‘’What are your hopes for the future of Georgia?’’ I ask Naja Orashvili, co-founder of club Bassiani. She replies ‘’If the dance is genuine, it ends with revolution.’’
The freedom of the Georgian people is currently under threat due to increasing Russian control and influence. The pro-Russian government is tightening its grip, there’s a looming war, the country deals with repressive police forces, inflation, post-pandemic economic hardships, a zero-tolerance policy towards drugs, increasing political homophobia and a double increase in rental prices in just over a year. This leads a young generation without a bright outlook towards the future to leave the country, and the people staying – tired of their countless protests, demonstrations and activism – to the only trusted institution and a safe refuge: the club. A place for ‘a dance of no tomorrow’. The meaning of their dance is no longer one of fighting for freedom and progressive values, but one for survival.
Cadence Culture speaks with club Bassiani, club Left Bank, club KHIDI and David Lezhava – clubbing advocate in politics – about the social, economical and political challenges Tbilisi is facing and how club culture has become increasingly intertwined. What has happened since the armed police raids on club Bassiani in 2018? Where are they now with the fight for progressive values? What is the influence of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Georgia? And why do ravers in Tbilisi dance like there is no tomorrow? We dive into 30 years of Tbilisi’s electronic music scene to understand the events that have forged a scene that has been coined by its clubs with words as ‘Turmoil, Existential and Illusion’.
Georgia can be found at the crossroads between Europe and Asia and because of its central location, it has made the country face countless wars. As such, it has over its rich history adopted cultural influences and traditions from the Middle-East, the former Soviet Union and Europe, but also from Christian and Islamic religion. Its capital city Tbilisi is home to one-third of the country’s population, with a total of 1.5 million inhabitants. Its many influences are reflected in the city’s diverse architecture, with brutalist and post-soviet concrete buildings existing right next to medieval and art nouveau buildings that mix with modern and futuristic architecture. This eclectic mix can be found in between the mountains on hills and terraces bordering the Mtkvari river.
The energy of the city can be described as raw and lively, its walls are cladded in graffiti and street art. Tbilisi is home to a big creative scene with museums, art galleries, creative hubs, bars and clubs in former industrial spaces. Over the course of years, Tbilisi has cemented its position internationally as a popular destination to visit for ravers because of its electrifying clubbing scene and diverse cultural offer.
For ravers traveling to Tbilisi to indulge in its nightlife, the city may seem peaceful at first glimpse, however the city is facing social, economical and political challenges that have directly sparked this boom in electronic music culture. In order to understand why the city’s scene has become so electrifying we must look at the conditions that have forged it and are currently continuing to do so.
Over the past three decades, Georgia has seen numerous revolutions, changes of power, countless protests, and (civil) wars. In 1991, Georgia became independent from the former Soviet Union. Shortly after, several groups fought each other for power over the country, which descended Georgia into civil war. On top of that, another war started in Georgia’s most western region: Abkhazia. Russian-backed separatists fought to gain control over the area, ultimately establishing a self-proclaimed independent republic. Thousands were killed and over 300.000 people fled the region, many of which to Tbilisi.
The country’s first tumultuous years of independence and the still ongoing civil war in the 90’s led the Georgians into a period of what many refer to as ‘the Dark days’. Dark, as in there was barely any electricity, and having heating at home was a luxury. By ‘95, Georgia’s economy collapsed and the country found itself overshadowed by poverty and corruption. Pensions were as high as 9 lari (3 euros), inflation rates were soaring, there was high unemployment, pervasive hunger, homosexuality was still a criminal offense, there was a shortage of gas and gangs armed with Kalashnikovs ruled over the city. Protests took to the street as the situation worsened. Many people lost a sense of hope and once the opiate heroin found its way to the country, many Georgian lives were lost.
Parallel with its collapse, the electronic music scene found its roots. The lack of laws, safety and social security paved the way for a new underground scene in the capital city. A paradox one could say, in a time when there was barely any electricity. But to survive the ongoing crisis, people looked for new ways to express themselves. In spite of armed gangs flocking the city, people started to club, thus dance was introduced as a means of protest and one that unified the people.
By the mid 2000’s, not much had changed and after – what many reports called – a rigged election in 2003, thousands of demonstrators stormed the parliament with red roses in their hands, demanding change. The ‘Rose Revolution’ led to economic and political reforms. Under the new president’s leadership, the electricity went back on in the city and overall living conditions improved.
