Guram Kashia seems to epitomise everything you might want in a national sporting hero. A fierce competitor on the field, and a family man off it, Kashia’s career took him first to the Netherlands and now to the US, yet he has always remained proud of his Georgian roots. As captain of the national team, he led Georgia through a successful 2019 Nations League campaign, which could still culminate in the country’s first major tournament appearance – if they can negotiate tricky play-off ties against Belarus and then North Macedonia or Kosovo.
It may be surprising to find out then, that in the midst of Georgia’s bid to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, Kashia found himself the target of online hate campaigns, death threats and calls for his removal from the national squad by Georgian far-right groups, outraged at his ‘lack of patriotism’. So, what happened to cause such a furious reaction?
Well, Kashia was playing for Vitesse Arnhem in the Netherlands, where, along with the captains of all the other Eredivisie teams, he wore a rainbow-coloured armband during a match as part of an inclusivity initiative in support of LGBTQI rights in sport. Despite football’s less than stellar reputation for dealing with homophobia and other forms of discrimination, in the Netherlands, and gradually elsewhere too, schemes aimed at reducing prejudice against the LGBTQI community are becoming more common. For example, in 2019 the English Premier League introduced the Rainbow Laces project, which aims to use football as a means of bringing people together to fight discrimination.
There are also a growing number of smaller local organisations doing similar work, like the Rainbow Toffees, who recently appointed legendary former Everton and Wales goalkeeper Neville Southall as their patron. Affectionately nicknamed ‘Big Nev’ during his playing days, Southall is now renowned for his unique Twitter presence. He once jokingly asked his followers why people claimed he was gay when he posted about LGBTQI issues, but no one accuses him of being a tiger when he shares pictures of cats.
Yet, while ‘Big Nev’ has received a lot of support for his involvement in raising awareness of LGBTQI issues in in the UK, the reaction in Georgia to a member of the national football team taking a stand to defend the rights of sexual minorities has been much less positive.
No sooner had Kashia taken to the field in the rainbow-coloured armband than calls for him to be removed from the national team started appearing on far-right social media accounts. The hashtag #გურამ ჩვენ შენთან არ ვართ (#Guram we are not with you) gained some traction, and football supporters were encouraged to boycott Georgia’s upcoming fixtures.
Leading the criticism were far-right street protesters-cum political movement ‘Georgian March’ (GM), spearheaded by Sandro Bregadze. GM’s no-nonsense, black-and-white understanding of ‘Georgianness’ is encapsulated in one of Bregadze’s favourite mottos: ‘Georgian Georgia, not Georgia for Georgians’. The message is clear: ‘If you don’t fit in with what we think it means to be Georgian, you aren’t welcome’.
But while the more extreme anti-immigrant rhetoric that forms the backbone of GM’s wider political ideology might only appeal to a small minority of Georgia’s electorate, the anti-LGBTQI stuff seems to have struck a deeper chord. Not least because it aligns quite neatly with the views of the country’s most trusted institution: The Georgian Orthodox Church (GOC). In fact, one of GM’s most striking demands during all this was for Kashia to publicly apologise on the grounds that he had offended Georgian religious sensibilities. And there are good reasons why GM, and other Georgian far right groups’ tactics, have involved playing the religious card whenever possible.
Since regaining independence from the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, Georgian national identity and devotion to the Georgian Orthodox Church (GOC) have often been portrayed as synonymous. Thus, the church plays a hugely influential role in the country, both socially and politically, and has taken advantage of its lofty position to significantly shape national discourses. The GOC’s political power is so great in Georgia that the government’s ability to act independently of the church’s interests has been seriously questioned.
Internationally, the GOC’s reputation appears to be far from positive. Some observers have noted that the church’s susceptibility to Russian influence, and insistence on the preservation of so-called ‘Orthodox Christian values’ may be one of biggest obstacles in Georgia’s path to achieving its dream of joining the European Union.
The GOC’s lack of compatibility with Western liberalism was most visibly demonstrated in 2013, when leading members of the church actively participated in violent anti-LGBTQI street protests in Tbilisi. Images of clergyman attacking minibuses filled with Tbilisi Pride marchers were widely disseminated in the international media, and held up as a sign of Georgia’s lack of suitability to join the wider European family that the vast majority of the country desperately wants to be a part of.
Yet, international condemnation has done little to deter the GOC, which has since doubled-down on its efforts to stop the spread of what it describes as ‘Homosexual Propaganda’. In 2014, as a counter protest to the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia (IDAHOT), the church established its own, now annual, event to express its “…support towards traditional family values”. Despite officially claiming that ‘Family Purity Day’, which has expanded to include mass weddings and a motorbike rally as well as Orthodox religious services, is not intended to promote antagonism or violence, the choice to hold it on May 17th, the same day as IDAHOT, was not purely coincidental.
