Georgian Ultranationalists Arrested After Rampaging Through Central Tbilisi

TBILISI – Eleven members of a radical ultranationalist youth group known for its overt neo-Nazi ideology were arrested after several its followers began rampaging down a central Tbilisi street late Tuesday night.

Tbilisi police officials broke up a march by the group – known as Georgian Power – once its members began attacking Turkish cafes and restaurants, as well as passers-by who were wearing typical Islamic dress.

The incidents took place around central Tbilisi’s Marjanashvili Square and the adjacent Aghmashenebeli Street – an area home to several immigrants from Turkey, the Indian subcontinent and the Middle East.

The gathering was comprised of members of Georgian Power and a host of other ultranationalist and neo-Nazi groups, including several members of the Dynamo Tbilisi Ultras – the Georgian offshoot of Russia’s notorious Ultra football hooligans.

Russia's Ultras are known for their frequent attacks on Muslims, Jews and foreigners in Russia and were responsible for organizing recruiting offices and gathering volunteers for Moscow’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine.

The far-right rally originally gathered near central Tbilisi’s Rustaveli metro station to commemorate the September 1993 fall of Sukhumi – the capital of the Russian-backed separatist region of Abkhazia.

Sukhumi’s capture and the subsequent ethnic cleansing of hundreds of thousands of ethnic Georgians from Abkhazia by Moscow-backed separatists and Russian military units remains a painful issue for most Georgians to this day.

The demonstrators – many of whom were masked and carrying Georgian flags, with a few giving what appeared to be Nazi salutes – began shouting anti-immigrant and anti-foreigner slogans, as well as the commonly heard nationalist refrain,“Glory to the Nation! Death to our enemies!”

The group then proceeded to attack several Turkish-owned cafes along the recently restored Aghmeshenebeli Street, an area of the city the Georgian government likes to tout as a symbol of the country’s renewal and its orientation towards the West.

Some of the far right radicals attacked at least one Muslim woman and tore off her hijab, or headscarf, according to police officials.

Georgia’s Interior Ministry released a statement early Wednesday that members of Georgian Power were being held in police custody for holding an unsanctioned political rally.

"The participants of the demonstration were seen as being particularly aggressive by the police units that were on duty at the time of the rally. They insulted residents, damaged private property and attempted to harass the owners and patrons of several cafes,” the Interior Ministry’s statement said.

The statement, however, made no reference to the deliberate targeting of foreigners or minorities.

Law enforcement officials have been swift to play down the significance of the events, but made little attempt to halt the rally – one in which they admit was unsanctioned from the start.

Attacks on Foreigners, Non-Georgian Cultural Symbols on the Rise

Tuesday’s rally was only the latest in a series of recent incidents involving ultranationalist groups who target minorities, foreigners and symbols of Western culture. 

In June, a group of young nationalists attacked a vegan restaurant located in Tbilisi’s historical center. The far-right extremists stormed into the small Kiwi Café and began hurling sausages and meat at both the staff and the cafe’s customers, before rampaging through the cafe and attacking several of the people inside.

The assailants later said they were reacting to complaints by the café’s neighbors, who claimed the owners and patrons of the café were “drug addicts and sodomites”.

That incident was followed by the violent disruption of an open air international music festival in Tbilisi by a group of nationalists and ultraconservative Orthodox Christian activists who accused the concertgoers of Satanism and “organizing a mass sex orgy”. 

The number of attacks on foreigners and minorities has been noticeably on the rise in recent months. Resentment amongst young Georgian men towards their foreign counterparts is also beginning to grow as an increasing number of Georgians accuse those from abroad – mainly Westerners – of insulting or attacking “traditional Georgian values” by openly promoting minorities and women’s rights.

Echoing the nationalist, ultraconservative ideology first promulgated by Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill and wholeheartedly adopted by Georgia’s Orthodox Church, a growing element of Georgia’s society has begun to turn its frustrations over a flagging economy and slow progress towards European integration. They have become openly hostile towards those they welcomed with open arms as recently as a half-decade ago. 

In the cases of the attacks, the perpetrators often have the tacit or overt support of both the police and the Church.

Immediately after the assault on the vegan café, witnesses claimed the police seemed to openly mock those in the cafe and laughed at the victims’ accounts of the incident.

Sympathetic Orthodox priests had taken part in many of the incidents, including at the music festival in June, last week’s attempt to block an official visit by Pope Francis and a notorious incident in 2013 when dozens of members of the clergy took part in a violent attack on an LBGT rally that left dozens injured.

While having made impressive strides towards curbing corruption and overhauling its military, Georgian society – whether pro-European or not –  has a significant amount of ground to cover before it eradicates the worst elements of its complex-driven nationalism and latent xenophobia.

By Nicholas Waller

29 September 2016 12:39