Union of Orthodox Parents is the most famous of these groups, and has earned notoriety through its readiness to use violent methods to disrupt events that it deems inappropriate for Georgia’s culture and traditions. Other groups, like the Eurasian Institute, are more vocal in resisting Georgia’s policies of European and transatlantic integration, preferring Eurasian integration instead. These groups have a network of active online media like geworld.ge and others, and are probably beneficiaries of direct Russian aid.9
Among the media, the Asaval-Dasavali weekly newspaper, one of the most popular print publications in Georgia, may be the most influential organization spreading aggressively xenophobic and illiberal messages. Objektivi TV and Radio, linked to APG, has a similar mindset in its broadcasting and specializes in a more general criticism of Western-style liberalism in Georgia.
Finally, a number of more aggressively xenophobic, quasi-fascist organizations have been protesting the increasing number of foreigners and foreign-owned businesses, especially drawing on anti-Muslim sentiment to do so. One group, Georgian March, has organized several public events of this type and may be the most important of these xenophobic organizations.
In recent years, nativist groups and organizations have begun to proliferate for several reasons. One reason is political. The 2012 elections brought to power the Georgian Dream coalition (and later political party) created by Bidzina Ivanishvili, a Georgian billionaire who made his fortune in Russia. This political force has generally pursued pro-Western policies; in 2014, it signed an Association Agreement with the European Union. However, it has also flirted with nativist groups, including some of their representatives in its rank, and even indirectly subsidizing aggressively illiberal, anti-Western media. One possible explanation may be that it needs political support from these groups against their common enemy: the UNM, which continues to be the main opposition force.
The rise of nativist civil society may be considered a backlash against reforms carried out by the UNM government from 2004 to 2012. These reforms brought many benefits to Georgia; among other things, it created a functional state and helped root out endemic corruption. However, the UNM’s policies also meant that many lost power and status, and the top-down, aggressive way the government carried out its reforms created grounds for accusations of authoritarianism. As the UNM government was generally supported by the West and prioritized European and NATO integration, using it as a tool to legitimize its often-unpopular reforms, it was easy for nativist ideologues to take advantage of grievances created by the UNM policies and present these policies as an expression of Western liberal domination.10
Georgia’s nativist surge appears to be a part of a global zeitgeist. In the case of Georgia, this trend is driven by a mix of internal and external factors—that is, by domestic political competition compounded by the long shadow of Russian influence. How exactly the international environment influences Georgia in this regard is not fully clear, but it is obvious that Russia, Georgia’s most powerful neighbor, has stepped up efforts to support similar movements in many countries. Its increasing presence in Georgia may help sustain the conservative backlash for some time. For a country where liberal, pro-Western, and pro-democratic NGOs gained such a notable presence, this turnaround in civil society identities is of major significance and its effects have been underestimated.
1 “Levan Vasadze – okupirebuli vart liberaluri ideologiis mier, vart tusaghebi” [Levan Vasadze: We are occupied by the liberal ideology, we are prisoners], Channel 1 Georgia, December 2, 2017, https://1tv.ge/news/levan-vasadze-okupirebuli-vart-liberaluri-ideologiis-mier-vart-tusaghebi/.
2 “Today, a liberati-Sorosian dictatorship is established in our country” (interview with Georgian politician Sandro Bregadze, March 2018).
3 “Chaotic Scenes as Orthodox Groups Thwart Gay Rights Rally,” Civil Georgia, May 17, 2013, http://www.civil.ge/eng/article.php?id=26065.
4 The abovementioned Levan Vasadze, a Georgian businessman active in nativist politics, noted that Protestantism is even more remote from “true” religion—that is, Orthodox Christianity—than Islam is. See his “Eri da saxelimtsipo” [Nation and state], Kviris Palitra, March 18, 2013, https://www.kvirispalitra.ge/politic/16259-...helmtsifoq.html?start=8.
5 On the concept of “sharp power,” see Christopher Walker and Jessica Ludwig, “From ‘Soft Power’ to ‘Sharp Power’: Rising Authoritarian Influence in the Democratic World,” in Juan Pablo Cardenal et al., “Sharp Power: Rising Authoritarian Influence,” National Endowment for Democracy, 2017, 8–25, https://www.ned.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/Sharp-Power-Rising-Authoritarian-Influence-Full-Report.pdf.
6 “Since 2008, Russian government propaganda and Russian support for political parties and civil society groups remains a significant problem in Georgia as pro-democratic forces in the country seek to deepen integration with the west.” See U.S. Senate, Committee on Foreign Relations, Putin’s Asymmetric Assault on Democracy in Russia and Europe: Implications for U.S. National Security, January 10, 2018, https://www.foreign.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/FinalRR.pdf. For a more detailed account, see Lasha Tughushi, ed., “Threats of Russian Hard and Soft Power in Georgia,” European Initiative – Liberal Academy Tbilisi, 2016, http://www.ei-lat.ge/images/doc/threats%20of%20russian%20soft%20and%20hard%20power.pdf.
7 “Survey of Public Opinion in Georgia, February 22-March 8, 2017,” International Republican Institute, March 2017, http://www.iri.org/sites/default/files/iri_poll_presentation_georgia_2017.03-general.pdf.
8 Tengiz Pkhaladze, ed., “Religion as the Instrument of Russian Foreign Policy Towards Neighboring Countries: Georgia, Latvia, Ukraine,” International Centre for Geopolitical Studies, 2012, http://www.icgs.ge/eng/religion-as-the-instrument-of-russian-foreign-policy-towards-neighboring-countries-georgia-latvia-ukraine.html.
9 Tughushi, “Threats of Russian Hard and Soft Power in Georgia.”
10 According to a journalist from a nativist media organization, “One reason why Georgians have bad attitude towards liberalism is that it is associated with the UNM” (interview, March 2018).