An intensifying series of physical attacks has raised concerns that Georgia's ruling force may be resorting to violence to silence its critics.
Numerous incidents were reported over the past few days where those critical of the government were attacked or threatened by individuals or violent groups. The attacks are believed to be incited and even orchestrated by the authorities in their attempts to stigmatize and intimidate opponents, a trend that saw a particular boost following the defeat of the ruling party's controversial foreign agent laws.
On June 19, Levan Berdzenishvili, a prominent Georgian liberal intellectual, said a stranger shouted insults and threw an egg at him as he was leaving a Tbilisi university campus after delivering a lecture. Tsisia Kirvalidze, an editor at Tabula, a Georgian media outlet, confirmed the incident, saying she herself witnessed the attack.
The attacker "had an egg in his pocket, this is how apparently people walk in the streets: with an egg in their pocket," Berdzenishvili commented after the incident, implying the perpetrator had planned the attack in advance.
This would hardly surprise Berdzenishvili, whose recent life has featured a streak of such incidents. His nightmare started last summer when he dared to criticize the late 18th-century Georgian monarch Erekle II, whose desperate act of making his kingdom a Russian protectorate has been hotly debated by Georgians ever since.
Berdzenishvili's comments then unleashed massive backlash, including from ruling Georgian Dream party leaders, who vilified him as attacking Georgia's national identity.
The intellectual and his associates have known little peace since. They are periodically subjected to physical attacks, verbal insults, including from pro-government journalists, and threats of mob violence aimed at thwarting public lectures. Police have been of little help in Berdzenishvili's attempts to continue life as usual, while the ruling party stigmatized him further.
"They are directly fighting against the [Georgian Orthodox] church, the patriarch, they are agitating in unacceptable ways, they are fighting against our kings who died 250 years ago, hero kings," Georgian Dream Chairman Irakli Kobakhidze said in remarks following the latest attack. Kobakhidze condemned the violence while also accusing Berdzenishvili and his fellow liberals of "inciting strife" and polarization themselves.
Some critics saw the chairman's remarks as normalizing violence. Others, including Berdzenishvili himself, have long seen the government as directly complicit in the attacks.
Those perceptions intensified after the bloody Saturday that preceded the latest assault on Berdzenishvili.
A spree of politically-inspired violence took place on June 17. One incident happened at Tbilisi State University, Georgia's flagship educational institution where ruling party chairman Kobakhidze teaches law. A group of students said they were physically attacked by strangers as they tried to protest against Kobakhidze with banners as he arrived to deliver a lecture. Some students sustained injuries and had to be hospitalized.
The ruling party, on the other hand, claimed the protest against him was organized by the opposition. (A similar protest had taken place in the university halls a week earlier where students perched on a staircase showered Kobakhidze with Russian rouble banknotes to show dissatisfaction with the government's perceived pro-Moscow stance.)
On the same day, Zurab Girchi Japaridze, a right-libertarian opposition politician and leader of the Girchi - More Freedom party, also sustained injuries after he was attacked on his way to participate in a youth camp to be held near Georgia's Borjomi resort.
The alleged attacker later identified himself on social media and invited police to arrest him. He proudly declared that he assaulted Japaridze for reasons including "corrupting our children" and insulting the church and its patriarch. The suspect was detained and charged with violence, over objections from Japaridze's lawyers, who wanted him indicted for politically motivated persecution as well.
And soon after the attack on the politician, a larger violent mob appeared at the premises where the camp, organized by the Institute for Individual Liberty, was being held.
The mob, which included ruling party-aligned conservative politician Vato Shakarashvili, shouted threats and threw stones at camp participants and damaged vehicles at the venue.
The camp organizers blamed the authorities for the attack, asserting that pro-government media was present at the site even before the arrival of the violent mob while it took police 40 minutes to arrive at the scene.
The attacks follow months of propaganda by government leaders and their mouthpieces vilifying Girchi - More Freedom and groups that organize educational activities to promote ideas of economic and political liberalism. The rhetoric has portrayed their work as aimed at corrupting the youth, spreading revolutionary ideas, and preparing young people for use as "cannon fodder" in a revolutionary anti-government plot.
The rhetoric, often tinged with homophobic innuendo, particularly intensified following the defeat of the ruling party-sponsored foreign agents bill in March. The central role played by young people in the successful protests back then is believed to have led the government circles to direct their scorn at youth and groups which, they argued, brainwashed them.
And more concerns are raised as the hostility towards these groups has been becoming increasingly violent.
The attacks are "clearly preplanned and orchestrated," over 70 civil society groups said in a joint statement on June 17. "Attacking young people and children is not only against the law, it is also incompatible with the values of Georgian society."
Nini Gabritchidze is a Tbilisi-based journalist.