Nevertheless, unemployment, corruption and tension over Abkhazia remained. At the same time in 2006, a zero-tolerance policy towards drugs was adopted which created a repressive culture that led to overpopulated prisons. On top of that, the country found itself on the brink of another war – the first European war of the 21st century. In 2008, Russia invaded the area of South-Ossetia – only 60 kilometers away from Tbilisi – to help it become ‘another’ self-proclaimed republic.
Georgia’s continuous socio-political and economical instability combined with its conservative, oppressive and religious climate, led a young generation – that grew up in a time when there was no more Soviet Union and wanted more freedom – to places where they could escape and find like-minded people: the club.
Parallel with this transition, electronic music culture became a mass movement globally. Influences from western culture were taken into Georgia, and in the early 2000’s the first electronic sound production class and DJ courses popped up. A few years later, clubs like Cafe Gallery – an artsy student and cafe hang out space, club Mtkvarze and Foundation Electronauts – an online curated awards platform dedicated to the promotion of Georgia’s music scene – formed the basis for this new wave of places for electronic music culture. Quickly, the sound became the connecting factor between a young generation and progressive values.
As such, the basic ingredients for an emerging electronic music scene were established. Though because of fluctuating peace and stability and a lack of infrastructure, Tbilisi had not yet reached its full potential. One of those people that was unknowingly set out to change that, was Naja Orashvili, co-founder of club Bassiani.
“26 years ago, in 1997, my father took me to the club for the first time,’’ Naja says. “From the very first moment I entered, I immediately understood the power of the dance floor. I saw how it unified people and knew it would ultimately lead to big transformations in the city. When I realized that I wanted to open a club to facilitate these changes, I also knew it would take me a long time of education and experience to come to the point where I could open a club.’’
In these turbulent years, Naja became more involved in activism. In 2012, a student movement – that mostly consisted of musicians – organized demonstrations called ‘The System Must be Destroyed’. Their slogan was a reaction to a government that became increasingly controlling and that declared freedom and critical thinking as a threat and used it in actions against people that dared to change the status-quo. “These demonstrations eventually influenced the change of government,’’ Naja says. “To me, it was a sign that we should change more things in Tbilisi.’’
“Meanwhile, I became more conscious about the power of music. I visited many different clubs and spaces, not only in Georgia but also outside of the country. This experience was needed to create a concept for a club which would be authentically Georgian: one with its own ideas, values and thoughts.’’
In 2013, something was brooding. Naja – together with co-founders Zviad and Tato – organized a rave in an abandoned concert hall with a focus on techno music – a first for this kind of music. The event became a success and lit the match for subsequent events, as Naja, Zviad, Tato, Niko and Guri set-up a club at a warehouse near the Mtkvari river.
That’s until 2014, when they received a call to come and check out a new location: a mass of concrete and unused and abandoned areas under the brutalistic and post-soviet ‘Dinamo Football Arena’, with a swimming pool as its main dance floor. It was the start for a whole new social and clubbing movement in Tbilisi: club Bassiani.
From the start, the co-founders understood that Bassiani should be a place built on pillars of equality and solidarity as society was very polarized, Naja explains. “Groups of social movements were dismantled, the drug policy was extremely harsh, the rate of homophobia and nationalism and all of the fights inside of the society were very rigid. We wanted the club to become a place that would challenge increasing control and also oppression on marginalized groups. One that would unify different groups from which a process would start of getting to know each other and with this: achieving a state of transformation from which a bigger movement would emerge that would later be moved to the streets of Tbilisi and even further in the region.’’
Based on this, the name Bassiani was chosen. It symbolizes the ‘Battle of Basiani’: a 13th century Georgian battle for freedom led by the country’s first female ruler. The founders chose this name intentionally because the club was to be a space that would fight for the social and political transformation of the country. “Our fight would be one not with weapons, but with knowledge, care and thought,’’ Naja says. The second ‘s’ in Bassiani was added as it translates to ‘one with the bass’ in Georgian, referring to electronic music.
Not only is the name of the club symbolic, so is its location. During the soviet regime, the Dinamo Football Stadium was used as a ground for army parades and political meetings.