Faced with this kind of pressure, it might have been easy to forgive Kashia for bowing down to the demands of the far right and putting out a half-hearted apology to make the problem go away. After all, it wasn’t just GM that was out to get him. Almost a year later, Konstantin Morgoshia, an outspoken member of the Alliance of Patriots of Georgia (APG), a right wing populist party who hold seven seats in Parliament, appeared on national television to declare that he would personally take action to stop Kashia playing for Georgia in an important game against Latvia. Morgoshia later downplayed claims that his remarks had been intended to instigate violence, but only after being summoned to defend himself in court.
Although he admitted that the barrage of abuse he received from back home was scary, Kashia was determined not to waver in his belief ‘in the equality of human beings’. And liberal-minded Georgian supporters were equally defiant as they turned up in droves at Tbilisi’s Dinamo Stadium to support him in that match against Latvia. Many were even sporting their very own copycat captain’s armbands and waving rainbow flags to show solidarity with their team’s leader. If they were able to smuggle them past security first that is.
Kashia has rightly taken a lot of credit for showing the strength of character to produce a moment of genuine progress for LGBTQI rights in both a country and a sport where such an occurrence was perhaps least expected. In 2019 he received UEFA’s inaugural ‘#EqualGame Award’ for his courage in standing up for the LGBTQI community and ‘equality overall’ and gained public backing online for his actions from leading political figures in Georgia, including then-President Giorgi Margvelashvili.
But, as OC Media journalist Dato Parulava points out, the main focus of the ensuing debate surrounding the story may have been misplaced. While it seemed that long-standing issues related to LGBTQI rights in Georgia had finally been dragged into the mainstream, by celebrating Kashia’s role, the bigger societal problem of discrimination against sexual minorities in the country appeared, at times, to have been conveniently avoided.
It’s hard to disagree with Parulava’s argument on that front, as little concrete action has since been taken to address the underlying discrimination in Georgian society. However, it’s also unfair to accept the accompanying criticism he levelled at Kashia for speaking only about the need to defend vague notions of ‘inclusivity’, rather than spelling out his explicit support for the Georgian LGBTQI community. The societal divide over attitudes to the rights of sexual minorities in Georgia is too important and complex an issue to be left to the captain of the national football team to resolve. At least not the current one. Because perhaps there’s another Georgian footballer who is better placed to make a real difference.
Before embarking on a career in politics as a member of the ruling Georgian Dream Party, Tbilisi Mayor Kakha Kaladze represented Georgia over eighty times at international level in the early 2000s, with fifty of those appearances as captain. He even won the Champions League in 2007 while playing for AC Milan. And so, if responsibility for confronting the deep-rooted prejudices against the LGBTQI community in Georgia is to be given to any of the country’s famous footballers, surely it’s the one who is serving as mayor of the capital city. Kaladze is certainly no friend of Georgian March (GM). Back in 2017, the Tbilisi Mayor was himself the target of their anger as members of GM attempted to break into his office in protest against claims that Georgian land was being sold-off to foreigners.
However, Kaladze’s response to deal with GM and the other groups who attacked Kashia, when they joined forces once again for a new series of anti-LGBTQI protests in November 2019, was strikingly non-committal. This time far-right groups and religious leaders teamed up to barricade the few Tbilisi cinemas daring to screen award-winning film ‘And Then We Danced’, which controversially tells the story of a gay love affair between two members of the highly prestigious Georgian National Dance Ensemble. Kaladze’s unconvincing reassurances following the protests that in Georgia “Everyone’s rights have always been protected, they are still protected today and will be protected in the future,” seemed indicative of his reluctance to take firm action on such a divisive issue.
And so it seems that despite holding a fairly prominent position in Georgian politics, Kaladze’s dilemma is not really so different from the one that faced Guram Kashia. Perhaps both men have found themselves struggling to reconcile aspects of the liberal worldviews they’ve come to experience whilst playing professional football in Western Europe, with the so-called ‘traditional values’ promoted at home by the likes of the Georgian Orthodox Church. Kaladze in particular must be well aware of the need to keep the church onside if he’s to have a successful political future.
In effect, the stories of Kaladze and Kashia may even be something of a microcosm of Georgia’s experiences as a whole, demonstrating as they do the considerable dilemmas and challenges the country still has to overcome on the road to an almost universally-desired EU future. However, if Georgia is to achieve the ultimate goal of EU membership, it will definitely need to come up with a new game plan to tackle the underlying social divisions, which threaten to undermine its otherwise impressive progress.
Mr Michael Cole is a Doctoral Fellow at CARR and a PhD Candidate at the University of Tartu, Estonia and an Early Stage Researcher on the FATIGUE Project. His research examines the social impact of populism, illiberalism and far-right thinking in Georgia, Ukraine and other countries in Central and Eastern Europe.
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