BY CAPTAIN MATTHEW SCHLEUPNER
Captain Matt Schleupner is an M.A. student in the European and Eurasian Studies program, where he focuses on Eastern European and Russian studies. Before coming to SAIS, he worked as an Officer in the U.S. Army in a U.S. Special Operations Unit, focusing on operations in Asia.
In preparation for a 2013 anti-homophobia rally in Tbilisi, Former Georgia Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili stated that "sexual minorities are the same citizens as we are... [and] society will gradually get used to it.” (Staff 2013) While far from a ringing endorsement of homosexual activity, this was a profound statement for a Georgian leader at the time. To be clear, the Republic of Georgia is not a model of human rights with regard to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) issues, but recent reports have shown that the Republic of Georgia’s government has worked to improve basic human rights for this group. This stands in contrast to Georgia’s neighbors – Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Russia – who consistently rank last in the European neighborhood regarding LGBT rights. If Georgia shares common traditional values with its neighbors, why the move towards opening its society up to LGBT rights?
Georgia’s motivation for improving its record on human rights, particularly LGBT rights, stems from its desire to build a relationship with the European Union and strengthen its economic opportunities. While Georgia has maintained a relatively robust annual GDP growth rate of 8-10% since 2003, war in 2008, the market collapse in 2009, along with a worsening Russian economy, have slowed annual growth to 2-3%. (Fischer, 2014) Additionally, Russian economic and security support for Georgia’s neighbors has increased since Georgia’s “turn west” during the mid-2000s, creating unease for Georgia and making a closer relationship with the European Union more appealing.
In its 2014 report on the status of Georgia’s relationship with the European Union, the European Commission commended the country’s passing of comprehensive human rights laws. It cited these laws as a reason to move forward with the full implementation of the European Neighborhood Policy for Georgia, with all the included privileges. (EU, 2014) Within this context, the Georgian Parliament unanimously passed a new law in 2014 prohibiting any form of discrimination. This law was successful in part because Georgia was strongly encouraged by the EU to adopt anti-discrimination laws – in fact, such a law had become a legal prerequisite for ratifying the Visa Liberalization Action Plan, which allows Georgians more frequent visa-free travel to the EU. (Hershal, 2015) According to NGO rankings of the friendliest European nations for gay rights, Georgia moved from 46th of 49 in 2012 to 22nd in 2015. (Patz, 2015)
Nonetheless, some LGBT organizations monitoring Georgia are not convinced that these laws will help in their present form. (Syvatt, 2015) Although welcomed as a step forward, rights groups have criticized the lack of a devoted enforcement body and argued that the office designated to oversee implementation lacks the capacity to administer a new enforcement system. They have called for the passage of additional measures to ensure enforcement of the law.
Whether we look at Georgia’s efforts to improve human rights through a cynical lens or more optimistically, statistics show that Georgia is making progress. The legal framework set forth by the Government of Georgia is a positive step; however, as noted, much work is needed to ensure the law will be implemented in a useful way. As Georgia continues to pursue a path to greater partnership with the European Union, there is great potential for the country to continue to improve upon its record with regard to LGBT and human rights.