Today the location is still political, as thousands of homophobic hooligans shout and chant for football while below them is a dancefloor that unites minorities that challenge views around homophobia. Under transcendental and otherworldly strobe lights, in a club with a raw and dark energy to it, one can find concrete tunnels, different levels, a landing strip that provides a view over the swimming pool’s main dance floor and its thumping techno music. A space where drag queens perform, men in skirts dance with hands interlaced and women kiss right next to heterosexual men, all without any problem.
One of the concepts inside Bassiani that is intended to change ideas around homophobia and bring together the LGBTQIA+ community is ‘Horoom Nights’. The monthly queer party in Bassiani is another meaning of symbolism – referring to ‘Khorumi’, an ancient Georgian joint war dance. With the dance inside of Horoom meaning a fight against a system oppressing queer bodies. The event became so popular that it opened its own permanent upstairs area inside of the club.
Co-founder of Horoom Nights is Giorgi Kikonishvili, who became involved after meeting Naja at the ‘System must be destroyed’ demonstrations. “Before Bassiani, I was more into activism,’’ Giorgi says. “That inner feeling of protest started to grow fifteen years ago, when I realized I was gay and when here in Georgia we could not even talk about LGBTQIA+ rights.’’
“I knew that if I chose the life that everyone else around me lived, and told me to live, it wouldn’t be close to the life I really wanted. I just wanted to dance and love a man. I just knew from my heart that I should change anything around me that would allow me to live that life’’ – Giorgi
Giorgi realized that by communicating in the right way about topics revolving around LGBTQIA+, he had changed the attitudes of his friends and family. He wanted to take this activism to a bigger stage to transform the system. “I found a few other queer activists. We set up an organization and decided to protest in the streets. But then on the 17th of May 2013 – the International Day Against Homophobia – something terrible happened.’’
While Giorgi was peacefully demonstrating with a group of fifty activists, thousands of anti-LGBTQIA+ demonstrators – led by priests of the orthodox church – ran towards the group to violently attack them. Twelve demonstrators were hospitalized, seventeen injured and the group barely got away in a bus, surrounded by people that tried to stone them and hit through the bus.
“On this day, we realized that we had two options: either very peacefully leave this country and to live a more comfortable life, or to stay and fight for ourselves and future generations” – Giorgi
The Georgian queer movement found itself in a crisis afterwards. “We realized we needed different ways to communicate with the people; to avoid clashes and to find a means that would have an effect in the long-run. To find like-minded people and grow a community.’’ Giorgi says. “One year later, Bassiani opened and Naja invited me. From the very first second I entered, I realized this was going to be it. It was absolutely unlike anything I have ever seen in Georgia. I realized it was a place that was going to make noise and that was going to shake things up.’’
And that it did. Naja and Giorgi saw people come to the club for the first time and change their opinions, views and attitudes over night. People that were once homophobic now came to personally apologize. Bassiani quickly became popular for a young generation of Georgians that wanted change.
In those four years after, Bassiani became part of a bigger political process and systemic change. Besides being activistic on the queer front – acting as a safe space, hosting queer art installations, movies and concerts by LGBTQIA+ artists – the club also put Tbilisi on the map internationally. Bassiani invited international collectives and was visited by international communities that quickly became friends and therewith, strengthened its position in society.
The club also became a gathering place for social movements. One of those movements is the ‘White Noise movement’. The organization campaigns for more liberal drug policies in the country as Georgia has one of the highest incarceration rates of Europe, with approximately 34% of the incarcerated people being in jail for drug offenses. Drug consumption or possession is enough to be convicted and face a prison sentence. So often nights that start at Bassiani end at the police station – as ravers that leave the club have a chance of being chased down by the police to get their urine tested for traces of drugs.
So for a country that is homophobic, conservative, patriarchal and highly religious, Bassiani became a true headache to the system. For a social movement existing out of free, queer, rebellious bodies that unite under progressive values against oppression, form a threat to the power status-quo with their contradicting beliefs.
That leads us to May 2018. At the time parliament was in the midst of assessing how to make the country’s harsh drug laws more liberal. Suddenly an unidentified drug found its way into the country and left a few clubbers unconscious after a night out. Bassiani alarmed the Ministry of Internal Affairs and raised questions about a dangerous drug that circulated, but they got no response.
