PublishedWed, May 23, 2018, 13:35
- Earlier this week, the Tbilisi club's founders told RA about their experience in the police raids and how the government held the club "hostage."
Bassiani will reopen today as its owners regain control of the Tbilisi club after the Georgian government has ended its investigation.
Today, Tato Getia and Zviad Gelbakhiani have confirmed to Resident Advisor that the club is no longer being held "hostage" by authorities: "The club is back! We are more than happy, we're inside the club!" Imedi News reported this news Wednesday, after first reporting that Café Gallery reopened on Tuesday.
This positive news comes after an uncertain period for the club while the government conducted ambiguous investigations since the May 12th police raids. Earlier this week, RA's Will Lynch spoke to co-founder Tato Getia about Bassiani's uncertain future and warned about the possibility of closure: "If they won't give us the club back in the first week of June, we will be forced to close. We cannot cancel so many events, we cannot hold the financial operations, we can't be in this mode forever. ... After the first meeting with minister, they said we'd have the club back in one week. After that, they said two or three weeks. Then they said another two or three weeks, in order to say they're still holding an investigation. If they continue like this, we can't do it. ... It will be a political thing. We will say we closed because there's no point in doing business in this country."
While Bassiani's future is less in jeopardy, for now, Getia's personal account points to larger, ongoing problems within the Georgian club scene. Read more of the Bassiani founder's conversation with Will Lynch from Monday. They discuss the government's investigation (or lack thereof), the possible unofficial reasons behind the militant club raids and the prevailing drug narrative.
How are you doing out there?
[Laughs.] Next question! I don't know. It's crazy over here. There's almost no time to sleep. We don't have any information about when we'll get the club back. We cancelled all of May, but we can't keep waiting weekend to weekend. So we cancelled May, and nobody knows what's happening in June. It's crazy, crazy, really crazy. They're holding the club as a hostage. Definitely.
Did they take your license away?
No, the police are saying it's under investigation, so it's closed. But the reality is that there is no investigation going in the club. Just a couple occasional security sitting outside the club, and nothing happening inside.
So it doesn't seem like they're legitimately conducting an investigation.
No, I'm totally sure they're holding it as a hostage. At some point they have to make a decision, and it's a political decision. They are themselves into chaos.
They're into chaos?
Yeah, you know, the whole Georgian government, not just in this case. The level of unprofessionalism and the level of people not qualified to do their jobs is super high. In every field there's the same problem, they fuck up some stuff, they can't make decisions, and everything is on hold. The same goes here.
If you want the story, I'll tell you the story. In the last few months, there was already this big campaign from pro-Russian media, on Facebook, everything, people saying clubs—and especially Bassiani—is a place for fucked up people, drugged people, gay people. You know, all this bullshit. This campaign against the club was huge in the last few months. So now it seems it was not random, it was well-planned. Also, a couple months ago, on the market, there arose a new substance, which, in total, killed five people. We still don't know what it was, but people were taking the substance, going home, sleeping and dying in their sleep. They died in their homes, none were in clubs. But it also doesn't matter where a person dies, the main thing is that it's a tragedy.
As soon as the first death occurred, we put out a note with White Noise Movement, an alarm post saying that there's a new substance on the market, it's deadly, so people should be careful. We were the first ones to spread the information. Today, we still have no answer from the minister of interior affairs and their expertise as to what this substance was. This ministry, or the Ministry Of Health, in a normal government, they're obligated to spread this information. We don't have this information, and you know why? I got this answer directly from the guy who conducted the raid at Bassiani. The real reason they don't give us the information is, they said, spreading information about a substance is kind of propaganda of drug users. If you're saying that one thing is bad, then that means others are good.
Also, last year, a girl died at a festival—a tragic death. Even that case is still not understood. So, if this is not done on purpose, then the interior ministry is leaving its citizens alone to die.
