Clubland in Tbilisi comes under threat and it’s about more than your right to party

Club culture in Europe has been severely rocked by yet another incident in which a government has exacted its force on the electronic music- and club community.

This weekend in Georgia, Tbilisi Bassiani / Horoom and Café Gallery, two prominent institutions in the club community in Georgia were raided by armed police as a response to an alleged five drug deaths occurring at those venues in the last two weeks; claims Bassiani have openly denied.

60 people were reportedly arrested in connection with these raids including club co-founders Tato Getia and Zviad Gelbakhiani. It came at a time when Georgia’s controversial zero-tolerance drug policies were coming under review, and which the recent drug deaths had postponed till the next year. In response to the raid, the activist group White Noise, which shares a close relationship with Bassiani, held a peaceful protest with DJs and a soundsystem in front of the Georgian parliament with “thousands” of protesters in attendance dancing to Techno and House music supplied by local DJs, Ateq, Sa Pa and DJ Dustin.

The protest went on for two days, with several counter-demonstrations by nationalists and  social conservatives, including the neo-Nazi youth group Georgian Unity, springing up in opposition, forcing the police to impose a barricade between the two factions. The protest carried on with only isolated incidents (70 demonstrators were detained) and eventually dispersed when the minister of internal affairs addressed the crowd in a statement, apologising for “endangering the security” of the clubgoers through these police raids, and pledging a full investigation into the incident.

“Altogether eight persons, seven men and one woman, were arrested in police raids Friday night for ‘dealing narcotics’“ reports Democracy & Freedom watch on Monday the 15th, but its reported that the club-founders were not amongst these and its still unclear what this means for the future of Bassiani, Cafe Gallery and Tbilisi’s club community.

This latest Georgian incident is indicative of a trend in which conservative governments all over Europe are currently focussing their attention on club culture as a consequence of various different policies; chief amongst them their ongoing war on drugs. In one of the most publicised cases, Fabric lost their license in 2016, before having to compromise with the authorities, who reluctantly let the club stay open under some very strict conditions.

Here in Oslo, we’ve seen Blå suffer a similar fate, and in the more severe cases we saw Naboens Techno Kjelleren and Redrum completely disappear from the scene, with authorities revoking Techno Kjelleren’s license and not allowing Redrum to go ahead through mounting pressure on the host venue. Even Berghain has come under threat from a rogue far-right proposition to curtail the club’s opening hours. That proposition came from the right-wing nationalist German party AfP and as the third largest political party in Germany, it’s no mere empty threat.

Although in that case the proposal was quickly withdrawn – even the nationalist know where their bread is buttered in Berlin –  it is part of a growing trend of conservative views in Europe currently swayed by a populist right-wing factions in governments and it’s creeping in all over Europe. 

In 2017 Bloomberg reported that “support for populist radical-right parties is higher than it’s been at any time over the past 30 years”, and that support for these parties are growing rapidly across the map. With prominent seats in governments all across the continent, they are able to affect change at a political level that keeps enforcing archaic policies and as a consequence club culture is under threat as the unsubstantiated harbinger of drug dealers and illicit nocturnal activities officially, but unofficially, as a safe space for people that don’t confirm to their traditional views.

Bassiani and Café Gallery have openly supported the LGBTQ community and in a country where “homosexuality is still considered a major deviation from highly traditional Orthodox Christian”, it is almost certainly a contributing factor to what happened in Tbilisi this weekend. In our article last year with some of the DJs at Bassiani Tornike Kvanchiani (Kvanchi) claimed that homophobia is still common amongst “80% of the people” in Georgia, and since Bassiani’s second room Horoom was specifically established in response to the homophobic threat in the city, you can’t just simple ignore that this might have been a factor to that raid.

On the face of it this might look like the unbridled actions of a drug policy, but lurking in the shadows and in the subtext is an attack on a way of life; a way of life that doesn’t conform to a populist right wing’s traditions and the conservative, antiquated views of policy makers.

If indeed it was all about drug policy, arresting 8 low-level drug dealers (if they were even that) at a club is not really getting the message across. You want to fight drugs, do it with knowledge. Drug testing has proven to work in Amsterdam and it might have saved the lives of those in Georgia who were poisoned through an unknown substance, possibly contained within narcotics they ingested. If it was about drugs, why arrest both club founders in full view of the media, just to release them a few hours later? To me it seems they were trying to make a point, as if to say “your lifestyle will not be tolerated”.

