WASHINGTON - In a historic, unprecedented move, a Georgian political party has nominated an openly gay candidate for public office.
Running on the non-parliamentary opposition Republican Party ticket, Nino Bolkvadze, a 40-year-old lawyer and LGBT rights advocate, is seeking a city councillorship in Tbilisi, the nation's capital and largest city.
“I want Georgia to be a better place for my children,” said Bolkvadze, a single mother of two teenage girls who was shunned by her family for coming out on the country’s most popular TV show two years ago.
Established by dissidents some four decades ago and once outlawed by the Soviet Supreme Court, Georgia's Republican Party became a full member of The Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, a liberal-centrist political group of the European Parliament, in 2007.
“Do not vote for Nino simply because she is gay, there are plenty of reasons why voters should choose her,” said Tamar Kordzaia, the Republican Party’s secretary general. She went on to list some concerns that Bolkvadze vows to tackle: “Single mothers’ programs; representing minorities; working with vulnerable social groups; creating LGBT shelters.”
Kordzaia said Bolkvadze, as both a lawyer and activist, has had direct experience working on those issues.
Politically tactical move
"Ahead of local elections, we announced [that] our doors were open for anyone willing to participate in politics," Kordzaia told VOA's Georgian Service, recalling how Bolkvadze's nomination was formulated. "There were only two prerequisites—a candidate must not be pro-Russian and shall be of liberal ideology.”
Bolkvadze, one of the first to respond, was nominated amidst the tumult of a constitutional amendment forged by parliament's ruling Georgian Dream coalition, in which legislators sought to shore up conservative populist support by constitutionally protecting marriage as "a union between a man and a woman." While Georgian law has long defined marriage as a "voluntary union of a man and woman," it had not been constitutionally inscribed.
LGBT activists, including Bolkvadze, say violence against sexual minorities, not same sex marriage, is Georgia's number one LGBT issue, and yet parliamentarians appear to be pursuing a more cosmetic, populist agenda instead of tackling the more immediate threat of violence driven by homophobia.
“LGBT rights are grossly violated, and [the local] environment is hostile," said Bolkvadze. "Almost daily I encounter cases of physical violence, stabbing, or killing. All motivated by hatred.”
Aside from nominating Bolkvadze, Georgia's Republican Party is also advancing a "Civil Contract of Partnership,” a bill that, if passed, would legally recognize civil partnerships between same sex couples. By introducing civil partnership into legislation regulating inheritance and property transactions between couples, Republican Party officials say sexual minorities would have a legal framework within which they could exercise their rights.
Policy in the Southern Caucuses nation, where Russia controls two breakaway regions, is closely tied to the Georgian Orthodox Church.
“[The] government’s homophobic policy is backed by the church," Bolkvadze said. "The two together are oppressive institutions.”
According to International Republican Institute polls, Georgia’s Orthodox Church ranks number one among Georgia's most trusted institutions, whereas parliament ranks tenth.
Republican Party officials are also calling to revisit state financing for the church, a move that, according to some experts, has a legal basis.
“The constitution itself is contradictory on this," said Paul Crego, a researcher at the U.S. Library of Congress who has studied Georgia since 1970s, who spoke with VOA's Georgian Service in August.
"It talks about freedom of religion and conscience, and then it gives the Georgian Orthodox Church a special place," he said. "There is also a  concordat, (a treaty between parliament and the church0that ratifies some of that special status. There are some people who think that the concordat made the Orthodox Church a state church. Not quite, but close, in some areas.”
For a Georgian political party, nominating an openly gay candidate it is not considered a winning strategy. But Levan Tsutskiridze, executive director at the Eastern European Centre for Multiparty Democracy, calls it is a milestone for Georgian political culture, where minorities have long been left out.
“Political parties have been shying away from discussing their issues," said Tsutskiridze, who called the nomination a “bold move” that could backfire in the short-term while paying dividends over time.
"Projections are not the best for Republicans at this election, but if they position themselves as a liberal party, their ideology will pay off electorally.”
For members of Georgia’s long oppressed LGBT community, Bolkvadze’s political debut is an inspiration.
“Incrementally, society will get used to LGBT people and realize that we are like everyone else we are able to coexist in the same society peacefully,” says Giorgi Tabagari, an LGBT activist.
Peaceful coexistence is something LGBT activists have had to fight for. Especially since May 2013, when police failed to contain anti-gay, Orthodox activists in downtown Tbilisi as gay rights activists were gathering along a main thoroughfare to mark International Day Against Homophobia.
At least twelve people, including three policemen, were hospitalized after sustaining injuries in separate incidents that day, which Tbilisi’s EU delegation condemned as “scenes of brutal intolerance and violence.”
Later, Tbilisi City Court dropped criminal charges against Orthodox priests who physically assaulted rights activists.
Although Tabagari, the LGBT activist, does not believe Bolkvadze’s nomination will significantly change politics in Georgia, “It will always serve as a precedent, and hopefully other political parties will be more open to bold political steps of this sort.”
Meanwhile, Bolkvadze continues her legal work and, so far, hasn't seen any backlash from her candidacy.
“I still take public transport, still walk around, as I used to do before this announcement," she says. "So far, so good. No aggression has been expressed.”
This story originated in VOA's Georgian Service. Ia Meurmishvili contributed reporting.