Eventually five deaths occurred because of the substance and right-wing politicians immediately linked them to Bassiani. Labour Party politician Shalva Natelashvili was on the news and posted a video of himself on Facebook in front of Bassiani framing the club as “the gate to death’’ and “a youngster’s butchery”. He urged “to arrest club owners, start an investigation and lock up the club”.
Then on May 12th, hundreds of armed police forces covered in balaclavas invaded cafe Gallery and club Bassiani. They aggressively arrested clubbers and held them at gun-point, they cleared the club, arrested the co-founders and eventually closed the club. The alleged purpose of the raids was to detain drug dealers in the clubs, however, later it was revealed that the eight suspects were already arrested outside of the clubs before the raids even took place.
That night, clubbers thought they were under a terrorist attack. However it soon became clear that it was the government that had opened an attack on people with progressive values. In response, thousands of ravers united in front of Georgia’s Parliament Building in what was later coined the ‘rave-o-lution’. For two days, DJs played music for ravers that chanted ‘We dance together, we fight together.’ Their dance, as a fight for freedom, for their club and against repressive police forces.
On the second day of the protests a counter-rally organized by hundreds of extreme-right neo-nazi’s showed up to protest against ‘drugs and LGBTQIA+ propaganda’. The rave-o-lution had to be de-escalated to keep the people safe and dancers were led through the parliament’s gates, after which buses picked them up.
Two days later, the Minister of Internal Affairs Giorgi Gakharia personally apologized for the police raids and made promises to discuss possible drug policy reform. A statement that was never followed up on.
Then two weeks later, Bassiani re-opened. But in the years after the raids, its club scene suffered traumatic, hard and stressful years and left the community with questions about how long it would take for the next attack to happen, Naja explains. “When we started to fight for a humane drug policy in Georgia, we already knew that something like this was going to happen. But we didn’t expect it to happen so soon. After the rave-o-lution it felt like everything was said and done, and still nothing changed. We searched for new ways to fight against the system, but we couldn’t find them because we were traumatized. It was really hard to be at Bassiani when we didn’t have anything new to say.’’
Meanwhile the relationship between the government and the clubs remained tense. “In 2018 the government realized they were fighting something that would be big,’’ David Lezhava – club culture advocate and middleman between clubs and politics – says. “Eventually the raids worked in the benefit of club culture, as the whole world suddenly had eyes on Georgia. More than 80 international media outlets wrote about the “rave-o-lution” and of course we used it in our advantage to strengthen our position.’’
But then the next disaster hit the electronic music scene hard. In 2020 the Covid-pandemic hit a country that already struggled economically. Due to their tense relationship with the authorities, no club in Tbilisi received support, let alone acknowledgement from the government. As a result clubs were barely able to pay their leases, and everything the clubs worked so hard for was about to vanish.
Naja and David – childhood friends – realized they had to do something to save Tbilisi’s nightlife. They set up the “Cultural and Creative Industries Union of Georgia’: a non-governmental and non-profit organization that exists out of a community of artists, producers and key stakeholders in the electronic music industry, with sole intent, to fight, protect and save the electronic music scene.
“The club scene’s input in the promotion of the country and its economical contribution to Georgia is huge, but we never got any credit for this,’’ David says. To prove its value and receive support, Naja and David went around the clubs to count the amount of taxes they had been paying. “We found out it was in tens of millions. We now had a leverage through which we could push them to give us support.’’
Finally in 2021, Tbilisi’s mayor publicly acknowledged club culture as important to the city of Tbilisi and gave two million laris (650,000 euros). The money was then distributed throughout the electronic music entities, artists and sector employees and ultimately saved the clubs.
After the pandemic, Tbilisi’s nightlife economy saw rapid growth. “Before the pandemic, we had less than 300 producers and DJs, after two years of shut-downs, it went north to 500. Many new clubs have opened, and nearly every bar now has vinyl decks, CDJs and a mixer. The amount of albums released has tripled and schools are filled with students studying light and sound engineering, DJing and graphic design. These two years of shut down forced people to rave harder I guess,’’ David says. “They realized that one day, everything could dissapear.’’
