The Georgian prime minister spoke at a prominent conservative forum in Budapest on May 4, showcasing his flirtation with populist Western figures and raising concerns about the ruling party's rightward ideological turn.
During the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), an American-led conservative forum held this time in Hungary, Irakli Garibashvili earned a special place. Addressing the conference as one of the keynote speakers, the Georgian prime minister took the stage just after CPAC chairman and top conservative voice Matt Schlapp and right before populist Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.
His 20-minute speech in English included his usual concerns about Russia's war in Ukraine having "no end in sight" and calls for a collective commitment to peace, and also included references to the New Testament and Jesus Christ ("blessed are the peacemakers"). Then came the inevitable mention of "destabilization attempts" against his country, in an apparent hint at his party's conspiracy theory about the collective West trying to drag Georgia into the Ukraine war against Russia.
And then he switched to much-expected anti-queer rhetoric, quoting Orthodox Church Patriarch Ilia II's remark on "false freedom" being the enemy of true freedom.
"How do forces that oppose the freedom and truth try to achieve their goals? Definitely, by destructing the traditional family values and coercing false freedoms - through LGBTQ+ propaganda and attempts to legislate gender-affirming procedures for children - bypassing their parents, as well as by forcing so-called 'innovations' that will cut people off from their own roots, family, traditions, culture, and history," Garibashvili said.
According to Garibashvili, the ultimate goal of these forces is to create "a rootless person - someone who has forgotten his/her history and faith" and is therefore "easy to control."
The two-day conference features various prominent populist Western conservative voices and right-wing government officials among its participants.
And while raising some eyebrows, Garibashvili joining their ranks did not come as much of a surprise. His appearance only marked another milestone in the deepening conservative turn of the ruling Georgian Dream party on one hand, and the prime minister's evolving bromance with Hungary's populist leader Orbán on the other: Behind the special friendship with a rather isolated European official, observers see another attempt by Georgian Dream to get closer to the EU without rejecting the party's increasingly authoritarian tendencies.
"I would like to particularly thank my dear friend, Prime Minister Orbán!" Garibashvili said in his opening remarks, describing his Hungarian colleague as "a wise and visionary national leader" and a "striving Christian man".
Orbán in turn praised Garibashvili for ensuring that Georgia preserve its values "while living in the shadow of Russia" in an address where the Hungarian PM also railed against "the progressive-liberal virus."
That harmony inside the conference room contrasted with tensions outside. The Party of European Socialists (PES), an international union of political parties that has Georgian Dream among its observer members, condemned Garibashvili's participation in CPAC, saying it would reassess GD's membership status during a June meeting.
And more criticism has been directed at Garibashvili since word came out that he would be taking part in the forum.
"Garibashvili has cast his lot with the bigots, fascists, election deniers and, to a large extent, Putin apologists," said Lincoln Mitchell, an American political analyst who had once advised Georgia's ruling party.
The speech follows weeks of intensifying conservative and queerphobic rhetoric from the Georgian Dream and its allies. That rhetoric gained strength after the Georgian Dream-supported controversial bill on "foreign agents" was defeated by massive pro-EU protests and the party began a campaign of demonizing its opponents.
That included a conservative rally in Tbilisi on April 30 that was embraced and likely sponsored by the ruling party, following which Georgian Dream allies in the Parliament voiced plans to put forward a bill against "LGBT-Propaganda". Pro-government media also increased its homophobic campaign during the same period, portraying the West as attacking Christian values through pro-LGBT campaigns.
Georgian Dream leaders later said they would not be adopting anti-LGBT propaganda laws, partly because "this could play into the hands of LGBT propagandists and radical forces." Georgian Dream faction leader Mamuka Mdinaradze said he prefers "countering unhealthy propaganda with healthy propaganda."
But as Georgia awaits the EU decision on its candidate status later this year, critics fear the party could roll out the bill at any time if it decides to sabotage a possible positive outcome. Some had suspicions that Georgian Dream's earlier failed attempts to adopt "foreign agent laws" against Western warnings served precisely that purpose.
"In reality, Garibashvili is not a conservative, but a corrupt man," former Georgian Ombudsperson Nino Lomjaria wrote on Facebook on May 4, referring to existing corruption allegations against the Georgian PM's family. "Sadly, his actions and rhetoric are an obstacle in front of the Georgian people on their path to Europe."
Nini Gabritchidze is a Tbilisi-based journalist.