The monumental former Georgian parliament at Rustaveli Avenue in Tbilisi certainly has never seen as many ravers as it did last weekend. From 3pm on Sunday its usually deserted grand steps were occupied by thousands of people dancing to the booming sound system in clouds of coloured smoke. Transmitted globally through thousands of phones, it wasn’t the image of a civil rights struggle we’re used to: more like an outdoor festival or the high point of a rave, when night turns to day — only even more electrified, charged with young powerful energy and a fervor for change. The crowd that day was the most vivid proof that the rave movement in eastern Europe is about something much bigger than just recreational activity: it’s the symbol of new values, freedom and global connection. “We Dance Together, We Fight Together” and “Dance for Freedom” are the slogans which have united the Georgian youth to fight for their all-inclusive and safe club spaces.
The unsanctioned mass rave was a protest against the brutal police raids at Bassiani and Café Gallery, the key destinations for Tbilisi’s thriving techno scene. Police stormed the clubs during the early hours of Saturday, arresting Bassiani’s co-founders Tato Getia and Zviad Gelbakhiani, and detaining dozens of clubbers. The raids were ordered by the government who suspect Bassiani’s involvment with the five drug-related deaths that have happened in Tbilisi in recent weeks, although none of the deaths occurred at the clubs. It is yet another instance of the continuing struggle for liberalisation of the country’s repressive drug laws. Earlier this year, actor Giorgi Giorganashvili was sentenced to eight years in prison for the possession of illegal drugs without an appropriate trial, sparking massive demonstrations in January.
“I was playing an opening set for Giegling label night at Bassiani. Around 1am I saw the flash lights approaching from across the room. At first I thought it was someone taking videos with their phone, but then they came closer and I saw automatic rifles pointed at me, then heard men in soldier uniforms screaming to stop the music and turn the lights on,” remembers Gigi Jikia aka HVL, one of Bassiani’s resident djs, of the night of the raids.
“There were way more policemen and soldiers then guests at the club when the raid happened. They announced that they had an order to check the club for drugs. They let everybody out, only me and couple others from the staff stayed. They were acting chaotic and seemingly without a proper plan. Before they begun the search, the “drug expert” came along and I heard him warning the policemen to beware the syringes that could be thrown on the floor. At that point I was asked to leave the club. The word about raids spread instantly and people gathered in front of the club. This is where the police became increasingly brutal, randomly beating and arresting people on the street who came to protest. Eventually we mobilised and moved the demonstration in front of the parliament building.”
Tbilisi’s protests have resonated with people across the world. What is improtant to know is just how much the techno scene is integral for the local creative community. Art, fashion and music are closely intertwined; clubs, here, are the nurturing ground for collaboration and experimentation. With Georgia’s growing prominence in the global cultural scene and its rising profile as a travel destination, the bourgeoning rave culture is the pride of its forward-thinking young generation, and their hope for a more open country.
With more protests planned for the upcoming weekend, The Calvert Journal talked to Tbilisi’s cultural trailblazers about the significance and stuggle of the city’s club culture.
Gigi Jikia aka HVL
Bassiani resident DJ
“To me and I believe many others, Bassiani is a safe temple for an open minded, fast growing, progressive group of young people, who will not be silenced or frightened by the system. Intruding on this space showed how important the movement is for us, made this group of people even stronger and I hope will attarct even more followers. The recent demonstrations have shown that locals will do everything to defend their spaces of freedom. Even though they are in the minority, they are a formidable force leading the cultural revolution in this country. I do not think we have won anything yet — the fight continues. These safe spaces will probably stay under pressure considering the state of our society, therefore people need to be ready to protect and expand them over time.”
Designer of labels Situationist and Aznauri
“I think the events that escalated in Tbilisi over this weekend are of historical significance. It is crucial to understand that the techno culture in Tbilisi is not just a leisure activity. Dancing in Tbilisi nightclubs is a form of political self-expression. The specific nightclubs raided by special forces are the home of left-wing activists, queer communities, feminists and young creative forces of Georgia. Bassiani’s Horoom nights is a place where a self-identifying trans woman has the absolute freedom to express herself without being mistreated, judged or beaten up. By going to Horoom nights, you’re also standing up for LGBTQ rights.