With the Russian invasion of Ukraine on the 24th of February 2022, this realization was amplified. The invasion has a direct effect on the country and its people, where – since Abkhazia and South Ossetia have been claimed and occupied by Russia – fear has ruled over another possible Russian attack. In response to the invasion, tens of thousands of Georgians demonstrated in front of parliament to show solidarity with Ukraine.
The protest quickly adopted an anti-government tone, as there was a lack of response to the Russian invasion. The Prime Minister eventually said it would not join the west on sanctions against Russia.
Over the course of years it has become clear to the Georgian people that they are run by a pro-Russian government, David explains. “In 2012 this new government came to power and it took us several years before people realized they were pro-Russian. The current ruling party ‘the Georgian Dream’ is formed by an oligarch who made his fortunes in Russia. Putin would never allow someone to leave Russia with billions unless they’ve got this back. When the entire world is fighting against Putin, and you do nothing, while you’re still occupied, it’s sort of shameful. We hate it.’’
Then in the first half of 2022, fears over what might happen to Georgia increased, as the European Union reviewed Georgia’s candidate status. Ever-important as – according to a poll by IRI Georgia – 85% of the population wants to become a part of the EU in a time where the country experiences increased Russian control and influence.
Finally on June 17th 2022, Georgia’s candidate status got deferred because of the European Commission’s concerns regarding Georgia’s democracy and the related Georgian Dream party, stating it should be ‘de-oligarchized’. A dark day for Georgia that left relations between the EU and Georgia deteriorating. Then on July third, 120.000 people protested on Tbilisi’s main street: Rustaveli Avenue, demanding the resignation of the Prime Minister. For the majority of the Georgian people, he had failed to make progress on reforms that could have led the country to become part of the EU, moving away from Moscow’s grip.
In late September, Russian men were mobilized to join the army. Many of them fled to Georgia and in spite of the tense relationship and history between the two countries, they were allowed into the country on a year-free visa basis. Where in 2008, the roads were crowded by Russian tanks to start a war in South-Ossetia, the same roads were now used by Russians escaping to the country by car.
“The government’s logic was that by not shutting the borders, it has helped Georgia to overcome a stagnant economic situation,’’ David says. “You have to consider, Georgia is an extremely poor country. The GDP per capita is less than 5000 dollars, which is muchy lower than anywhere in Europe. So our government hoped that by allowing Russians to come to Georgia, it would have jumpstarted some of the industries that lagged behind. There is also one more thing to consider, there are more Georgians living in Russia than in any other country. Closing down borders and being hostile with Russia, would have negatively impact those Georgians.’’
According to Reuters, Georgia became one of the fastest growing economies in Europe and Central Asia because of the influx of more than 112.000 Russians. However it has not impacted the country’s population necessarily positively, says David. “85% of our economy is composed of big corporations and now they are getting richer, whereas the small businesses make up the remaining 15%, and this is where most people are employed, and unfortunately they are getting poorer.”
On top of that, because of the influx of Russians, in 2022 alone, rents went up by 70% according to an analysis by TBC bank. A statement David takes into question: “Whatever percentage they say is true, in reality it is much bigger, in many cases it’s 100% or more. The office we have rented right before the war, we cannot get anything like it for the double price now. The inflow of so many Russians has made life so much harder for us. The costs are much higher because of the demand on the rental and purchase market, plus inflation, plus war. The average monthly wage here is around 1200 lari (420 euro), while the average rent is usually twice as much.’’
As a result, according to Eurasia many Georgians are dependent on income from members of their families, living outside of Georgia, a dependence that worries economists.
As prices have gone through the roof, it represents a huge blow for the electronic music industry, as festivals and clubs can’t match the rising costs by raising prices. “Despite the growth in the electronic music event attendance and ticket sales, we are actually making less net profit than before the pandemic,’’ David says.
Meanwhile, the energy in Georgia becomes more tense by the day. Many Georgians have to live together with people that occupy parts of their country. But also, many Georgians had to leave their apartment because of rising rents caused by the flood of Russians. And they now live with them, together with Ukrainians that fled from the Russian invasion in their country to start a new life in Tbilisi.
The walls of the city itself speak the tone or volume of its current political situation. Walking around Tbilisi, one can find anti-Russian slogans almost across every wall. Walking by them the next day, you can find them being crossed, and the next day the same slogan being cladded on them again. There are Ukrainian flags hanging all around the city. Enter a Georgian restaurant and find staff with Ukrainian flags pinned on their chests and both Club Gallery and Bassiani wave a huge Ukrainian flag in front of their clubs.
