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The rise of socially conservative Georgia

Georgia's ruling party is relying on social conservatism to win votes in the upcoming parliamentary elections.

The first reading of the anti-LGBT+ legislation was passed by the ruling party at the end of June. The bill, titled “On the Protection of Family Values ​​and Minors”, and 18 related amendments affecting various national laws, pursue several goals.

The law was passed with 78 votes in favour and no votes against, as most opposition members are currently boycotting parliamentary work related to what they describe as authoritarian legislation on so-called foreign agents, the “Russia Law”.

The publicly stated aim of the package is to ban gender reassignment and adoption by same-sex couples. It also aims to prevent events that could be seen as propaganda for same-sex family values. In addition, the bill aims to ban gender-neutral language and the promotion of any work that promotes non-heterosexual relationships and gender identity.

The more likely purpose of the legislation is to gain support for the ruling Georgian Dream party through a blatant appeal to Georgian social conservatism.

It was pointed out that the anti-LGBT+ draft was not that urgent, as same-sex marriage has been banned in the Georgian constitution since 2018.

Surprisingly, despite being predominantly pro-EU/NATO, most Georgians do not share their social liberalism. LGBT+ parades or gay marriage are not very popular. As evidence of this, there have been no major public demonstrations since the law was announced and the public reaction on social media has been largely muted.

This is nothing new. Pride parades have occasionally seen serious violence against the LGBT+ community, which has sometimes extended to attacks on journalists.

Until now, politicians have largely avoided addressing this conservative sentiment. But this reticence has now clearly come to an end: Georgian Dream is now actively and quite successfully using the anti-LGBT+ theme to improve its electoral chances.

The parliamentary elections at the end of October are crucial for the future of the country. They could extend the ruling party's power for an unprecedented fourth term. No political party in the country's modern history has managed more than two terms in office.

And this is not just a choice – the Georgian Dream’s passage of the spy law despite enormous popular protests, overwhelming enthusiasm for Western economic and military organizations such as the EU and NATO, and fierce opposition from Western governments shows that the country is at a crossroads.

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The discrepancy between Georgian Dream's behavior and European norms became clear on June 26, when the Venice Commission, an advisory body to the Council of Europe, issued its opinion on the draft constitutional legislative package.

The Commission called on the Georgian government to either reconsider the draft law entirely or at least amend certain articles to prevent discrimination against LGBT+ people and ensure compliance with the European Convention on Human Rights.

The EU has now made it clear that Georgia's application for membership is on hold due to the Foreign Agents Law and that the new legislation is likely to only worsen relations with European institutions and the US.

Oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili, the leading figure of Georgian Dream, has combined the agents with anti-LGBT+ laws to save the country from a hostile global “war party” plotting against Georgia. His approach has been welcomed by Russia.

Current polls suggest that no single party will win a majority in the October elections, so it is likely that multi-party coalitions will emerge in the future.

This would significantly weaken the power of the Georgian Dream. Therefore, an appeal to the conservative parts of the population is seen as the only viable path to victory.

Social conservatism is an attractive political weapon in the politics of countries on the periphery of Europe, where smaller countries border larger powers like Russia. This is not fertile geopolitical ground for the flourishing of ultra-liberal views.

Ultimately, Georgia could end up in a similar situation to Turkey, another EU candidate for which membership no longer seems realistic due to the country's internal dynamics and its so-called multi-vector foreign policy (which allows for a completely flexible policy towards Russia and other authoritarian states).

Although much attention in Georgia is focused on the spy law, the draft law on the protection of family values ​​and minors deepens the differences between Tbilisi and the EU/NATO.

Georgia is a puzzling case. It shows that despite its predominantly pro-Western attitude, the country can also be very conservative. Georgian Dream wants to suggest to voters that a decision to join the West would tear apart the traditional social fabric. This is now a key issue for October and beyond.

Emil Avdaliani is a professor of international relations at the European University in Tbilisi, Georgia, and an expert on Silk Roads.

Europe's edge is CEPA's online journal covering major foreign policy issues in Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position or views of the institutions he represents or of the Center for European Policy Analysis.

Europe's edge

CEPA's online journal covers important foreign policy issues in Europe and North America.

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