Thousands of Georgian techno fans gathered in downtown Tbilisi this week to protest armed crackdowns on two of city’s most vibrant nightclubs.
Thousands of Georgian techno fans gathered in downtown Tbilisi this week to protest armed raids, led by the country’s internal police forces, on two of the city’s most popular nightclubs, Bassiani and Café Gallery. The raids were planned after authorities claim to have been alerted to people trading drugs within the clubs, as part of an effort to enforce the country’s “zero tolerance” drug policy and led to the arrests of eight people. The massive gatherings of club-goers and techno fans who took to street set off counter-protests led by neo-Nazis and white nationalists.
The ravers versus racists showdown required riot police to break up street skirmishes instigated by members of the Georgian Civil Unity group, a macho quasi-militia gang upset by the throngs of progressive music fans seeking to upend the country’s stiff cultural policies. These “true Georgians” as they refer to themselves, claim to have taken to the streets in order to “protect” the nation from the club-going “drug propagandists” and “sodomites.” They even threw in a few Nazi salutes, for good effect.
It’s a stark reminder that open culture is a precarious quantity to be fought for in some corners of the world. Located in a basement of a decades-old Soviet-era national football stadium, Bassiani has come to signify the long and arduous series of protests against the country’s drug laws and hostile stance towards LGBTQ communities. One activist organization has emerged from Bassiani as the face of the resistance. The White Noise Movement has regularly organized young people and the club scene at large for rallies in the capitol of Tbilisi. One of the group’s founding members, Naja Orashvili, also a co-founder of Bassiani, has called the group “the voice of invisible people.” Zviad Gelbakhiani and Tato Getia, the other co-founders of Bassiani, have explained the club’s critical role as a safe space in a country with an oppressive political climate, rampant homophobia and a rising nationalistic pulse. “The idea behind Bassiani was not to create a club with just the best sound system or lineup, but to create a space of equality and tolerance for people of all sexual, ethnic, and religious backgrounds.” Gelbakhiani was one of those detained in the raids on the club.
While the eight suspected of dealing drugs have been arrested, what that drug network looks like is anyone’s guess. Drug enforcement laws in Georgia have long been unsympathetic to the times. Only in 2017 were policies regarding marijuana relaxed—previously those arrested more than twice for possession would face up to 14 years of prison time. And it’s far from a possibility that these laws have any human interest in mind. The country’s sole detoxification center is a one-month, free program that can only accommodate 23 patients. Vocal objectors to the government’s enforcement often cite a correlation between the country’s relentless drug tests and the hefty fines that come along with it, as over the past five years ago the marginal issue has quickly become a national talking point.
Georgia’s minister of internal affairs, Giorgi Gakharia apologized for the arrests on Sunday, promising to potentially reform them. “I also promise that we will achieve specific results in the direction of drug policy. And if promises are not kept, we will always be able to dance or listen to music in a free city.”
The whole techno world, it seems, was watching the disheartening protests unfold over the weekend. Nina Kraviz, Ellen Alien, and DJ Nob voiced their support of the club-owners and the protestors in the days following the crackdown. But as of now, both nightclubs still remain closed.