It should have been a night like any other for Vitali Safarov. The 25-year-old civil rights activist had gone to a bar in central Tbilisi to socialize when he got into an argument with two neo-Nazi gang members. The altercation soon took a fatal turn and, in the early hours of Sept. 30, 2018, 21-year-old Avtandil Kandelakishvili and 24-year-old Giorgi Sokhadze killed Safarov, stabbing him 10 times.
Sokhadze, better known to his acquaintances as "Slayer," was known to have fascist leanings while Kandelakishvili had a swastika tattoo. A key witness in their trial also testified that the pair made anti-Semitic remarks as they killed Safarov, who was of Jewish and Yazidi descent. Despite the attackers' racial epithets, the court failed to qualify Safarov's murder as a hate crime.
Ultimately, the court sentenced Kandelakishvili and Sokhadze to 15 years in prison in June. Safarov's family, however, intends to appeal the decision, with the victim's mother, Marina Alanakyan, noting her determination to understand why her son was killed and ensure the case sets an important precedent for punishing hate crimes in Georgia.
Others in civil society are just as eager to discover why the government and police have failed to address the increasingly visible problem of far-right radicalization in the country. Indeed, with authorities often turning a blind eye to far-right and neo-Nazi activities and an increasingly unpopular government opening the way for more ultraconservative groupings to enter Parliament and spread their views, Georgia stands on the verge of a shift much further to the right.
A Reality Ignored
To date, violent extremism in Georgia has been framed only in the context of the Islamic State, Syria and the country's minority Muslim population. Even so, there are few effective projects to counter violent extremism in Georgia — none of which deal with far-right disengagement or deradicalization.
The Tolerance and Diversity Institute, for example, noted in a press release less than two weeks after Safarov's murder that neo-Nazi groups had been active around Tbilisi's Freedom Square for at least a year, specifically targeting bars frequented by tourists and other foreigners. Moreover, they alleged that police consistently failed to respond to complaints, including those involving the two neo-Nazis responsible for Safarov's murder.
"This was a truly tragic and fatal result of unpunished hate crimes around us," said Agit Mirzoev, who works for the Center for Participation and Development, where Safarov once worked. "We have been systematically talking about the dangers of (far-right) radicalization for the last four or five years, but neither the public nor the government has displayed a proper response to these concerns."
In fact, it was only when Georgians awoke to the news of the Christchurch mosque massacres in March and saw photographs of Georgian script — along with Cyrillic, Armenian and Latin — scrawled on the shooter's weapons that many began to worry about the possible connection between the Georgian far-right and radicals overseas. One of the names inscribed on attacker Brenton Tarrant's armaments was that of David the Builder, the Georgian king who led Georgian forces to victory over the Seljuk Turks at the Battle of Didgori in 1121. David, his flag and 1121 have all become touchstones for far-right groups like the Georgian March, whose members have made the king's unicorn flag their main symbol and begun to wear T-shirts bearing the date of the Battle of Didgori.
Immediately following the New Zealand massacres, the Georgian government vowed to investigate any possible links between the country's neo-Nazis and far-right militants abroad. Since then, however, there has been no progress.
The Christchurch attacker's manifesto appeared to borrow heavily from that of Anders Breivik, the far-right terrorist who killed 77 people, including a Georgian, in a bomb attack in Oslo and a massacre on Utoya island in Norway in July 2011. Both Breivik and Tarrant appear to have been fascinated with Georgia and other Christian countries that shared a historical enmity with Muslims. Both, too, were obsessed with the "Great Replacement," a far-right conspiracy theory that non-Europeans are taking the place of white Europeans. Today, the Great Replacement is a key narrative among far-right groups in Georgia and elsewhere.
One Georgian site, MyStar, even translated the works of David Lane, a member of the U.S. domestic terrorist organization the Order, into Georgian. In the wider world, Lane is better known for his 14 words, "We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children," which has become a mantra for white supremacists and neo-Nazis the world over. Meanwhile, another MyStar post quoted the Old Testament to justify the execution of children in Nazi Germany. The site did not renew its hosting at the beginning of this year, and the domain is now used to sell wallets and handbags.
Nevertheless, other sites continue to post similar content. One such group is the neo-Nazi Georgian Power, which is prolific in its dissemination of alt-right memes depicting Pepe the Frog, references to the red and blue pills from "The Matrix" (which has been appropriated by the far-right), and patriarchal images of "pure" women. It has also adopted Lane's 14 words as a Georgian hashtag on Facebook.
Most recently, ultra-conservative and nationalist groups such as the neo-Nazi National Unity and the populist Georgian March have also stepped up their activities. In May last year, both groups converged on the Georgian Parliament to face off with nightclub patrons who were protesting a particularly heavy-handed police raid on the city's famous Bassiani Club.
