Georgian activists have accused a pro-Russian group of planning a fake lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender pride march to provoke attacks from homophobes in an attempt to destabilise the country ahead of the imminent conclusion of an EU association agreement.
Sex worker Giorgi Chkhartishvili said he was offered money to stage a transgender rally last month on the first anniversary of a peaceful demo attacked by a homophobic mob.
The allegations come at a sensitive time. Georgia will on Friday sign an important agreement on closer association with the EU. Gay rights have emerged as a persistent bone of contention between the EU and its eastern neighbours.
Because of last year's violence, the LGBT community in Georgia decided against staging a rally this year. But Chkhartishvili claims he was approached in May in the illegal red-light district in Tbilisi by a colleague of Shota Apkhaidze, head of the pro-Russian Eurasian Institute, to reinstate the parade.
"The man told me the Eurasian Institute would give me 40,000 Georgian lari [£13,300] to organise a parade," said Chkhartishvili.
"This is an organisation that is trying to get Georgia to join the Eurasian Union instead of the European Union."
Chkhartishvili said he then received phone calls offering him a new passport and transport to Kazakhstan after 17 May, but he backed out of the deal after being warned off by concerned LGBT activists.
"They were going to take me to Astana and after that nobody knows what would happen to me." said Chkhartishvili.
"I told him that I had changed my mind and I had made all their plans public and am out of their game. Then the phone went dead."
Chkhartishvili claims he first met Aphkaidze at a Eurasian Institute screening of an anti-Nato film in March, an event which descended into street scuffles after it was crashed by pro-European demonstrators.
Approached by the Guardian, Aphkaidze denied the allegations and said he did not know Chkhartishvili. However, recordings of phone calls purportedly between the pair have been broadcast on a Georgian news website and have also been passed to police.
Pro-EU elements in countries such as Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova tend to espouse a more tolerant approach to gay rights than pro-Russian elements in the former Soviet Union.
At Easter, Georgian Orthodox leaders said a clause in an anti-discrimination bill guaranteeing equal treatment of LGBT people, required by the EU for closer ties, would legalise "gay propaganda" in a direct threat to dearly-held Georgian values.
"Bringing in this [equal] status and making the sexual minority a norm, the church considers this a crime. It is a problem brought from outside, from the European Union," said Alexandre Galdava, an Orthodox priest at the Church of Archangel Michael in Tbilisi, who preaches that being gay is "a sexual choice based on debauchery".
Giorgi Gotsiridze, of the Georgian Young Lawyers' Association, a government adviser on the anti-discrimination bill, said the Orthodox church had attempted to block its passage through parliament, arguing it would "legalise perversity".
"[The church] advocates the idea that Georgia should be free from European values because this means only homosexuality, incest and paedophilia. It's part of Putin's agenda. The Orthodox church is a medium to voice these messages," he added.
The Eurasian Institute refused to answer questions about its funding, but said it was being attacked because of its "activities to advance the political, economic and humanitarian links between Georgia and Russia and for making critical statements about Georgia's western ties".
"The Eurasian Institute has been active in Tbilisi for several months and appears to be some sort of anti-western pro-Kremlin front organisation," said Mark Mullen, chair of Transparency International Georgia.
"It looks like the pre-designed technology of provocation," said Ghia Nodia, politics professor at Ilia State University in Tbilisi. "It is hard to imagine who else but Russia may be sponsoring that institution."
Reluctance to grant LGBT people equal rights is widespread. Forty-nine per cent of Georgians surveyed by the Caucasus Research Resource Centre (CRRC) after last year's disastrous demonstration agreed that a good citizen should never respect the rights of sexual minorities. Just 16% said a good citizen should always respect their rights.
Yet without any parade to disrupt on 17 May, the country's homophobic groups failed to mobilise as they did last year. Instead thousands joined the church's "family values" march.
The government remains committed to signing the EU agreement on Friday, Alex Petriashvili, the state minister on European and Euro-Atlantic integration, said. He dismissed "the screaming of some small groups about Georgia joining the Eurasian Economic Union" as not serious.
"The Georgian government has demonstrated its firmness on these questions," he said.
"The sooner we sign … we will make clear that the integration of Georgia into the European Union is an irreversible process."
Source: The Guardian
Photo: VANO SHLAMOV / AFP