‘We Dance Together, We Fight Together’ was the motto of the demonstration, but the fight began long before the ‘black Friday’. This is why thousands of young people took the club raids as an attack on their values, especially because there was no need for the special forces to conduct this operation in the way they did. I find it hard to find the right words to express how awesome the idea of raving in front of parliament was!
I fight for freedom, equality and against injustice. I do not want to see special forces in these free spaces anymore. I do not want to see innocent people searched in the streets for no reason. I do not want to see young lives ruined by six years in prison for taking one pill. I want to see high level drug traffickers in prison instead of the lowest chain dealers who get the highest sentences.”
Musician of duo KayaKata
“Bassiani plays a big role in modern day Tbilisi. It’s like a big meeting hall for local tribes: people celebrate life there, and this is where youth evolves. The first day of the protest was amazing, you could feel the vibrant youthful energy, everybody dancing like one big organism, this constant feeling of pride. I’m proud of our youth. The second day was heavy, there were lots of neo-nazis in the crowd and other types of shitty people, so it got dangerous. The main goal for me is to get drug users out of jails. There are around 4000 people in jail and more on probation, for a blotter of acid, a gram of MDMA, for one pill of ecstasy, for empty syringes containing 0,0000001 Mg of the drug. I want to to change that, to stop the government from taking kids and putting them in jail, ruining their life and sculpting criminals out of them. My goal is to teach people in charge that we are all in charge.”
Film director and fashion designer of Tamra label
“Bassiani and techno culture are important for Georgian youth because it’s a way of expressing yourself, disconnecting from reality, it feels like a safe space. But not any more. This raid was not about techno or drugs. It was a statement from the government, saying: we can do whatever we want, whenever we want and you can’t do anything about it. I think it’s much more serious than just shutting down a techno club. The most important thing at the moment is that the people who ordered the raids are punished, although to be honest this operation wouldn’t have taken place without the knowledge of the Minister of Defense, or maybe even the Prime Minister. So I can’t really imagine them punishing themselves. But we will see.”
Founder of Success bar
“Café Gallery and Bassiani have had a big impact on the development of Georgia. When Café Gallery opened in 2009 or 2010, it was a period when business was low and almost every underground club had closed down. Café Gallery was the only place where one could hear good Georgian underground DJs and was also one of first LGBTQ-friendly places.
When Bassiani opened, it kick-started a whole new era, and after two years you could recognise Bassiani visitors in the street. What Bassiani’s founders did was close to a revolution: the freedom you found there you couldn’t get find anywhere else in the country. You can go to Bassiani and Café Gallery and dance till morning, but the most important thing is that you also feel a part of this big, free community. Our government wants to forbid dancing and taking light drugs. We are stigmatised for taking pills and smoking weed, and this is nonsense.
Despite my strict upbringing, I’ve always been very free and fearless. Once a friend from New York came to visit and asked me to take him to a gay bar, and I discovered that there was only one in Tbilisi open since 2001, and it was pretty dead. So I renovated and reopened it as Success Bar in 2017. It was a big step. We face a lot of prejudice and harassment, particularly when it comes to trans and lesbian communities, and my page on Facebook got reported so many times… But the more they try to defeat us the more we will stand again and fight for what is mostly important to us — our freedom!”
Photographer and creative director of MBFW Tbilisi
“Today we’re doing what people before us should have done. We don’t promote drugs — all we need is to have our personal space free from intrusion. We’re many and united! We share values, aims and interests. It wasn’t our government which came up with raids on clubs, this method of oppression has been around in many countries for years. They can’t understand that we go to clubs not for drugs but for connection, inspiration and new encounters. In the 90s huge numbers of people died from heroin overdoses on the streets and in their own homes — where were the clubs and techno then? The government and general public should understand that clubbing shouldn’t be associated with drugs — it’s just our need for communication!”