Inside of the clubs, the dance of the people changed. It is not so much a dance for free and progressive values anymore, but a dance that means one of escape and resembles a fight for survival. Naja explains. “Every day when you wake up, you don’t know what will happen next. We don’t know when the war will start here. Before the rave-o-lution it always felt – because of the drug policy, because of politics and other disasters – like every dance was a last dance. When we enter Bassiani now, it feels the same way, it feels like every night could be our last dance.’’
So it can be experienced on the dancefloors. The way dance is expressed in comparison to the west is unique in its way that it feels almost spiritual. Bodies dancing in an authentic and free way without conforming to stereotypical dance moves encourages others to explore the way they move their bodies. You can clearly see the dancefloor here is a necessity to escape, process feelings and all of the hardships. Each alone but doing so all together sharing transcendental energy in a somewhat ritualistic manner on the dancefloor. While in Bassiani people dance the night, morning and afternoon away, the last people can be found in Horoom, entranced and not wanting to leave the club until the day ends.
Another popular refuge for Tbilisi’s young generation, and a new face of the city’s electronic music scene is club ‘Left Bank’. The year-old club opened in October 2021 right next to the ever-emerging TES club beside the Mtkvari River. The club area is located on the premises of a former Soviet bread factory.
The outside area is centered around a giant cactus that finds itself in a plastic igloo. Its main venue has an industrial atmosphere with graffiti, neon signs, intense lights and the backdrop of a factory. While its second and smaller venue is often used for gigs, live concerts, (queer) movie screenings and talks about amongst others women’s rights.
”The boom we experienced in electronic music culture in Tbilisi is overwhelming,’’ says Nika, resident DJ and crew member at club Left Bank. “Right now, there is always space to hang everywhere, to dance, to release energy and to feel free in safe spaces. But the other side of the coin however is that hedonism itself became the only thing in life to do. Because the new generation doesn’t have anything other to do than clubbing. We’re locked in a circle of going to university, but also working hard to pay our unpayable rents.’’
Makuna, who is booker at Left Bank adds to this, “Renting a house or room in Amsterdam or Berlin costs around 800 euros. Because of all the Russians who moved to Georgia and began to buy and rent houses, the demand for housing increased, and prices are now comparable to those in the West. The government does not regulate it, and residents are forced to leave their homes. Students who come from the villages to study at the university have no place to live.’’
Ash, Resident DJ and crew member of club Left Bank explains his struggles with the current situation. “I’m a refugee from Abkhazia, my family lost everything when Russian backed separatists attacked. My mom took me through the mountains, we came to Tbilisi and struggled for at least 25 years. We lived off seven lari’s per month (three euros). Now refugees live on 40 lari’s per month (thirteen euros). Tell me who can live off 40 lari’s a week? Then imagine those people with money come to live in your country and you’re sitting in a restaurant and see them next to you demanding ‘the Russian menu’, it’s really hard to stay sane. It brings up so much emotions.’’
According to Makuna, many Georgians feel powerless in protesting against the current situation and the government because of the increasing Russian influence. “It’s always the same people who protest; it’s a small bubble of our community, and most Georgians are fine with it. They believe that if we begin to protest, war will break out and Putin will invade. I am 25 years old, and I can’t tell you how many protests I have attended, yet not much has changed.’’
“If we protest, we also need our elders to come with us,’’ Nika says. “But we have generations here who have seen it all. You have to understand the fear of those people. Inside the minds of oppressed generations, we have finally reached a place where there’s been an illusion of peace for at least a decade.’’
According to David, some people are also afraid of speaking out against the government. “They have bigger control over things here than anywhere in the world. As soon as someone wants to become political, they come out and they hit them heavily, just like in Russia. For example, one and a half years ago there were raids on LGBTQIA+ people, they attacked the Tbilisi pride office and beat up 55 journalists. The government did nothing. Georgia’s courts just also made it easier to listen to anybody and thus, they have dirt on everybody. If an activist speaks out, that activist’s cousin could be caught with a lot of drugs, and because there is no minimal quantity definition for 147 drugs, simply for a trace one could go to prison for up to twelve years. There has been no change in the drug laws, that’s why it’s not a democratic country. They have those laws to control people.’’
