Techno and Conservatism: What’s Dividing Georgia?
2 June, 2018

In the beginning of May, Georgian police had carried out raids in some of Tbilisi’s biggest nightclubs, as a result of which several people suspected of distributing drugs were detained. That same night, on May 12, young Georgians came out in protest in demonstrations, which lasted a few days. These protests, in their turn, caused resentment among local nationalist organizations who took to the streets for a counter-protest.

These events have only aggravated a conflict which has been going on for a while in Georgia – the divide between the conservative and progressive people within society. On the one side, a nationalistic, even pro-Russia sentiment is intensifying in Georgia. And on the other, the progressive youth are actively advocating drug decriminalization and defending LGBT rights. Hromadske went to Georgia to explore these two worlds that exist in Georgia.

Dance protest

At midday on May 17, people gather in the center of Tbilisi, at the Rose Revolution Square, for Family Day. The Georgian Orthodox Church only introduced this holy day very recently, in 2014. Metal fencing lines the square and only a few police officers are here to oversee the event. It’s clear that they are not expecting any confrontations.  

Nearby there are children wearing traditional Georgian national dress, some of them even wearing feathers and fur, despite the heat. Further into the distance, priests are holding icons.

Photo credit: HROMADSKE

There is a large icon of the Virgin and the infant, before which people occasionally stop and bow their heads. National music is playing.   

It’s here, on Rose Revolution Square, that the traditional, patriarchal side of Georgia can be seen – the Orthodox, religious side, which always respects tradition. Participants of this march emphasize the importance of traditional family values. In other words, heterosexual family values – although no one says that out loud. It is unsurprising that the Church chose to hold Family Day on May 17 as this is the International Day Against Homophobia.  

Photo credit: HROMADSKE

In 2012 and 2013, local LGBT organizations planned to walk the streets of Tbilisi city center and were attacked by nationalists and ultra-rights. Church representatives went out into the streets with homophobic placards. Some of them even behaved quite aggressively.

In 2014, the Georgian Patriarch Ilia II declared May 17 a new holy day, intercepting the LGBT activists’ agenda.

This year, the LGBT organizations did plan on protesting on May 17, but changed their mind to avoid any confrontations.

Over the last few weeks, tensions have been rising in Georgia. After the special operations raid on the biggest nightclubs in Georgia, and the arrests of activists and those suspected of drug dealing, the club-going Georgian youth took to the streets.

Photo credit: HROMADSKE 

A few thousand people (15,000, according to the organizers) gathered on May 12 in front of the Georgian parliament building, in order to show their dissatisfaction with the way in which the officers behaved that night. Among the organizers was the “White Noise” movement – the main activists advocating drug policy liberalization. However, there was barely any mention of drugs at this protest. The protesters were demanding the resignation of the Prime Minister and head of the Ministry of Internal Affairs in light of the brutal behaviour of the police in the nightclubs.  

The demonstration became a “dancing” protest – participants came with sound equipment, they danced and chanted: “We dance together, we fight together.”

In response, local nationalists from the “Georgian March” went out into the street. The formal reason behind this was the fact one activist danced on the monument for the victims of the April 9, 1989 tragedy (when at least 18 people died following the dispersal of a protest). However, participants stated that they had come out against drugs.

Confrontations broke out, the police could barely hold back the crowd from breaking through to the parliament building. On May 13, the Minister of Internal Affairs went out to the protesters and apologized for the security forces’ actions. The Minister promised a formal investigation into the special operations and to continue to work together with the activists on drug policy liberalization. Participants of the “dance protest” decided to disperse on May 19.

The people attending the Family Day march say that they knew of the protests but add that their demonstration is not a counter-protest.

“We heard about it, of course,” says Manana, a local Georgian woman, who appears to be around 50 years old. Older people speak Russian, but it’s easier to speak to younger people in English. “They want to legalize drugs. But we are against that. We are Orthodox, we must have family purity. This negatively affects all our families.”

