Clubbing culture can sometimes serve as a flashpoint for larger issues in society at large. In Tbilisi, Georgia, the government raided two techno nightclubs, Bassiani and Café Gallery very early Saturday morning with armed police in what the interior ministry called a drug raid. They would arrest around 60 people in total, including Bassiani co-founders Tato Getia and Zviad Gelbakhiani. As a result of the raids, which have been seen by many in clubbing and more socially liberal communities in Georgia as heavy-handed, protests broke out in response, which then sparked counter-protests by far-right extremists who hold a lot of sway over life in Georgia.
There are a lot of moving parts in this situation. Around 1am early Saturday morning, the interior ministry raided Bassiani and Café Gallery with heavily armed police officers in Tbilisi in a showcase anti-narcotics operation. They arrested eight alleged drug dealers. The ministry says this has taken three months of planning and comes after at least five people have died after potentially taking drugs while out clubbing.
“People were having a party and dancing, then the first thing I saw was these men with guns rushing in,” said Nutsa Kukhianidze, who was working at Cafe Gallery when the police raided to The Guardian. “The first armed policeman went to the DJ, Bacho [Chaladze], telling him to turn the music off, and then they were yelling and screaming and putting everybody on the floor.”
Questions have been raised about the necessity of the raid. The parliament-appointed public defender, Nino Lomjaria, claimed the suspects were actually arrested earlier in the evening, not inside the clubs, as the ministry had said.
Tbilisi has turned into a hub of electronic music and nightlife in the past several years, but there are still strong forces that fight against the clubs that are seen as beacons of tolerance and progressive values in a socially conservative former Soviet country. Both clubs are safe spaces for the LBGTQ community.
Protests broke out over the weekend against the raids, which in turn sparked counter protests by far-right groups in which some members raised Nazi salutes.
The battle has become representative of larger cultural shifts in Georgia. Same sex activity has been legal since 2000 and it is illegal to discriminate based on sexuality. However, gay marriage is still illegal and many LBGTQ Georgians face hostility. Drug laws are very strict.
"What happened yesterday, it's not just about clubs,” Mariam Murusidze, former booker of Café Gallery, spoke to Resident Advisor. “It's a fight between the Soviet past of this country and the dictatorship we used to live in, the police country we used to live in, and the future we want for our country."
Bassiani’s co-owner Zviad Gelbakhiani has been at the forefront of the protests, becoming a vocal leader against the government’s crackdown. He was detained for several hours after the raid, but has not been charged.
“The raid was not an operation against drug dealers – it was an operation against freedom,” insisted Gelbakhiani via The Guardian. “Techno was the medium our generation found to express our free speech. It is a movement for progressive western values. I think that some of these people who are trying to stop us don’t want these clubs to exist because they do not want western values.”
The government has been working on making drug laws more liberal, but we will see if attitudes harden and become more conservative in response to the raids and protests.