Makuna was one of those people that was followed by the police. “The man called me in the middle of the pandemic in 2020, two years after the pro-Bassiani protest, at a time when I had already left my job at Bassiani. He told me that the police had been monitoring my phone for three months in 2018 before closing down the Bassiani investigation. They didn’t tell me what they discovered or what they did with all the information they obtained. I was summoned to a police station to sign paperwork stating that I had been notified that I was under police surveillance.’’
For many Georgians protesting does not feel like enough as right now, no political party is picking up any agenda. Even when speaking about the opposition, David explains. “There are no political parties that we like to vote for. According to a recent poll, 54% of Georgians don’t vote because they don’t have a favorite politician to cast their vote for. It’s a weird relationship between Parliament and parties as well. If and when a new political group comes up, the ruling Georgian Dream party and the opposition will unite to overrule the new one. It’s nearly impossible to get out of this current political situation, we’re stuck in a circle.’’
According to Nika, the whole situation is the direct result as to why clubs have become so popular. “It’s difficult to comprehend how Tbilisi can boast such an overload of world-class nightclubs amidst the country’s poverty and corruption rates. Moreover, culturally, there isn’t much going on for young people in other parts of Georgia beyond the capital, which leads to an influx of people moving to Tbilisi for education or employment opportunities. As a result, the city’s population is rapidly increasing, with even more people coming in from Russia as a cherry on top. Given the ongoing shortage of basic needs, it’s a mystery how some people are able to afford to party on weekends, right? Meaning it’s naturally, economically not a party -only space.”
“For most locals, it’s become a churchlike place. When you don’t know what happens tomorrow; when you have society that wants one thing but a government that does something else; when you have a neighbor like Russia and their troops constantly moving the border; when there’s economic struggle, no equality and no job guarantee, all of those emotions boil inside of your head. So you go to a place where you can escape, you go to dance on your Friday night. Even if you don’t know if you can afford to go out next weekend. It’s a completely wild jungle, but they are the only spaces we trust and where we feel safe, where we can escape from it all and where we can meet friends and discuss.’’
“That’s why, as clubs, when you are the only trusted institution for a new generation: you have responsibility’’ – Nika
Nika’s vision for the club is therefore to create a place that’s not only an escape, but a place for activism and to raise awareness. “When something happens over here, it’s the clubs that start using their voice, not the government. That’s why those people that came here have hope, that when things get darker, the clubs will stand up for them. That’s why we want to create a more all-round program, to listen to new stuff, to talk about politics and society, and to watch a movie. We notice how the most meaningful political conversations happen in the club and this can create change. Conversations that are non existent in the media and in bars.’’
Another club on the forefront of changing attitudes and moving society is KHIDI. The club was established in 2016 under the Vakhushti Bagrationi bridge. The former garbage storage space was turned into a club that would literally become the bridge between music and dancers, local and international artists and between different groups in society, Sophie Ebralidze, representative of KHIDI explains.
‘’Our club is a space that can change a person’s attitude towards others. “We try to connect people in a safe space, despite their differences, gender, sexuality, ethnic background, religion or age. People gather, exchange, change their thoughts and think about issues that matter. After club nights, we believe people come out of the club more tolerant and understanding. With this we hope to influence a young generation to uphold our primary aim of remaining free people. As a multifunctional space, we also try to influence this through talks on different social topics.’’
So by 2023 in Georgia, clubs became the institutions that move society indirectly, fighting for progressive values, for survival, but also form a place for escape. They became the light in dark times. According to David, a lot of the young generation goes through this social filter, changing their minds and indirectly influencing society and politics in this way. “However, we need to do more than just activism, because it’s not doing enough right now.”
But this also presents danger for clubs. “These places are where a lot of activism is formed and where changes are initiated. That’s where young people start speaking out and this could be perceived as a threat by the government,’’ David says.
Naja feels that it’s becoming an even more dangerous situation for Tbilisi’s electronic music scene. “The smallest or tiniest mistake can be something that will shake us. Right now we are in the period where mistakes are not okay anymore, we are grown ups and everything is becoming more and more serious. You have to be careful as a club scene with which steps you make especially in this political climate. Because of this, these past years of Bassiani have taught me how to become a dancer and fighter at the same time. It has taught me to become more careful and responsible for your actions, and how to be diplomatic.’’