A group of men aged 50-60 stand at the side. They say that, every year on May 17, they go out with their families, they go to the march and then they relax. As soon as the conversation turns to the protest outside parliament though, their mood instantly changes.  

“There are no people there. There’s only gays. Or to be more precise – f*ggots,” a man in glasses gestures emotionally. He introduces himself as Tenhiz. “I hate them. And it’s not just us here that are against them. Russia is against them too. Putin is also against them.”

Photo credit: HROMADSKE

Speaking with Tenhiz and his friends, we soon realize that they are part of the section of the Georgian population who are loyal to Russia and the Russian president. Tenhiz tells us that Georgia and Russia belong together historically and unapologetically scolds the former Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili. He also disdainfully talks about the “yanks.”

Upon hearing that we are from Ukraine, his friend gives us some advice: “Make friends with Putin, then everything will be ok.”  

Nationalism with a touch of fascism

“Did you see the fascists there? A group of people wearing armbands passed by giving a Nazi salute,” Georgian Dmytro Avaliani, editor of JAM News, tells us as we sit in their office.  

Photographs of young people, with arms stretched out in a Nazi salute and wearing the red clothes with crosses, quickly spread across the internet. They are representatives of the organization “National Unity of Georgia,” who are considered here to be Neo-nazi. The organization’s leader also openly refers to himself as a fascist.  

Photo credit: HROMADSKE

“They actively disseminate Russian propaganda,” Avaliani continues. “Which says we don’t need a path to the West, we don’t need European integration, but we do need to be friends with Russia. And that we fought, we quarrelled, but we are neighbors all the same. Generally, Russian propaganda feels great. For example, [Yuriy Luzhkov, the former Mayor of Moscow] comes here constantly. Besides Putin, it’s hard to imagine someone more dangerous to Georgian statehood than Luzhkov. But he comes here quite easily.”

Avaliani is certain that Russia is financing the ultra-right organizations in Georgia. And their pro-Russian rhetoric strikes a chord with the more traditional sectors of the population, who speak out against “LGBT [rights] and drug legalization.”

The main nationalist organization in Georgia is “Georgian March.” Its leader Sandro Bregadze is the former Deputy Minister of Diaspora Issues. Bergadze is a long-time opposer of the LGBT community. He proposed changes to the Georgian Constitution to clearly state that marriage is the union of a man and woman. In July 2017, Georgian March also held a protest against migrants – in particular, against Turks and Arabs.

Photo credit: HROMADSKE

During the nightclub protests, Georgian March initiated the creation of the “Union of National Forces,” which included the local ultra-right organizations. Human rights activists at Transparency International found out that one of the leaders of “Union of National Forces,” the former Georgian MP Dimitri Lortkipanidze, was appointed director of the Primakov Georgian-Russian Public Center. This organization was founded in August 2013 by the International Relations Institute and the Gorchakov Public Diplomacy Support Fund, which was established under orders from the then president of Russia Dmitry Medvedev.

“A dangerous precedent has been set in Georgia today,” says Avaliani, adding that “Young people went to a peaceful protest for the rights. And then other people appeared who decided that they didn’t like them. They got what they wanted, the demonstration dispersed. They were frightened of provocations, they did not want blood. But this is not serious.”

For freedom

Despite the fact the LGBT organizations officially cancelled all events on May 17, a protest against homophobia took place in Tbilisi that evening. An hour before it began, police blocked all routes near the State Chancellery building and many journalists also came.  

Around two hundred people took part in the protest. Almost everyone here knew one another – they greeted each other with hugs, they had lively discussions, gesturing emotionally with their hands. With one voice, the protesters made it clear they were not only there to stand against homophobia, but against everything that is going on Georgia right now.  

