(Reuters) – Up to 2,000 anti-LGBT protesters broke up a Gay Pride festival in the Georgian capital Tbilisi on Saturday, scuffling with police and destroying props including rainbow flags and placards, though there were no reports of injuries.
Organisers accused the authorities of actively colluding with the demonstrators to disrupt the festival, but a government minister said it was a difficult event to police as it was held in an open area, near a lake.
“The protesters managed to find… ways to enter the area of the event, but we were able to evacuate the Pride participants and organisers,” Deputy Interior Minister Alexander Darakhvelidze told reporters.
“Nobody was harmed during the incident and police are now taking measures to stabilise the situation.”
The director of Tbilisi Pride confirmed to Reuters that all the event’s participants had been bussed to safety but criticised the authorities’ policing of the Pride event, which she said had been held in private for a second consecutive year to reduce the risk of such violent protests.
Mariam Kvaratskhelia said far-right groups had publicly incited violence against LGBT+ activists in the days leading up to the Pride events and that the police and interior ministry had declined to investigate.
“I definitely think this (disruption) was a preplanned, coordinated action between the government and the radical groups… We think this operation was planned in order to sabotage the EU candidacy of Georgia,” she said.
The police and government could not immediately be reached to comment on her accusations.
However, Georgia’s President Salome Zourabichvili, a frequent critic of the government, echoed the criticism of the police, saying they had failed in their duty to uphold people’s right to assemble safely.
Georgia aspires to join the European Union but its ruling Georgian Dream Party has faced increased criticism from rights groups and the EU over its perceived drift towards authoritarianism.
After violent street protests in March, it withdrew a Russian-style bill that would have required non-government organisations receiving more than 20% of their funding from abroad to register as “agents of foreign influence”.
Georgia has passed laws against discrimination and hate crimes, but LGBT+ rights groups say there is a lack of adequate protection by law enforcement officials and homophobia remains widespread in the socially conservative South Caucasus nation.
Two years ago, several journalists were beaten during attacks on LGBT+ activists in Tbilisi. One of the journalists, cameraman Alexander Lashkarava, was later found dead at his home, sparking angry protests in the Georgian capital.
(Reporting by Reuters TV; Writing by Gareth Jones; Editing by Ros Russell)