Under the current circumstances, somehow, people in Georgia remain calm and patient, Giorgi explains. “Georgians are very emotional-driven people. But since the start of the war, we have found this inner peace and patience. I don’t know how or why, but this is how we balance our minds and how we keep on running the club.’’
“It’s because we learned something in the past 35 years of turmoil,’’ Naja replies to Giorgi. “This calmness doesn’t mean we are indifferent. Instead we feel everything. Often we laugh when telling these stories, but maybe this is also our coping mechanism. We are in survival mode on a daily basis. The more time goes, the closer this war comes to us.”
“Maybe, this day will be tomorrow.’’ Giorgi adds. “Tomorrow we might wake up and something might happen.’’
“Maybe it’s not even right to think about the future of the electronic music scene, when the question is about the future of our lives” – Naja
For Naja, right now it’s the time for observation. “It’s not the time for a big protest after the pandemic and the war. Maybe this is the calm before the storm. So right now we observe, we look, and maybe these last ten years were exactly meant for this moment. To study for this state of being. Maybe we are also waiting for some point or something – I don’t know how to name it where… we can turn it all around. We are waiting for the right moment and building momentum.’’
“Society is so polarized, but at the very critical moment, the aim and will of society is absolutely different. It will be the opposite of the Russian and the regressive system. We know the power of the people, we have tested it already – if we know one thing that already changes the status quo – if we feel that there is something, some change that really drives us to Russia, then the people will act. Because we saw it six months ago, it was the biggest demonstration ever. It was a pro-Ukrainian demonstration, some weeks before EU candidate status was discussed. Everyone took to the streets then. It means the people are on this side. They know now.’’
On March 2nd, 2023, the Georgian Dream attempted to pass a law similar to that of Russia’s ‘Foreign Agents’ law.
The bill stated organizations could be classified as Foreign Agents if they receive more than 20% of their funding from outside of Georgia. A danger to civil organizations, NGO’s and independent media outlets, as they often receive support from abroad. The bill was an attempt to repress media outlets that criticize the government and limited funding of these organizations would lead Georgia further away from the EU.
According to Giorgi, the government put millions into propaganda to present certain NGOs, media and civil society organizations as anti-national forces. “They hoped that this propaganda would work and they thought that Georgian society would go against these organizations, but they became the victims of their own propaganda.”
Then, a protest broke out. While just 200 to 300 people were rallying, one of the pro-Russian ruling party’s propagandists wrote “Cowards, you are only with a few,” Giorgi tells. “They thought this was going to be it.”
But Naja’s statement about waiting for the right moment – if we know one thing that already changes the status quo – if we feel that there is something, some change that really drives us to Russia, then the people will act – proved right. For days, thousands took to the streets, protesting against the government in front of the Parliament and claiming Rustaveli Avenue.
“It was like a protest choreography, a war game. The police tried to end the demonstrations by using teargas and water cannons. But we learned how to deal with the gas. When the water cannons hit protestors, they danced in the water, waving Georgian and European flags. Some people were throwing Molotov cocktails, while others were putting police cars on fire. Two minutes later, they danced to the sirens of those cars. Dance was used as a means of protest and all of us spent the whole night over there. We never left the demonstrations until the very last minute’’ – Giorgi
In reaction to the protests, club culture was once again targeted, as one of the pro-Russian politicians said it was the ravers of Bassiani who were behind the protest.
In spite of not having initiated the protest, Tbilisi’s club scene proved its strength, as by the end of the night it was mostly people who come to the club, that were protesting. “All of the people we see on our dancefloor, were at the protests,” Giorgi says.
On March 10, 2023, after days of riots, the discussion over the bill was officially retracted. However, the fight for the free people of Georgia against its pro-Russian government continues.
In 2024, Georgia sees its new elections. An important moment for the future of the country, as Georgia currently finds itself on the crossroads between Moscow and Europe. In spite of the majority of the people feeling like they don’t have anyone to vote for, governmental reform and moving away from the pro-Russian ruling party is the hope for many Georgians. In this process, the clubs remain of importance to mobilize a young generation, change attitudes and therewith other generations to change society and move towards progressive values and systemic change that will lead to a future with Europe.
In the meantime, the dance of the Georgians continues.
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