“I want to live freely, quietly, I want to be what I am. I am not a lesbian, I’m a just a person. But I am for freedom,” says Anna, A 25-year-old woman with bright red hair. Her friend Katie adds:

“Generally speaking, homophobia thrives on the streets. I have been a victim of it numerous times, and my 19-year-old son because he long hair.”

Most of the people attending the protesters were also participants in the “dance protests.” Anna and Katie were also there. Their ultra-right opponents called them “fascists.” This is another element of the protests – the rise of Neo-nazi ideas.

“I came because I don’t want fascists easily walking round our country,” Anna says, “Their time is over, it’s the 21st century people!”

“[Those in opposition of the “dance protests”] for some reason thought that we were protecting people who sell drugs,” Katie says. “We just want to protect our freedom. We want to live here peacefully, to work and do our thing. Some people want to get drunk, but I like LSD. What’s the problem? I’m not doing anything bad to anyone. To those who don’t support us, I say that they should come to the club. There is love there, everyone cares about each other. Let them go and see for themselves.”

Five hundred metres from the State Chancellery building, near the Georgian parliament, anti-LGBT activists gathered, organized by “Georgian March.” One of the participants managed to break through to the protest against homophobia, but he was quickly arrested by the police.

Photo credit: HROMADSKE

An hour and half later, buses arrived at the State Chancellery building to pick up the protesters as confrontations had erupted. The police now use maximum security measures in light of the bloody events of 2012 and 2013.

But even after the protest against homophobia dispersed, its opponents did not. Around 1000 people remained near the parliament building: young and old men, women in headscarves and priests. The Georgian Church is a long-standing ally of the right-wing organizations in their fight against the LGBT community.

There were almost no journalists present. And people here are not very keen on speaking to the press, saying: “We don’t believe the television, it always lies about us!”

Those who do agree to speak all have the same idea.

“We hate – excuse my words –  f*****s and lesbians,” says Georgiy, who appears to be around 45 years old. “We are Georgians, real Georgians and we love our country. Georgians live here, but they are not Georgians. They don’t even have any faith.”

“Today is family day. But the LGBT people and the drug addicts think that this is their day,” explains 40-year-old Maya, “We are protesting because they should not be in our country. There’s not many of us, and there will be even less.”

Drug policy and protests

The “dance protests” were supposed to start up again on May 19. However, the day before, White Noise announced that there would be no protests. One of the organization’s leaders David Subeliani explained that they needed to find a new way to carry out this dialogue with the government. And the temporary suspension of the protests has made people relax, therefore a mass protest would not achieve anything.

Journalist Dmytro Avaliani has another theory – the protest did not happen because of the threat of violence from the ultra-right organizations.

The White Noise office is located in the very center of Tbilisi, on the street next to Rustaveli Avenue. David shows us the view from his window: on one side – the Presidential Palace and a church, and on the other – the building where Georgia’s “shadow leader” Bidzina Ivanishvili lives. David jokes that they are surrounded on all sides.

The organization was founded in 2013. It’s future leader Beka Tsikarishvili  was arrested for possession of drugs, after 69 grams of marijuana were found on him. According to Georgian legislation at that time, he was threatened with 11 years imprisonment. Beka’s friends started a campaign to help him under the slogan: “Beka is not a criminal.” Many more people ended up also joining the campaign.

Photo credit: HROMADSKE

In 2015, the Constitutional Court of Georgia recognized that the practice of issuing prison sentences for the purchase and possession of marijuana for personal use was unconstitutional. Beka paid a fine of around 820 dollars and started the White Noise movement for drug police liberalization.

“Do you know why it is called White Noise?” David asks. “When you turn on the television and there is no channel showing, there’s just white noise. It’s uncomfortable for everyone, everyone at once wants to switch it off. So we decided that we would be this white noise. We are uncomfortable, they want to switch us off, but we will constantly be reminding people about us.”

David is 40 years old. He has a wife and kids. He is interested in where we “hang out” in Kyiv and making friends with the organizers of the techno raves in Kyiv. He knows all the club-owners in Tbilisi. He has been with White Noise since day one. After the activists secured the rights to personal marijuana use, they started working on the full decriminalization of all drugs.

