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Drugs and Politics: What We Know About The Tbilisi Nightclub Raids
13 May, 2018
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At almost 1 a.m on May 12, special forces operatives raided some of Tbilisi’s biggest nightclubs, including Bassiani and Cafe Gallery, which are known throughout Europe. Armed and dressed in full uniform, the special forces were looking for drug dealers.

Long-term special operations began shortly after five young people died from drug-related incidents over the course of two weeks. By the end of the operation, the police reported that they had arrested eight people alleged to have sold drugs.  

The Georgian youth reacted straight away. On Saturday morning, hundreds of dissenters gathered outside the parliament in Tbilisi in protest. According to the media, 60 people were arrested as a result of the protests. These people have now been released, but the protests in the Georgian capital continue.

Hromadske looks at what happened and why young people in Georgia have taken to the streets.

What happened?

Special forces conducted simultaneous operations at several clubs in Tbilisi. The most well-known clubs targeted were Cafe Gallery and Bassiani. The latter is considered one of the world’s top 20 nightclubs, together with Berlin’s Berghain. It can hold up to 3,000 people at any one time.

Before an investigation began, all those present were promised to be released from criminal responsibility if they handed over their narcotic substances immediately.

Clubgoers present that evening say that the police used force against them, handcuffed them and went through their personal belongings. In footage captured by the Rustavi-2 broadcasting company, it is clear how people were removed from the club. Some people’s clothes were torn. The arrests of dozens of people were broadcast live. Some of Bassiani’s founders were also arrested. The club itself was closed and sealed up.

Throughout the night, the young people in attendance, and the people who came out to support them, went outside the walls of the club in an attempt to resist the special operation.

The Georgian Ombudsman, who also came out to the club, said that she questions need for an operation like this and the way in which it was conducted.

Who was arrested?

Criminal Police Department director Volodymyr Botsvadze reported the arrest of eight individuals suspected of drug-dealing. All were aged between 22 and 30 years. One of the people detained at Bassiani was the club’s bouncer. A large amount of narcotic substances has been reportedly removed from him.  

“I did not see a single person with drugs, and not a single person offered to sell any to me. Generally, this does not mean that the people who came here to dance didn’t take any drugs at all. But it also does not mean that people got them inside the club or used them inside,” Ukrainian journalist and clubgoer Maria Dachkovska told Hromadske.  

According to the police, they were acting on the basis of a court order. An investigation took place over the course of three months, which led to the eight people arrested. The police also showed a video in which the detainees appear to be allegedly selling drugs.  

As of yet, neither the Prime Minister, nor the mayor of Tbilisi Kakha Kaladze, nor any other representative from the country’s leadership have commented on what happened that night.

How has the club reacted?

Bassiani representatives published a statement on Facebook in which they expressed their opinion that the incident was the work of politicians.

“Around this subject, currently there is an endless smear campaign ushered against BASSIANI / HOROOM, plenty of dirty gossips and accusations go around. Some politically motivated groups have even asked for the closure of the club and the arrests of the principals and blame them for those deaths. Those rightist political forces have tried to discredit our club and use its name as an instrument of political confrontation a number of times,” the post reads.

Why now?

The special operations began after a string of tragic deaths. At least five people died, and more than ten other people ended up in hospital, severely intoxicated, after taking an unknown substance. These tragic events are linked to a number of different clubs in Tbilisi.

Immediately after these events, politicians and media began an active campaign against nightclubs. In turn, the Ministry of Internal Affairs announced a crackdown on drug-related crime. In particular, the Deputy Minister Natia Mezvrishvili stated:

“The discussion of the existence on harmful and harmless drugs, about lethal mephedrone and about how other synthetic drugs or heroin aren’t lethal, in addition to the constant discussions about drug policy liberalization, are in essence propaganda by drug users. They urge on drug-crime and interfere with preventative measures in this field. One of the most important priorities of the Ministry of Internal Affairs is the fight against narcotic-related crimes and this fight will take a step up.”

Photo credit: JAM news

These actions have nothing to do with the real fight against the negative consequences of drug-taking, says Ukrainian DJ, promoter, and co-founder of Rhythm Büro Ihor Hlushko.

“As with the incident that occurred six months ago, and the incident in 2015 in Kyiv (raids at club Closer – ed.), the Georgian police did not complicate their lives with the proper legal implementation of their actions. Instead, they decided that the stereotype, that connects clubs to drugs was enough reason to disrupt these music events. By all accounts, this is purely political,” he told Hromadske.  

Protests

Just after the raids, a few hundred people went to the parliament building to protest against the actions of the police. The crowds chanted: “We dance together, we fight together.”

Photo credit: JAM news

Confrontations between protesters and law enforcement soon broke out, and 60 people were arrested as a result. Among the detainees were Bassiani owners Zviad Helbakhiani and Tato Hetia, as well as leader of the “New Political Center – Girchi” party Zurab Dzhaparidze and leader of the “White Noise” movement Beka Tsykarishvli. However, they were eventually released.

The Girchi party and the White Noise movement both advocate marijuana legalization and drug decriminalization. On November 30, 2017, the Constitutional Court of Georgia granted Girchi party member Givi Shanidze’s petition to lighten the criminal liability for the use of marijuana, having decided that the law impedes on people’s freedom of personality.

Photo credit: EPA.com

Another demonstration was called. A lot more people came out in protest, and not only in Tbilisi, but in Kutaisi and Batumi as well, where three people were arrested.  

This time, thousands of people came out to protest in front of the Georgian parliament, where club music played throughout the evening. Participants of the demonstration temporarily blocked the central Rustaveli Avenue resulting in one-way traffic. Special forces police were stationed in the central districts of the city surrounding the protest. The opposition television channel Rustavi noted the presence of water cannons.  

The protesters set up tents, refusing to leave until the government meets their four demands: the resignation of PM Giorgi Kvirikashvili, the resignation of the Interior Minister, punishment for all those responsible for the May 12 special operation, and for the ruling party Georgian Dream to take political responsibility for the incident.  

/By Yulia Bankova and Liuda Kornievich

/Translated by Sofia Fedeczko