A new study shows online support for the far-right is large. But converting that into votes is another matter.
By Giorgi Lomsadze*
A prominent anti-immigrant activist in Georgia has announced plans to run for parliament next year as part of a far-right coalition. And a new study suggests that far-right politics may have broad enough appeal among Georgians to make them a substantial force.
Sandro Bregadze, the leader of the group Georgian March, said his proposed political effort would emulate that of Marine Le Pen in France and that it would hold a convention “in the near future.”
While Bregadze’s earlier forays into electoral politics have been unsuccessful, a close look at Facebook – the prime outlet for political discourse in Georgia – suggests a growing far-right Facebook population in Georgia. According to a study by the Caucasus Research Resource Centers (CRRC), the number of likes of radical, right-wing Facebook pages increased eightfold between 2015 and 2018, reaching some 760,000 last year, the study found.
Georgian March and its allies will be trying to turn these “likes” into votes next year.
Bregadze ran for a seat in parliament in 2016, with a campaign heavy on anti-immigrant and anti-gay slogans. He railed against what he portrayed as an imminent takeover of Georgia by foreigners and homosexuals because of a lax immigration policy and covert plans to legalize same-sex marriage. On the eve of the election, Bregadze drove around Tbilisi in a truck with loudspeakers blaring dark warnings of a looming gay apocalypse.
In the end neither his parliamentary bid nor the gay prophesies came to pass. He got fewer than 50 votes in his district.
But the following year, Bregadze managed to tap into the country’s rising anti-immigrant mood in the city and led a massive demonstration against mainly Muslim immigrants in Tbilisi.
He stumbled in 2018, becoming the butt of jokes for faking an injury following a brush-up with police. As he lay dramatically in a hospital bed ignoring doctors’ assurances that he was fine and should go home, many Georgians emulated his pose and posted photos online in what became a “reclining nationalist” internet meme.
For all their online and street presence, Georgian extreme right parties have had little success at the ballot box; only the traditional-values Patriots’ Alliance squeaked in to parliament in 2016 and have since remained effectively idle. That’s not least because the major parties have pandered to nationalist voters themselves. The governing Georgian Dream has repeatedly tightened immigration rules, has banned the sale of agricultural land to foreign nationals and plans to make sex education in schools optional, subject to the parents’ consent.
Generally, the supply of political parties and candidates in Georgia tends to significantly surpass demand; 25 candidates were on the ballot in last year’s presidential elections. The 2020 vote will likely offer another crowded field, but the election is set to play out in the context of the fading popularity of the governing Georgian Dream Party and limited voter enthusiasm for its main antagonist, the United Nationalist Movement (UNM). Polls suggest that 50 percent of the electorate is undecided. Some of these voters could be latent opposition supporters, but that figure could also indicate a hunger for something new, and offer an opening for the radical right.
Increasingly vocal grumblings against immigrants can be sensed in the cities, online exchanges and occasional confrontations. Georgia’s far-right mainly resides on Facebook, and a close look at their numbers, posts, shares and discussions reveals a continued consolidation, if not an increase, of far-right groups and their supporters in recent years.
“We analyzed 26,000 posts, which is about 2 million words, of some 70 Facebook pages. We looked at the number of shares and the discussions they prompted,” Davit Sichinava, research director at CRRC, told Tamada Tales. “Granted, an increase in the number of pages, their members and likes could be partly explained by growing internet penetration. Also, some users can have more than one profile and some others could be just journalists or observers.”
For all these caveats, radical right ideas do seem to have a significant and steady audience that a well-planned electoral campaign could exploit. But a close look at the Georgian far right reveals ideological divisions that might be hard to reconcile.
Sichinava says that Georgia’s far right can be divided into three main groups: a neo-Nazi element that got the spotlight last year during protests by Tbilisi’s liberal youth, an alt-right that draws inspiration from similar movements in Europe, and a Russia-friendly category into which Bregadze and Georgian March fall. “The first two view Russia as Georgia’s enemy, while the latter avoids criticizing Russia and has links to openly pro-Russian groups,” Sichinava said.
Critics charge that Bregadze and his band are on Moscow’s payroll and work to disrupt Georgia’s ties with the West. All of Georgia’s right-wing groups’ focus on traditional and religious values, and this dovetails with Russian soft-power efforts to both demonize and destabilize the West.
But Georgia’s far right, when viewed collectively, in fact speaks more negatively about Russia than the West, the study found. “Ultimately, we did not see a strong geopolitical aspect to Georgia’s far right movement,” Sichinava said.
Noting the ideological divides among the far right, Sichinava said that it’s not clear that these forces can unite for electoral purposes and whether Bregadze is the one to unite them. Bregadze, in the meantime, has begun tossing around ideas for his platform. One of his top proposals: requiring citizens to specify their ethnicity in identification documents, a throwback to a notorious Soviet practice.
*Giorgi Lomsadze is a journalist based in Tbilisi, and author of Tamada Tales.