Do Georgians hate the EU enough to burn its flag? Or are darker forces at play?
EU flags were ablaze outside the Georgian Parliament on Tuesday.
In an apparent outburst of anti-European feeling, a crowd -- mostly made up of older men -- tore down an EU flag hanging outside the building in Tiblisi and turned it to ashes
“We openly state that there is a very numerous segment in Georgian society that is against the idea of European integration,” said Shota Martinenko, Secretary General of the group behind the protest.
“Everyone will have to listen to the voice of this segment.”
But this is simply not true.
Support for joining the bloc among Georgia’s some four million citizens is as high as 81%, according to a 2022 poll by the National Democratic Institute.
“It was a very staged performance,” Tamta Gelashvili, a researcher of the Georgian far right at the University of Oslo, told Euronews.
“The demonstration was aimed at showing international society there's disagreement among people about the country’s foreign policy orientation.”
“It wants to create this impression, but such diversity of opinion isn't really there.”
The unruly demo – reportedly “unimpeded by the scant police presence” – was organised by Alt Info, a far-right, pro-Russian, anti-Western group.
“They’re a peculiar organism,” said Gelashvili. “They have been created in a very artificial way. They didn't have a big social base. They don't have a big network. They're not really linked to other far-right groups.”
Alt Info started life in around 2018 as an online news website, translating articles from far-right outlets, such as Breitbart, focused on "cultural flashpoints", such as migration and gender.
“Back then it was very tiny,” Gelashvili told Euronews. “The website had zero information, so we never knew who was behind this group. We didn't know anything about them.”
Things changed in 2021.
Alt Info established a political party called the 'Conservative Movement', with offices springing up in all corners of the country within a year – something Gelashvili called a “dream” for most parties.
Where the party got the massive financial resources needed for this breakneck expansion is unclear.
Gelashvili pointed to a “suspicious system” where money was personally donated by members, though when journalists asked about the origin of this cash some said it had been given to them by the party itself.
"Clearly some kind of financial obscurity is going on there," she said. "They have a lot of funds, but they don't really want to disclose where this money is coming from."
‘Georgia has no future with the West’
Some in Georgia have speculated that Alt Info is funded by Moscow, though Gelashvili was more cautious, saying there was “very little evidence” for this – despite “a lot of suspicions”.
“It certainly plays into Russian hands to create this instability and try to reverse the very clear pro-Western orientation of our country,” she said, adding that Alt Info was trying to “break a taboo” about striking a pro-Russian stance.
“But I'm always very careful to say there are direct financial links. A long-standing problem in Georgian politics is that every time we don't like someone, we just call them Pro-Russian.”
Russia maintains significant interests in the tiny caucasian county, which was once part of the USSR. It invaded in 2008, occupying the Abkhazia and South Ossetia territories in northern Georgia.
Members of Alt Info have repeatedly claimed the West will drag Georgia into the Ukraine war – a line repeated by the Russian state media.
“From a geopolitical point of view, the policy of the European Union and America involves provoking a war between Georgia and Russia and opening a second front in order to weaken Russia's influence in the region and strengthen its own influence,” Alt Info Secretary General Shota Martinenko wrote in a statement sent to Euronews.
“Those people who want integration with the West are simply victims of propaganda prepared for their destruction by the West,” he continued. “We are trying to wake them up.”
While there is no basis for these claims, Alt Info has seized on Georgia’s faltering EU ambitions.
In June, Brussels left the country off the waiting list to join the bloc, while granting candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova.
“We do not believe that Georgia's accession to the European Union is at all possible,” said Martinenko. "It is an unfulfilled task and a fairy tale due to geographical and geopolitical reasons, which the West uses to give hope to Georgians... to demand that their interests be pursued in return for these hopes."
Georgia’s EU bid has been dogged by concerns over its political system, which is blighted by accusations of fraud, intimidation, vote-buying, cronyism and police harassment, besides accusations Oligraphs exert excessive influence over politics and the media.
Other questions surround Alt Info’s connections to the ruling Georgian Dream Party, a nominally pro-democracy, pro-European party that came to power in 2012.
In the last couple of years, it has increasingly parroted Kremlin-like messages and shown "authoritarian tendencies of repressing dissent", according to analyst Gelashvili.
“There's a lot of symbiosis between the state and Alt Info, if not direct links,” she claimed. “Their narratives overlap, suggesting Georgian Dream uses the group strategically to deepen political polarisation with its rivals.”
Georgia’s police force has also been accused of complicity with Alt Info.
In 2021, more than 50 journalists and activists were violently assaulted by far-right mobs ahead of a planned Pride March in support of the LBGT community.
"In the case of European integration, it is clear that traditional Georgian culture and values are under threat," said Alt Info leader Martinenko. "The norms that the European Union rigidly demands from our country to establish are completely unacceptable for the largest part of Georgian society: massive LGBT propaganda and attempts to declare homosexuality, transgenderism and similar pathological perversions as the norm, aggressive feminism and support for liberal immigration policy."
Human rights -- some relating to the rights and status of minorities -- are protected under EU treaties, though Brussels does not enforce policy on national governments.
‘Just a few dozen people pretending they are a movement’
Right now Alt Info remains on the political margins, despite the media circus around their protests. Last year, their support took a beating after members visited Russia and met with officials amid the Ukraine war.
Their fiery anti-EU demo on Tuesday was small, numbering a few hundred. Meanwhile, recent protests against a now stalled ‘foreign agent’ law – which critics branded as anti-democratic – drew in tens of thousands.
Whether they have a political future is unclear.
“The danger comes in a more long-term sense,” says Gelashvili. “I don't see them becoming an electorally powerful political actor. But their anti-equality narrative is dangerous… it could impact public opinion and Georgia’s democratisation process.”
“The problem is they have a lot of money and money can buy you a lot of things”. I would be very careful to put any kind of very strong opinion forward,” she continued.
“Nobody really knows what they could do.”