Thursday

29th Feb 2024

Investigation

Georgian far-right leader laughs off potential EU sanctions

  • Konstantine Morgoshia, businessman and founder of pro-Russia ultra-conservative media Alt-Info, has recently been seen in Belgium (Photo: Morgoshia's Facebook)
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Georgia has long sought a rapprochement with Europe since its war with Russia in 2008. But behind the scenes, powerful actors are sabotaging the plans, spurred by increasing vigilantism.

In recent years, there has been a surge in far-right violence in Georgia, spearheaded by ultra-conservative religious groups. These groups have focused their attention on the LGBTQ+ community, drawing international condemnation. Now, they are rallying support abroad.

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"If anyone wants to arrest me in person, no problem, come arrest me," Konstantine Morgoshia, businessman and founder of pro-Russia ultra-conservative media Alt-Info wrote on Facebook to his supporters on 8 November.

While calls for sanctions the businessman-politician are on the rise, he taunted authorities just kilometres from the EU institutions.

With Ukraine and Moldova looking set to join the European Union in the future, one seemingly pro-European country has become left behind.

The European Union has expressed growing concerns about growing authoritarianism and deteriorating human rights in the country in recent years.

Georgia's current government, under the control of the populist Georgian Dream party, has been accused by Tbilisi's pro-European opposition of deliberately sabotaging accession negotiations — in favour of closer relations with Russia.

The government has been seen to publicly lend its support to a growing wave of violent extra-parliamentary conservative movements in the country.

Calls for EU sanctions

In 2021, Georgian prime minister Irakli Garibashvili was seen to take sides against peaceful gay-rights activists, defending a mob of pro-Russian far-right activists who attacked attendees and organisers of Tbilisi's annual gay pride event.

Last July, the situation for the LGBTQ+ community was deemed so dangerous that Belgium removed Georgia from its list of safe countries of origin for its asylum seekers, citing a rapid deterioration in human rights and compliance with international norms.

One of the leading forces behind these attacks on the LGBTQ+ community is Alt-Info, an extremist political group and media empire controlled by extreme-right politician and magnate Morgoshia.

On the airwaves, Morgoshia calls directly to his supporters to conduct acts of violence against his opponents. Human rights groups have compiled numerous incidents of incitement to violence made by Alt-Info and its leaders.

During the now infamous attacks on Tbilisi Pride, supporters of Alt-Info led a pogrom through the streets of Tbilisi, leaving more than 50 injured and one cameraman, Aleksandre Lashkarava, dead.

And in March 2023, the group publicly burned the EU flag in front of the Georgian parliament, prompting Georgia's ruling Georgian Dream party to denounce Alt-Info's "radicalism." Police did not intervene during the incident.

The exact circumstances behind the finances of the TV company are still unknown, but Morgoshia is believed to control a 50 percent stake in the company.

He regularly travels to Russia on business following Moscow's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, and the channel lends its support to Russian president Vladimir Putin. In May, the group is believed to have received an illegal donation of over €36,000, potentially from Russia.

The channel's extremist views and open calls to violence have not gone unnoticed in Europe.

On 19 July, six members of the European Parliament's Intergroup on LGBTIQ+ rights lodged a joint letter with president of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen, demanding that the EU impose sanctions on Alt-Info and its leader Morgoshia.

"We're seeing groups like these actively challenging policymakers and governments are not standing up," Dutch MEP Kim Van Sparrentak, one of the signatories of the letter, told EUobserver. "We didn't even get a reply from the European Commission about this [letter]."

"We encouraged the Georgian government and the EU to take sanctions against Alt-Info and indeed Morgoshia... this anti-LGBTI rhetoric is a fundamental violation of human rights as well as freedom of expression, assembly and association," said Irish MEP Maria Walsh.

Members of the liberal Georgian opposition in Brussels say that they are lobbying MEPs and claim that they have made progress towards starting sanctions against Alt-Info and Morgoshia.

EU membership bid?

On 8 November, the EU Commission published a recommendation that Georgia should receive EU candidate status, thereby opening the way to greater Euro-Atlantic integration for Georgia. On the same day, Morgoshia was spotted in Brussels where he claimed that he met with "several political groups" from the "conservative wing."

Morgoshia made attempts to hide his true activities in Belgium. In one Facebook post claiming to be from Brussels, he attached an image of him sitting in a hotel, which EUobserver later identified as in fact the Botanic Sanctuary Hotel in Antwerp. This luxury hotel is one of the most expensive in the city.

"I'm writing these words from Brussels. Don't let anyone think you are afraid of anyone… The [European Commission] has realised that our 'Anti-Maidan' cannot be stopped," he posted on Facebook.

He was able to travel to Brussels since Georgian nationals enjoy visa-free access to the EU. The Belgian interior ministry told EUobserver that Morgoshia was "unknown" to their services and declined to reveal how the far-right leader had entered the country.

A photo on his private Instagram account a few days later revealed he was in a hotel in Moscow. The reason for this trip is as of yet unknown. Alt-Info and its affiliated political movement maintains close ties with members of Russia's state Duma.

Following the start of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, most European travel routes to Russia have been closed. The most common means of flying from Europe to Russia is now via Istanbul.

(Photo: Tbilisi Pride)

LGTBIQ+ security concerns

Members of the Georgian community in Belgium, including its growing population of Georgian political and sexual refugees, are now asking EU authorities to put sanctions on Morgoshia to prevent the spread of his homophobic rhetoric.

Two prominent refugees, who moved to Belgium as a result of death threats by Morgoshia and his followers, believe that Morgoshia's visit to Belgium posed a tangible threat to their lives. His visit forced them to seek police protection.

"Morgoshia's arrival meant that I was no longer safe here either," Georgian refugee Lukas Ablotia told EUobserver. "I was 17 when I first received death threats from his supporters. He has supporters in the EU. It was from these people that I received death threats during his visit."

Ablotia and his male partner were forced to flee Georgia to Belgium in August this year as a result of escalating attacks and threats made by Alt-Info supporters in the Georgian capital.

The couple were repeatedly attacked for their LGBTQ+ activism in the capital and were harassed and beaten by mobs of far-right hooligans on several occasions.

Ablotia was a key organiser of Tbilisi Pride, which was once again attacked and shut down by Morgoshia's supporters in 2023.

Several times a week, these young refugees receive death threats from Morgoshia's followers on social media. In March, Alt-Info publicly called for their death on live TV to their thousands of viewers. On television, they refer to him as a "F****t" and encourage those who see them to attack them.

"Morgoshia's supporters write to me that I need a knife in my throat and that they are coming to Brussels to kill me. We filed a police complaint against Morgoshia and the people making threats," Ablotia said.

The young couple now fear for their safety after being spotted by Morgoshia's supporters in Brussels. While applying for asylum, Ablotia was stopped by a Georgian migrant and threatened.

In another incident, Ablotia told EUobserver that he was awoken by a man attempting to film him through his bedroom window. He now fears for his safety in Belgium.

Growing violence against sexual minorities in Georgia, as well as the growing influence of pro-Russian media in the country, continue to weigh negatively on Georgia's EU hopes to join the EU.

In a list of proposals issued after the EU Commission officially recommended Georgia for candidate status on 8 November, Brussels said that the former Soviet nation must make progress on "the fight against disinformation, including anti-EU disinformation and foreign information manipulation."

Morgoshia claims that this is directed at Alt-Info, stating that the EU plans to "arrest" and "destroy" them.

Author bio

Dylan Carter is a Brussels-based freelance investigative journalist. He previously reported from Ukraine and helped to found one of Ukraine's largest English-language media, The Kyiv Independent.

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