Georgia’s Ultranationalists: Going Fascist on Facebook

Luka Pertaia

Like the hundreds who took to Tbilisi’s streets on July 14 to protest Muslim immigration, 25-year-old ultranationalist Temur claims to represent a small group of ordinary Georgians marginalized by the élite. But his generation has one critical tool to make that point that earlier nationalists did not -- Facebook, the country’s 24/7 hangout spot.  

In many ways, his story reflects those of other young, digitally savvy Georgians drawn to extreme nationalism as a way to gain security in an insecure era. 

Born into a conservative family in Kobuleti, a town on Georgia’s Black Sea coast, Temur, who declined to release his last name, says he became aware as a child that "the ruling élite of the nation . . . were behaving badly” – a reference to perceived abuse of power, lack of jobs and the adoption of so-called alien, “European” values

History lessons that touted Georgian struggles against Muslim invaders and his family’s own views encouraged his nationalist sympathies. The turning point, however, came in 2015 after he came to Tbilisi to study law at the East European University. In this city of over 1.1 million, he easily found others who shared his ideas.

Although no exact numbers exist for the number of Georgia’s ultranationalist organizations, Georgian Facebook groups promoting xenophobia, homophobia, misogyny and fascism appear to have increased in popularity over the past several years. Some outsiders attribute this to Russian influence, but Georgian ultranationalists heatedly deny such an association. Russia, they note, imposed communism on Georgia and occupies its two breakaway regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. In fact, the ultranationalists are an amorphous mix, sharing each other’s Facebook content, but obscuring their ties to each other; including, usually, the identities of their page managers.

Some are neo-Nazis who say they put “the interests of the nation” above religion. Others, like Temur, describe themselves as fascists, but stress that they do not idolize dictators Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini, even as they focus on the importance of ethnic origins.  Still others are religiously inclined conservatives who identify with post-Soviet Georgia’s first president, the late nationalist Zviad Gamsakhurdia, who was deposed in 1992. There are masked radicals (Bergman, Edelweiss), who identify with the so-called "pan-European nationalism” movement, and are known for hooliganism at soccer games.

Plus, there are catch-all groups, like Resistance Georgia and the Anti-Liberal Club, which has attracted over 32,000 followers to its mission of opposing so-called "liberal–leaning centrists.” And then, there is Georgian Power.

Supporters of Georgian Power at the start of a march on September 27, 2016, the anniversary of the 1993 fall of Abkhazia’s main city, Sokhumi, to separatist forces.

Georgian Power members salute their leader, Nikoloz Burnadze, during their September 27, 2016 rally in front of Tbilisi’s Rustaveli subway station.

Georgian Power members often wear masks at their rallies to make their mark publicly without disclosing their personal identities.

Georgian Power

Made up largely of men in their teens and twenties, Georgian Power, founded in 2015, used to be among the most active Georgian ultranationalist groups on Facebook.  It is best known to foreigners for its attack on a Tbilisi vegan café last year.

Its Facebook page’s photos, videos and memes promoted white supremacy and anti-LGBT and anti-feminist narratives. The group was particularly aggressive toward civil-rights activists, whose quotes, removed from context and shared with images, sparked misogynistic and homophobic discussions.

Until its closure in 2016, a bricks-and-mortar “headquarters” at a military-themed bar in downtown Tbilisi further served to strengthen the nationalist spirit, members say. 

But it was Georgian Power’s Facebook page that served as the ultranationalist bulletin board. A September 27, 2016 Tbilisi demonstration it advertised to protest separatists’ 1993 takeover of the Abkhaz city of Sokhumi led to violent attacks against downtown Turkish restaurants and clashes with police. Eleven people were detained.

On Facebook, Georgian Power used mainstream media’s coverage of the violence as PR, even though, like other ultranationalists, they rank such journalists among their most dangerous enemies. By early 2017, however, matters had gone too far for many Georgians.

In late April, Facebook blocked the group, members claim, after a few hundred users complained about its posts. (The information could not be independently confirmed with Facebook.) The group reopened with its name only in Georgian. Its likes now stand at under 5,000.

Temur, who claims he was only a “regular supporter” of Georgian Power, is among those who left the group. Not for its views, but because he did not see the potential for "personal growth.” That would come from other groups. 