Despite the show of force, neither Sandro Bregadze (Georgian March's leader) nor Giorgi Chelidze (the head of National Unity) faced any changes at the time. In fact, it was only in September 2018 that authorities prosecuted Chelidze for the illegal possession of munitions — an act that came to light after he posted a video on Facebook of himself and others training with semi-automatic weapons. In the trial that followed, Chelidze and his supporters made Nazi salutes in the courtroom, imitating Breivik during his trial. Nevertheless, the court sentenced the National Unity leader to only 3.5 years in prison in May.
Moreover, the Georgian government failed to show any interest in tackling the problem of far-right radicalization, even though Tbilisi hosted an Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe seminar in June on countering violent extremism.
The country's former public defender, Ucha Nanuashvili, accused the government of maintaining a double standard, displaying inconsistencies in the fight against extremism and merely reacting in exceptional cases — and even then, only inadequately. "There is no coordination of state institutions in this regard, and the impression is that the authorities are not aware of the devastating effects that are caused by encouraging these groups," Nanuashvili said.
In June, for example, the Interior Ministry refused to provide security for Tbilisi's LGBTQ community for the first-ever Pride event in what remains a country with conservative mores. Undeterred, organizers said they would hold the event anyway, even as far-right and ultranationalist groups threatened violence in response. The Georgian Orthodox Church called for calm but warned that any violence would be the fault of the Pride organizers.
Enter the Demagogue
After a tense standoff between ultraconservative groups and LGBTQ activists outside the State Chancellory on June 14, millionaire businessman Levan Vasadze announced two days later that he was forming vigilante groups to identify and abduct anyone considered likely to attend or support Tbilisi Pride. Despite warnings from the Interior Ministry that such calls violated Article 223 of the Criminal Code, which prohibits the formation of illegal groupings, Vasadze has yet to be prosecuted.
In May last year, the Southern Poverty Law Center named Vasadze as a representative of the anti-LGBTQ World Congress of Families, which is linked to Alexander Dugin, who has connections to the Kremlin. In December 2017, the center noted that Vasadze spoke in Chisinau, Moldova, at Dugin's Eurasian Conference, an event that also drew neo-Nazis and Identitarians.
Georgian ultranationalists deny any links to Moscow, Nanuashvili said. "However, their talking points are similar to those of Russian far-right groups and represent Russian 'soft power,'" he said. "Most of these groups are truly anti-Russian, but relatively large and influential groups such as Georgian March and other organizations united around leaders such as Vasadze cannot hide their pro-Russian attitudes."
George Marjanishvili, director of the Center for Participation and Development, is not surprised by the lack of action from authorities. "Vasadze represents a pretty influential group in Georgia," he said.
"It is a group that has support from the Georgian Orthodox Church and the patriarch himself," Marjanishvili said. "Most of society views (Vasadze) as the 'megaphone' of the Georgian Patriarchate so the government tries to avoid any controversy with him precisely because of this influence. Vasadze can create bigger problems for the government than the opposition, so the government usually chooses to bury its head in the sand."
Of more concern, according to critics, is speculation that the government might use such far-right groups politically. "It's quite clear that the government occasionally uses these groups to frighten and demonize liberal and other groups with different opinions from them," Nanuashvili said. "All of this reinforces the assumption that these groups have the favor and support of some government officials."
This also raises fears about next year's parliamentary elections. With its popularity at the lowest in years, the ruling Georgian Dream party is currently polling at just 21 percent, according to a recent poll from the National Democratic Institute, just six points higher than the opposition United National Movement.
With public discontent growing, especially in the wake of violent anti-government protests on June 20 and daily rallies since, Georgian Dream's founder and chairman, the billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, has acceded to one of the demonstrators' demands, namely, that he bring forward plans to implement proportional representation to next year, instead of 2024. Ivanishvili is considered by local and regional analysts to be the real power in Georgia.
The far-right probably has enough supporters to gain seats in the Georgian Parliament, achieve legitimization and use Parliament to spread hate and xenophobia.
Crucially, Ivanishvili has also decided to abort initial plans to set an electoral threshold, meaning there will be no barrier to parliamentary representation. "We know that these groups have political ambitions, and I think this is concerning in light of changing the electoral system," Marjanishvili said. "Now the minimum barrier is almost non-existent and they probably have enough supporters to gain seats in the Georgian Parliament, achieve legitimization and use Parliament to spread hate and xenophobia."
Such concerns are not unfounded. Even under the current electoral system, the ultraconservative populist Alliance of Patriots, considered by many to be pro-Russian, entered Parliament in 2016 with six seats after narrowly scraping past the 5 percent threshold.
In 2013, Tabula, a popular online site that used to also publish a regular print edition, forecast such a scenario. "The current government is friendly toward (Vasadze) and he thus has full freedom to act," the magazine wrote. "Of primary importance, however, is how influential this new political actor will become and what degree of harm he will inflict on Georgia's interests and security."
Tabula's call has been prophetic: In the six years since, the views of Vasadze and the rest of Georgia's far-right have wormed their way further into society. And as things stand now, their influence is only likely to increase.
Editor's Note: A previous version of this article misidentified the Center for Participation and Development, a civil society organization, as the Center for Participation and Democracy.