Solidarity Between Social Movements: What the Example of the Rioni Defenders Taught Us

The longest protest of recent time, “No to Namakhvan HPP!” Launched on October 25, 2020. It was on this day that the first protest tent against the construction of hydropower plants was set up. The protest started in the village of Zhoneti, the place where the company Enka’s equipment was working. Soon the police dispersed the tent to the activists and the tents were moved to Lali Efremidze’s agricultural land in the village of Namokhvani. After that day, the protest took on a larger scale as the protest was joined by a large number of people besides the locals. Numerous rallies were held in big cities as well.

On February 28, 2021, a protest rally was held in Kutaisi. According to the activists, the initial plan was that the rally would be held directly in the gorge, but the leader of the movement “For the Survival of the Rioni Gorge” Varlam Goletiani said that the venue was changed due to the large number of people willing to participate. The next rally took place in Kutaisi on March 14, and on May 23, 2021, the protest moved to the capital.

Varlam Goletiani, leader of the movement “For the Survival of the Rioni Gorge”

A large-scale action against Namakhvani HPP was held at the Republic Square in Tbilisi. Rioni’s defenders demanded that the construction of the Namakhvani HPP be halted. Also, that a construction permit issued in 2015 be revoked, that the Minister of Economy and Sustainable Development, Natia Turnava, resign, that a moratorium be imposed on the energy sector, and prosecute all those directly involved. Rioni gorge guards, civil activists, environmentalists, members of opposition parties and people from different regions of Georgia took part in the action. Queer community also expressed their support for Rioni defenders. LGBTQ activists launched a solidarity campaign “Queer Solidarity in the Rioni Valley” and posted a statement on social media:

“Today the state tells us that we must die, polluted with water and dehydration, with poisoned air or the lack of it, because money is more important than our lives, water, air and land.

they unequivocally tell us that the right to manage life in the Rioni Valley, “in accordance with all the rules”, was handed over to the investor for 99 years.

They are trying to convince us that a business deal against nature and humans, is progress. All in the name of which now the valley must be taken over, the locals must be exiled, and life must be uprooted by the police.

The struggle of the defenders of the Rioni Valley today is a struggle for justice, common space and the preservation of life.

On the other side of the river, there is an investor and a state that is defending business interests by the special forces and says that homophobes and xenophobes are fighting to save the valley. They are using an old, familiar method – divide and rule;

To that we say that we remember well when politicians remember us: Queerness is only an argument when they cant justify the death and starvation.

Who but not us, queer people, know what the struggle for life and survival means, that is why we say that Rioni is our common struggle today against a government that has made a deal with business.

It is a struggle against the system that produces death.

Therefore, we thank the Rioni defenders for their exemplary and hopeful unity, and express our unconditional solidarity in the fight to save the valley.”

On the second day of the anti-Namakhvani protest rally in Tbilisi, Alexander Palavandishvili, a member of a Putinist, homophobic group, demanded that civil activist Salome Barker, who was wearing a rainbow arm, be removed, but was refused. The activist was accused of provocation, insulted and expelled from the rally. There was another case – Palavadishvilis tore down a banner of an LGBTQ activist. Although Varlam Goletiani argued the day before that any person has the right to express their opinion, unfortunately, the organizers of the rally did not take appropriate measures in connection with this incident.

Activist Tamar Jakeli, who was directly involved in the ongoing processes and protested against the construction of the HPP with her own tent in the Rioni Valley for several days, says that her attitude towards the rallies in Tbilisi was radically changed by the actions of the Rioni defenders:

“The fight to protect the Rioni Gorge was and remains one of the largest protests in the history of independent Georgia, uniting many social groups around fair demands. When the Rioni Valley movement arrived in Tbilisi at the end of May, queer people joined the movement physically. As far as I know, several homophobic incidents were reported at the rally in Tbilisi, although this homophobia came mainly from the ultra-right groups that also attended the rally. For example, we all know the aggression of the Palavandishvilis around the rainbow attire. At that stage, the problem with the Rioni Valley movement itself was that the perpetrators were not properly condemned and expelled from the rally. “

Added to these cases were the events of July 5 – Rioni’s defenders joined a church-sponsored counter-protest at a time when homophobic groups were physically assaulting journalists. The position of the movement has disappointed many people.

“Before and after that, in Gumati, or outside queer people often joined the local population. I also arrived in Gumati for five nights with my tent in early June. I arrived in Gumati as an ordinary supporter and a person interested in environmental issues. I didn’t express my queerness there. For the whole five days everyone was friendly towards me. I was also planning to return to the Rioni Valley again in the near future and continue to support the local population. But then the movement issued a homophobic statement against Pride, and then joined the July 5 rally, which was held almost simultaneously with the beating and oppression of people. For me and many other queer people, who have supported the movement in every possible way for months, the statement they made and their arrival in Tbilisi on July 5 was like a knife in the back. Since then I have been very distant emotionally from the Namakhvani HPP issue because I was very heartbroken and lost all hope due to the Rioni Valley defenders. I still support them from afar, because their fight against the devastating project is just and necessary, but I can no longer see my place as part of the movement after the July events.”

Due to their stance on the Pride March and their participation in the action against it, the NGOs decided to cut ties with the Rioni Valley defenders. The organizations that supported the movement “For the Survival of the Rioni Valley” also joined the organizations from the very beginning. Despite her great heartache, Tamar Jakeli says she still stands by oppressed groups because it’s important to any of us.

“I personally have seen that solidarity with queer people in Georgia by other oppressed groups is often one-sided, but despite this experience, I will continue to be in solidarity with them. This is because the dire social situation in the country is simply not being remedied by merely fighting for LGBTQ rights, and projects like Namakhvanhes, are hurting us, including queer people. Therefore, I remain in solidarity with all the oppressed groups and I hope that someday this solidarity will return to us. “

Finally, ENKA Renewables terminated the contract with Georgia and cited a violation of the terms of the contract as the reason. On April 11, a statement was posted on Facebook that ENKA was leaving the Rioni Valley. The movement “For the Survival of the Rioni Gorge” announced on May 7, in Gumati, a summary of protest actions.

It should be noted that the queer community always stands where unity and the protection of correct positions is needed. Namakhvanes’s protest was no exception, but when the LGBTQI community begins to fight for its rights and speak out loud, it is left alone – relying only on itself.

The society should realize that the queer people love our country as much as any other person and if nothing else, it should be the reason for our unity. Hopefully, the situation will change for the better over time, and the public will become as united in defending the rights of the queer people as it was in the case of the Namakhvanes protest.

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