Georgia has insisted that its pro-western stance is not in doubt, even as NGOs and media groups urged the EU to help defend the country’s democracy amid rising political tension and fallout from a far-right attack on LGBT activists and journalists.
European Council president Charles Michel visited Georgia on Monday for talks with its leaders and the visiting presidents of Ukraine and Moldova. All three ex-Soviet states have signed so-called association agreements with the EU, and include Moscow-backed breakaway regions where Russian troops are deployed.
Mr Michel helped broker a deal to end a long-running political crisis in Georgia in April, but it reignited this month when a nationalist mob in the capital, Tbilisi, set upon organisers of a planned Pride event and reporters covering the attack; dozens of people were hurt, and an injured cameraman subsequently died.
Georgian prime minister Irakli Garibashvili condemned the violence, but also criticised activists for planning a parade that he claimed “95 per cent of our people are against” and was part of a plot by “radical” opposition elements to sow chaos.
Critics accused the ruling Georgian Dream party of siding with nationalists and the ultra-conservative Georgian Orthodox Church, and EU states including Ireland said the government had failed to protect the peaceful Pride events and journalists or deter hate speech.
“The unchecked homophobic violence earlier this month was a major setback, undermining fundamental freedoms in the country and questioning Georgia’s democratic aspirations,” more than 50 Georgian civil society and media groups said in an open letter to Mr Michel on Monday.
“Although police arrested several perpetrators, the organisers of the pogroms remain at large ... Now more than ever, Georgia’s international partners should stand united in support of democracy and fundamental freedoms in the country.”
In talks with Mr Garibashvili and Georgian opposition leaders, Mr Michel said he stressed the “central role” of rights and values in EU-Georgia relations.
“Rights of minorities are not a marginal issue – respect for diversity and human dignity are essential to our fundamental values. The constitutional rights to freedoms of expression, press and assembly must be upheld.”
The open letter also accused Georgian Dream of failing to fulfil pledges in the April deal on election and judicial reform, and Mr Michel criticised parliament’s recent fast-track appointment of six supreme court judges as a “missed opportunity.”
Mr Garibashvili insisted, however, that Georgia was “conscientiously fulfilling” all agreements on integration with the west, and claimed that “our co-operation with the European Union has never been so energetic.”
Alongside her Moldovan and Ukrainian counterparts, Georgian president Salome Zurabishvili declared: “Georgia’s European choice is inseparable from our history. It is inseparable from our values ... the choice of the European path has for us – and I know, for our friends – no alternative.”