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Club At Center Of Tbilisi Raids Mixes Raves, Social Change In Conservative Georgia

Street protests in Tbilisi earlier this month were sparked by police raids on two popular nightspots -- Club Bassiani and Café Gallery.

In the concrete maze that runs beneath Georgia's national football stadium, thumping music provides the pulse for hundreds of partygoers at Bassiani, the biggest techno club in Tbilisi.

It's also the soundtrack for social change at a club that has elevated partying to a political statement against a deeply rooted conservatism that dominates life above ground.

Founded in 2014 by a trio of friends who got their start arranging parties together, Bassiani has gained a reputation as one of the world's hotbeds for underground music and all-night raves.

But just as noteworthy, it's somewhere younger Georgians have come to know as a place to make a stand against increasingly strict drug policies and societal prejudices toward homosexuality and other human rights issues.

That's why a police raid in the early hours of May 12, officially aimed at arresting drug dealers, touched off a wave of street protests and demands that the Interior Ministry change its approach to antidrug efforts, which critics say are misguided and heavy-handed.

Georgian Police Raid On Clubs Triggers Protests
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"Bassiani, and generally the Tbilisi clubbing scene, has become one of the biggest bridges to the West," club co-founder Tato Getia, who was arrested during the raid and later released, tells RFE/RL.

"It's troubling that our government does not wish to understand our new generations or open up to them, but instead it is fighting an open war with them."

Police say the raids, carried out by special forces equipped with automatic weapons, were prompted by the recent deaths of at least five young people who are thought to have taken drugs while out clubbing.

Eight alleged drug dealers were arrested in the raids at Bassiani and another club, Café Gallery, two of Tbilisi's most-renowned nightspots at the heart of an explosion of techno culture that has attracted club-goers from around the world.

Bassiani said in a statement a week before the raids that "none of the tragic deaths occurred" at the club and that the accusations by authorities were part of an "endless smear campaign" by right-wing political forces to discredit the club.

Divisive Issue

The decriminalization of some recreational drugs has become a central demand of Georgian political parties, but the issue has divided a society caught in a tug-of-war between its past and its preferred future.

Georgia, which is strategically important for the West and is crisscrossed with pipelines carrying Caspian oil and gas to Europe, has pushed hard for greater political and economic integration with the European Union and other Western structures.

Clubs such as Bassiani, named after a 13th-century battle essential to Georgian independence, are now the front line for the generation to emerge since the country regained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

Bassiani has an official capacity of 700 people, though on a typical Friday night as many as 1,000 partiers make their way through the passageways until they arrive at its drained Soviet-era Olympic-sized swimming pool. There, they gyrate to the pounding beats spun by DJs until the sun rises the next day.

WATCH: Revelers At Club Bassiani

Mariam Bajelidze, a 25-year-old company director who frequents the club regularly, says the culture of clubbing in Georgia grew out of the repression of Soviet times, where even wearing jeans was a political statement.

"We have the aspiration to be free and to listen to music, to dance and express ourselves and not beat or oppose others," she says.

Bassiani "has prospered and it has become something that the whole world, especially Western Europe, has talked about a lot because it's something that has given the Georgian youth a place to express themselves freely without repercussions about their orientation or about their views, be it political, religious or anything," Bajelidze adds.

Harsh Laws

Drug laws in former Soviet countries tend to be much harsher than in Western Europe, even in places such as Georgia, where most people strive toward political integration with the West.

Amid frequent protests in 2015, Georgia's Constitutional Court declared imprisonment for possession of 69 grams of cannabis or less unconstitutional.

A year later, the Constitutional Court ruled imprisonment for possession and consumption of any amount of cannabis unconstitutional.

But politicians have failed to keep pace with legal rulings.

In March, parliament once again postponed consideration of a package of amendments on drug-policy legislation.

Looming large over almost every debate in Georgia is the Orthodox Church. Most of the South Caucasus nation's 5 million people consider themselves Orthodox Christians, and the 85-year-old Patriarch Ilia II commands widespread respect.

Georgia's Patriarch Ilia II (file photo)
Georgia's Patriarch Ilia II (file photo)

He used his Christmas message in January to urge the government to do more to prevent young people from sliding into drug addiction, calling it a disease. He urged the government "to work out new drug policies that would prevent young people from using drugs and create a negative attitude toward that dire disease."

In a nod to both sides of the argument, Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili said in a statement on April 13 that he would try "hard so that we may have a model acceptable to the country, first of all, and designed to decrease drug abuse, also softening the state's harsh treatment of drug addicts and, at the same time, declaring uncompromising war on illegal drug trade."

'Below Our Standards'

In the meantime, while Bassiani remains closed, club life in Tbilisi has returned at other venues with an added electricity in the air as partiers await the next steps in their protests.

In a sign of how deep tensions are running since the club raids in the Georgian capital, LGBT groups canceled a planned celebration of the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia (IDAHOT) on May 17 after far-right activists announced their intention to hold a simultaneous counterdemonstration as part of "family sanctity day," which is supported by the Georgian Orthodox Church.

Orthodox 'Family Sanctity' March Held In Georgia
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The umbrella group Equality Movement said it nixed the rally in part because of recent developments and social tensions caused by the police raids.

Otar Burkiashivili, a 26-year-old editor at an electronics magazine who witnessed what he calls the exercising of "unconditional power" during last weekend's raids, says the positive changes clubbing has brought to Georgian society "should be welcomed and not discriminated against."

"This is not about protecting criminals; this is not about protecting drug dealers. This is about protecting basic human rights, and what I witnessed there and the response that the protests have gotten from our politicians is not enough," he says. "It's below our standards, it's below what we expect from our government."

With reporting in Tbilisi by RFE/RL Georgian Service correspondents Sophie Vasadze and David Koridze