TBILISI/ST PETERSBURG, Russia (Reuters) - Large crowds of anti-gay protesters broke up homosexual rights rallies in Georgia and Russia on Friday, underlining deep hostility in the former Soviet bloc.
Priests and thousands of Georgians pushed their way through police barriers protecting around 50 people marking International Day Against Homophobia in a square in capital Tblisi.
Waving banners marked with the slogans “Stop Homosexual Propaganda in Georgia” and “Not in our city”, they forced the small groups of campaigners to flee in buses.
In the Russian city of St Petersburg, an aggressive, mostly male crowd threw smoke bombs over police barriers and shouted “Death to Faggots” and other insults.
A hugely outnumbered band of gay rights campaigners also had to pile into buses minutes after the start of their rally.
“Stalin would have showed you and exiled all these,” a man dressed in urban camouflage shouted as activists hurried away.
Attitudes towards gay people in Russia and former Soviet states are largely shaped by repressive Stalin-era policies, when sodomy was punishable by up to five years in jail.
The resurgent Christian Orthodox Church, which says homosexuality is a sin, also holds great sway.
“The rally... had a funeral-like atmosphere since homophobic crimes in Russia are on the rise... by the kind of people who view Jews as abnormal, blacks as abnormal and gays and lesbians as second-class citizens,” Yuri Gavrikov, head of the Russian LGBT-rights organization Ravnopravo, or Equal Rights, said.
In Georgia, around 28 people including policemen and journalists, suffered slight injuries in the clashes, government officials said.
“We won’t allow these sick people to hold gay parades in our country ... It’s against our traditions and our morals,” said Zhuzhuna Tavadze, brandishing a bunch of nettles and adding that she was ready to fight.
Later in the evening, rowdy crowds took to the streets in the capital of the former Soviet republic, shouting and roughing up anyone they thought might be homosexual.
Amnesty International called for the perpetrators to be punished, saying in a statement that impunity for such acts was becoming a “dangerous trend in Georgia”.
The head of Georgia’s influential Orthodox Church in the mostly Christian nation of 4.5 million condemned the violence, but called on authorities to ban gay-rights rallies.
“We don’t approve of violence, but propaganda of this (homosexuality) must not be allowed. It is a sin,” said Patriarch Ilia II.
While support for same-sex marriage and other forms of equality increases in the West, in Russia and several other former Soviet states gay people say they are facing increasing discrimination.
Homosexuality was decriminalized in Russia in 1993, two years after the Soviet Union broke up. But the stigma remains strong and much of the gay community is underground.
A survey by independent pollster Levada last year found that nearly 50 percent of Russians believe homosexuals should be given medical or psychological treatment.
Gay and lesbian groups in Russia say a recent law banning gay “propaganda” encourages prejudice.
A 23-year-old man in the southern city of Volgograd was tortured and killed in May after revealing he was gay during a drinking session.
Reporting by Margarita Antidze and Liza Dobkina; Writing by Alissa de Carbonnel; Editing by Andrew Heavens