Opposition To Xenophobic March Earns Georgian Activist Threats, Show Of Support 

All Tatia Dolidze wanted to do was show that she and fellow Georgians were not in step with the xenophobic views on parade at an anti-immigration march supported by ultraconservatives and nationalists in Tbilisi.

But her efforts to show that a new generation was open-minded and focused on Western values earned the 25-year-old insults and threats of sexual violence.

The stream of messages on social media -- some in support, but the most troubling including threats of rape -- underscore the simmering tensions in a country where efforts to shake off its past and move toward the West are sometimes hobbled by deeply conservative social and religious views.

"As soon as I saw the posts, I immediately realized what I needed to do," she said after the messages rolled in.

"I urge all parties not to use my case for political gain. This is a criminal offense and the reaction should be according to this."

It all started on July 14 with a so-called March Of Georgians that was replete with religious symbolism and aimed "against illegal immigrants" (meaning, according to the website Open Caucasus Media, "anyone not Christian and white").

Dolidze and others launched a counterprotest.

A former model and Georgia’s youth delegate to the United Nations in 2016-2017, her activism caught the eye of supporters of the anti-immigrant march, including Konstantine Morgoshia, a candidate of the ultraconservative Alliance of Patriots in the 2016 parliamentary elections.

Morgoshia took to Facebook and, in an attempt to humiliate Dolidze, refered to her as a "little girl" who needed to go back to her place in the kitchen.

Posts quickly escalated from there, with some calling her a whore, suggesting lewd sexual acts, even gang rape.

The messages, which were taken down soon afterward, were threatening enough that the Interior Ministry launched a criminal investigation on July 17, saying that threats of death or bodily injury were punishable by up to one year in prison.

In a show of support for Dolidze, a Women's Solidarity March was staged on July 19 along the same route taken during the anti-immigration rally.

Georgia has long seen itself as an outpost of democracy and liberal ideals in a region marked by authoritarian rule and Russian influence.

The former Soviet state has long sought to boost ties with Europe, and expressed alarm at Russia's annexation of Ukraine's Crimea region in 2014.

Georgia fought a brief war with Russia in 2008 that ended with Moscow recognizing two breakaway Georgian regions -- South Ossetia and Abkhazia -- as independent states.

Still, several Western countries have voiced concern that the authorities in Tbilisi have not done enough to promote human rights, while using selective justice and politically motivated prosecutions against opponents to stifle dissent and solidify their power base.

The rapid response of officials to the Facebook posts reveals the sensitivities of being a pivot in the geopolitical rivalry between Moscow and the West: if the window onto the underside of Georgian society had been opened, officials wanted to see it slammed shut as quickly as possible.

Elene Khoshtaria, a mayoral candidate of the Movement for Liberty -- European Georgia, told a special press conference on July 17 that the case symbolized the pressure still exerted in the country by "fascist, homophobic" groups against "an independent-minded individual."

"We need to understand that freedom of expression is very important regardless of how unacceptable this might be, but the statements against Tatia Dolidze contained direct threats of sexual violence and this is a criminal offense," Khoshtaria said.

She continued, accusing the ruling Georgian Dream party of promoting "these groups in the past," which it used for "political violence."

The comments by Morgoshia and others denigrating Dolidze's character contrast sharply with the recognition she has as an activist and intellectual.

After studying abroad in the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Italy, and Lithuania, she worked at the European Parliament. She’s also a former researcher at the Center for European Policy Studies in Brussels and a lecturer at the University of Georgia in Tbilisi.

Dolidze’s ties also run deep in the United Nations from her time as a youth representative there, and UN officials were quick to come to her side.

"We condemn the incitement of violence in general and, in this case, acts which target women and girls. Clearly these acts have no place in modern society," Niels Scott, UN resident coordinator in Georgia, said in a statement.

"It is extremely important that young people, such as Tatia, stand up for Georgia’s values: freedom, solidarity, tolerance, respect, which are also fundamental values of the United Nations."

People like Dolidze felt those fundamental values were under attack when the group of around 2,000 mainly male protesters, led by a barefoot priest and an icon of King David, began winding its way through the center of the Georgian capital amid a heavy police presence.

The demonstrators stopped several times along the way to shout xenophobic and Islamophobic slogans in the name of the ultraconservative political group Erovnuloba (nationality).

Also present was the ultraconservative Alliance of Patriots, led by parliamentarian Emzar Kvitsiani, a former military commander in Abkhazia.

Aggressive nationalism has been accompanied by a wave of anti-Western propaganda in Georgia.

Earlier this year, the Media Development Foundation released a report on the topic pinning much of the blame on a handful of media outlets and political parties, including the Alliance of Patriots.

Of the 1,258 anti-Western messages in 2016 that were analyzed in the report, 32.7 percent were concerned about issues of human rights and values, while 20.1 percent were related to the NATO security alliance, and 20 percent to the West in general.

Anti-American messages accounted for 13.5 percent of the total, while those against the European Union stood at 8.9 percent.

"A dominating view was that the West tries to impose homosexuality, incest, pedophilia, zoophilia, and perversion and fights against our national identity, traditions, Orthodox Christianity, and family as a social institution," the report said.

"Since the anti-Western discourse is fed by xenophobia and homophobia, media self-regulation mechanisms must be applied intensively," the report concluded.

After more than a decade of playing soccer at famed Italian club AC Milan, during which he won the European Champions League twice, Kakha Kaladze returned to his native country and turned to politics in 2012.

Now a deputy prime minister in the government, Kaladze, whose brother was kidnapped and held for ransom for four years before being killed, said it was "inconceivable" that Dolidze could face the abuse hurled at her for standing up for human rights.

"It is hardly imaginable that someone says he protects the values that are dear for our country -- hospitality, tolerance, respect to women and courage -- and in reality does the complete opposite," Kaladze said.

He urged "all public figures and politically active citizens to act, speak, and compete with your opponents within accepted morals, humanity, and political culture."