In 2017, White Noise submitted a draft law to the parliament of Georgia. The activists used the experience of Portugal, which decriminalized all drugs in 2001 – including injected drugs, cocaine and heroin, as the basis of their argument. According to Portuguese legislation, possession of drugs for personal use is an administrative offense, not criminal.

“We can’t just talk about marijuana or so-called club drugs,” David explains, “Because people who inject drugs are in a worse situation. They are stigmatized, they have problems with their rights. If we want to change the system, then we have to change it for everyone.”

2015-2016 was a good time for White Noise. David says that, back then, the “street” cooperated well with the MPs who supported the idea of drug decriminalization. They promised to enact the law in 2017. The activists had a lot of support for the opposition MPs from the Girchi party, founded in 2015. The party gets its name for the Georgian word for pinecone.  

Photo credit: HROMADSKE

“We estimated that more than half the MPs were for this,” David says, “But it didn’t even go to the vote. They all told us: Wait, you can’t push this, it will all happen. And we believed it. But then, in that moment, I realized that it had become a part of politics. We had just been conned. We just crossed the street to the office. And it was all over.”

At the same time the draft law was submitted to parliament, national organizations began campaigning against White Noise, David explains. They argued that the activists were proposing a law for drug distributors, not for the users.  

The church was also actively opposed to the draft law. And the ruling party Georgian Dream did not take the document under consideration. Although, after the “dance protests,” the Justice Minister Teya Tsulukiani stated that the government is only against the full legalization of drugs, but not against decriminalization.

Public opinion has turned against White Noise. Therefore, even now, during the “dance protests,” the movement has tried not to advertise its role in the demonstrations and has barely even mentioned the issue of drug policy liberalization. However, this did not help them. The Georgian conservatives are certain that the people protesting were just “gays and drug addicts.”

The dividing line

David Subeliani says that there will be no protests in the net two weeks. He notes that the situation is getting worse for drug decriminalization. Therefore, White Noise has decided to broaden its focus and not just focus on drug policy.

“We want to raise the general issue of human rights in Georgia – LGBT issues, the issue of fascism, personal freedom. And, of course, the issue of drug policy.”

Photo credit: HROMADSKE

Gerogian journalist Dmytro Avaliani says that the divide within Georgian society is deeper than it seems at first glance. The rise of ultra-right and pro-Russia sentiments in the country has led to collision of the two sides of Geogian society: the conservatives and the progressives.

Representatives of the latter want to be able to relax in these nightclubs, they want to decriminalize drugs and they also support the LGBT community. The conservative side, however, upholds traditional views on family and way of life and that “the club-going youth want to undermine Georgian identity.” And it’s this part of society that works in politics.  

“Our youth are very apolitical,” Dmytro explains, “No one works with them. Therefore, they almost did not come out to the protests. There was one time, when drugs were planted on some musicians [in 2017, two rappers were arrested, however they were released after the protests erupted], now they’ve gone because the state has encroached on their territory. But they will not proceed for some political reasons. It does not interest them.”

Photo credit: HROMADSKE

Dmytro Avaliani says that the conflict between the two sides of Georgian society is long overdue and this has only become more apparent because of the “dance protests.” When Mikheil Saakashvili became president in 2004, Georgia drastically changed in a more pro-western direction and carried out a number of rigid, and often unpopular, reforms. Avaliani says that this has altered the mentality of Georgian people and this is why it’s impossible to quickly change the system.  

“I really hope that the pro-Russian sentiment in Georgia does not grow. A dangerous precedent has been created. The conflict will not end. It will just take another form. I hope that the pro-west parties are able to change the system all the same,” Avaliani sums up.  

Made with support from Russian-language News Exchange

/By Juliana Skibitskaya and Oleksandr Kokhan