Ultra-nationalist groups often carry canisters that emit multi-colored smoke which makes their demonstrations more visually alluring.

As the t-shirt of one supporter indicates, Georgian nationalist groups appear to support “white nationalism” as well.

Georgian ultranationalists often use photos by local media for their own propaganda.

Georgian National Unity

Building on his experience with Georgian Power, Temur joined other ultranationalists in 2016 to set up an official non-governmental organization, Georgian National Unity. Billed as a “social nationalist movement,” it is a group that targets, among others, American financier and philanthropist George Soros, founder of the Open Society Foundations network.  

NGOs that promote women’s rights and sexual, ethnic and religious tolerance “ are financed by George Soros and endanger Georgian nationality,” reasons  Temur, who considers them “cultural Marxists.” Like other extreme nationalists in the former Soviet Union, most notably in Russia, he believes that the protection of LGBT rights is part of an alleged larger Soros plan to dominate the world. 

During Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s April 21 visit to Tbilisi, Temur and other Georgian National Unity members organized a rally to support a proposed Hungarian law that could lead to the closure of Budapest’s Soros-founded Central European University. Temur, however, angrily rejects the common assumption that Russia finances such rallies.  The NGO is self-financing, and its protests are genuine, he says.

On Facebook, to fight against the so-called Soros “plan,” it shares Georgian-language excerpts from fascist Italian leader Benito Mussolini’s “The Doctrine of Fascism,” quotes from Nazi Germany’s Adolf Hitler, and links to Russian and English-language media outlets that discuss fascism and ultranationalism.  The alt-right Breitbart News Network, an outspoken backer of US President Donald Trump, ranks among them. The page, however, does not have more than 5,000 followers. But, to expand their audience, Temur and friends have established yet another, more popular ultranationalist Facebook page, as well. 

A supporter of Georgian nationalist groups in front of Tbilisi’s Heroes Memorial, which honors those who died fighting for Georgia’s territorial integrity.

Temuri, on the far right, holds a Georgian National Unity flag during a nationalist rally to mark the April 2017 visit of conservative Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban to Tbilisi.

“Don’t become a liberast [a mixture of the words “liberal” and “pederast,” a derogatory term in Georgian for gay people] !” urges one poster at a Georgian nationalist rally in Tbilisi.

Georgian National Unity members raise a Nazi salute near Tbilisi’s central Rustaveli Avenue.

The Red Pill

The Red Pill takes its name from the 1999 science-fiction classic “The Matrix,” in which the main character, Neo, must choose between red pills that offer wisdom, freedom and realization of painful reality, and blue pills that offer an illusion.

The Red Pill claims it’s all about reality.

Its Facebook page, with nearly 7,200 followers, tends to become active on “strategic dates,” such as May 17, the International Day against Homophobia and Transphobia. As do other Georgian extreme-nationalist groups, on that day it shares memes and messages that disparage LGBT people.It strongly supports the “Family Day” declared by Georgian Orthodox Church Patriarch Ilia II as an alternative commemoration.

Yet, like some other Georgian ultranationalists, Temur claims that he “does not intend to harm anyone” with these actions. To make the point, he cites the maxim of a non-Georgian, the early Christian thinker St. Augustine: “Love the sinner, hate the sin.”

On Facebook, The Red Pill and Georgian National Unity promote an anti-Semitic, neo-Nazi-style narrative.

“We have to cut off his finger,” reads the caption for this Georgian Power Facebook photo of a man wearing a shirt with an Islamic crescent moon and star and “Georgia” written in Russian.

Turkophobia is another significant characteristic of Georgian nationalist groups, who claim that Turkish investments are part of a takeover plan. Here, the caption says that Turks “are getting active” in the border region of Achara.

A Georgian National Unity post features Pepe the Frog, an anti-migrant meme often used by ultranationalist groups on Facebook to ridicule liberal ideas.

The ultranationalist Facebook group Resistance Georgia shared this photo from the 2017 International Women’s Day march in Tbilisi with a quote from a leading Georgian female politician to prompt ridicule of gender rights from commentators.

https://media.giphy.com/media/xUOrw82Sw4LPUK4O0U/giphy.gif

An animated gif shared by  Georgian nationalists on Facebook uses Hitler to promote a July 14, 2017 nationalist rally in Tbilisi. 


July 2017

      Chai Khana ©

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