Because of these harsh drug laws, we were always alert, always [monitoring] that people were not selling in the clubs. Artists would come and ask for a line or two, and we would not have anything for them, because we are totally distant from the whole drug thing in this country. We are confident that there is no drug dealing at Bassiani on a big scale. On a small scale, there could be some cases. For example, in a big group of friends, one of them could be buying for the others and then giving these pills to his friends in the club. On a very small scale, that could be real.
So, what happened. The Ministry Of Internal Affairs said they were conducting an investigation for three, four or five months into drug dealers. But under this investigation, they only caught eight dealers. All of the dealers were caught somewhere in the streets, not in the territory of the clubs. But they still thought it was valid to make a raid in the clubs, with machine guns, with a whole SWAT team. The whole [nearby] Dinamo Stadium was circled with a SWAT team, and maybe 200 special forces entered the club. When I asked people who were inside what they thought in the first seconds [of the raid], they thought it was a terrorist attack. So, it's very clear that this was not an operation against drug dealers, this was a political act. There are no questions about that.
You want to know the super, super interesting thing? The eight drug dealers they caught, the substances they had with them and at their homes, did not go over 2000 lari, which is about €700 or €800. The only solid thing this ministry has is the head of security at Café Gallery was selling drugs in bigger amounts—but even this guy was caught outside of the club. It was very clear that there was no need to do such an operation, and that this was a political act.
There are many interpretations about why this could've happened. In the days before the operation, people were saying the club was owned by Bera Ivanishvili, a former prime minister's son and popstar. Just a few days before the operation, Mikheil Saakashvili, the previous president, published a post saying [Bassiani] is owned by Bera Ivanishvili, and there is drug dealing there. In response, Bera Ivanishvili made a big post that he doesn't own the club and demands an investigation into this. In the next few days, this operation happened.
That's the second scenario. There's a third scenario that could be the most valid. In the last years, this scene, this culture, became really, really strong. It got more and more people involved. We did more than three demonstrations in the street, bringing more than 10,000 people. Maybe the government thought they did not want such a strong power in the country. They hate this young generation, they hate their values, they hate this development that's going on.
There is really not even a little clue that this was a raid against drug dealers. I repeat, all those small drug dealers were captured outside the club before the operation. Where are the big drug dealers? Where is the source? Such an operation against peaceful people, peaceful citizens... I know perfectly that lots of policemen are themselves involved in drug dealing. There are a lot of questions.
So, what happened after [the raid]? I was not in the club when this happened. When I heard about it, I went there really quickly. Dinamo Stadium was surrounded with special forces.There were lots of people outside, and more people were coming because as they heard about [the raids] and they were coming to support [the club]. All these people were peaceful, but as they were protesting, police started to arrest people. In that night, they arrested over 70 people, including me and Zviad [Gelbakhiani]. And police were, on purpose, arresting people who were leaders, who were known, who people would follow. In this way, they wanted to kill the demonstration. This was direct heat.
As you know, the next day we did this demonstration on Rustaveli [Avenue]. There were over 10,000 people; there were speeches and also a rave. On the second day, these fascists did a counter-demonstration. There are lots of interpretations. Those guys could be controlled by the ministry or some other law enforcement group. Or, they could have organized it themselves. But they were aggressive, and there was a straight-up clash. The minister [of internal affairs] came out the next day from the back door of parliament to meet the organizers. He asked us to stop the demonstration for that day because there was a threat of civil clash. That's another point: the government cannot take responsibility on themselves to protect our freedom of speech, they had to put the responsibility on us. On the other hand, we felt that responsibility, unlike them, and we didn't want any of our friends or our people to get harmed or even killed, so we took, in my opinion, the only rational and logical decision to stop the demonstration. But then the minister had to speak and say this to the people himself. His speech started with, "We're sorry." Then he promised that he would take the responsibility for what happened on May 12th, and that they would renew talks about drug policy reform. And we [were expected to] stop the demonstration.
As time passed, it was obvious that this "sorry" was for nothing. The club is still closed, we're making really big losses, we can't pay the rent, we can't pay the salaries. Two days after the demonstration, there was a meeting in the ministry, and the minister himself told me several times, very clearly, that they have confirmed 100% that none of the Bassiani owners or people connected to Bassiani were, in any sense, involved in drug dealing. But when he speaks to the public, his words are different. He says the investigation is still going on, when really there is no investigation. The club is still closed.
This garbage toward the club is still continuing. [The government's narrative is] working on the public really well. It's really easy, in such a conservative country, to put mud on a place by saying things like, we're promoting LGBTQ people, we're promoting drug usage. This propaganda still continues.
The minister told parliament the main sources of drugs in the country are three points: Ponichala (where there are lots of bad drugs and it's really problematic), the internet and clubs. That's another huge hit. Everybody knows clubs were not the source of drug dealing. To put them on the same level as Ponichala and the internet was the ugliest thing he could say. This was on purpose, a continuation of the propaganda.
Another point from this speech in parliament: At one point he held a map and said that the drugs are coming from Europe. All the drugs these days in Tbilisi, including this new substance, are sold by Russian websites. The sites are in Russian, and all these substances in Tbilisi are very, very dirty. They are definitely coming from Russia. That's why one of my scenarios is a Russian scenario. [The minister] is demonizing the West, demonizing Europe, but these drug websites are Russian. The system of paying in bitcoin and leaving drugs somewhere in the city is a Russian system. Why should Ponichala or the internet or clubs be held accountable for drugs, when of course their only point of entry is the border? Who controls the border?
I'm in shock, I'm really in shock. In the last years, this scene is what made the country famous. And this scene is what the younger generation holds as something precious for them. Not only Georgians in Georgia, but Georgians all over the world. To do such an intentional attack on the scene is unspeakable, it's unimaginable. I really don't have words.
I have some other details. On that night, I told you police caught 70 people. If you take those people and put them in jail for a night, is that not repression? Then what is this? 70 people in one night, they were not violent, and they're put in jail. This is repression.
In 2017, by official statistics, police caught 3,000 users, and only ten drug dealers. It's obvious the system is fighting against users and not dealers. This is a big, big thing to notice that they themselves are the dealers.
In the night of these operations, police also raided a bar close to Café Gallery called Glow Bar. They didn't have the authorization to raid it, they just thought it was Café Gallery. You realize how stupid this is.
Would you say this is part of an ongoing culture war?
Yeah! They've shifted public opinion, they've demonized clubs with this act. Before, public opinion was leaning toward drug reform, now it's not. It was against the movement because it was getting strong, and we were not just fighting drug policy. We were also fighting for many social things, maybe it was an attack against all this. I don't know, we only have interpretations. But what's a fact is that it was on purpose. It was not an attack against drug dealers or drugs, but a political act against the club.
It's crazy, it's not explainable, it's stupid... It's evil. I think it's one of the blackest marks in the last 27 years, since the independence of Georgia. We have worldwide shame. We say our main income as a country is tourism, and this is how we treat our tourists? The first guests at Bassiani are tourists, and locals come at 2 or 3 AM. When they did this operation, 100 people were inside the club—70 of them were tourists. Can you imagine how shocked they were?
Is it normal for the police to behave this way, or is it extreme?
No, for the police it's not out of the ordinary. One of the main things we fight against, that this movement fights against, is that we do not want to live in a police regime. The law enforcement (and the Ministry Of Internal Affairs) is the strongest institution in the country, and their methods are the most evil. We don't want to live in such [an evil] place. Maybe all this is connected: drug policy, new movements, new values, the young generation. They are working for the people, but they are also working against the people. That is their agenda, and in a sense it has always been like this. I told you, last year, 3,000 users arrested for low dosages, and only ten drug dealers. The drug policy, this is their tool to be repressive, to fight against the people.
Interview slightly edited for clarity.
Photo credit: Anders Mattson