Tbilisi and White Noise’s response to the incident was sheer brilliance. A peaceful rally through music and dancing is always going to be hard to vilify. And even when a few far-right factions showed up, threatening violence and disorder, White Noise and Tbilisi hardly flinched and carried on to prove that the community poses absolutely no threat in open view of the world’s media and Europe’s clubbing community gathered in support behind them on social media.

In Norway the social media channels were saturated with support, but in that I couldn’t help but feel a slight air of hypocrisy. When Redrum were shut down before it even happened there was little support in the same way and as Naboens Techno Kjelleren were forced to close recently, an isolated blog post marks the grave where it died a senseless death. When Blå was threatened, yes we all stood behind it and public opinion swayed policy, but it’s not just about an isolated incident and where we kept Blå, we’re still struggling with an unwarranted police presence at events and unnecessary checkups from the authorities, checkups bordering on harassment.  

But when I asked a prominent Norwegian Techno DJ, why it seems that the authorities are currently persecuting Techno music, that question remained unanswered. Whether it’s fear of personal oppression or just a disinterest in that topic, it shows conformity to the status quo, like some some warm, comfortable numbness that comes just before you freeze to death. 

In the Bloomberg article about the populist right’s momentum in 2017 one of the regions that are doing well in that regard was reported to be Eastern Europe. No surprise there, I hear you say and with good reason, but what if I told you that the region leading from Eastern Europe is none other than Scandinavia. Have we become so placid in a region of fiscal prosperity and the lap of luxury that we are willing to completely ignore the conservatism affecting our very way of life. 

Yes we’ve had early closing times for a while now, and the state has always imposed a kind of will on its people when it comes to alcohol consumption, which indirectly affects the community, but when you are living in a city where it’s nigh impossible to book a hip hop artist or host a techno event, and the third most popular party is the right wing party FrP shouldn’t that be cause for concern? Who is the state to decide what music you should listen to and how should spend your free time?

While we all like to think that we’re living in the cozy lap of liberalism in Scandinavia, we’re clearly not and you just need to observe the trend in which venues and club events with certain music policies have been persecuted in very recent memory.

Th trend extends to Sweden where Into the Valley was shut down last year by the police; it jets off to the UK where Fabric came under pressure and places like Dance Tunnel were forced close. It even stretches to Ibiza, that mecca of clubbing where police have raided Amnesia, Pacha and Privilege as part of a tax fraud investigation that very possibly conceals other motives too.

What happened in Tbilisi is just another event in a long line of incidents that suggest club culture is under a very real threat from influential right-wing policies in Europe. Yes, all these incidents have different reasons. Some are the result of drug policies, some are safety concerns and some are under the pretence of tax fraud, but they’re all very specific in their target, clubs and the club community.

If paying your taxes were such a real concern, why not challenge tax haven policies that deprive nations of taxes in the billions, rather than look for a couple hundred thousand stashed away in a wall. If safety and human life was such a concern, why are we letting people perish at sea for the sake of retaining some foolish idea of a national identity. If drugs are such a concern, why go after eight dealers rather than their suppliers.

These apparent reasons to their actions hide something more sinister and dangerous behind it. For me it seems to be an attack on the free and liberal ideologies that club culture promotes. The club space is the last vestige of a truly free and safe space, for people that don’t conform to the “idealised norms” of a conservative society. Even the internet can’t claim to be the liberal space it once intended to be  as everything we do is monitored and, it turns out, exploited. The club might be the last bastion free from conservative views and this is coming under threat under what is almost a populist right-wing status quo in Europe, if the statistics are correct.

What happened in Bassiani and Cafe Galleri and Tbilisi is part of a larger trend of traditionalist and conservatives currently imposing their ideology on European governments. In the age of Brexit and president Trump this threat can no longer be ignored and perhaps for our generation the only way we can affect a change is to keep club culture alive and kicking.

Dancing to music in a club is so much more than your right to party, it’s a political statement, and we will dance with Tbilisi, not just in their fight, but in a show of solidarity to any opposition that wants to suppress anybody;’s inalienable right to dance, whatever their reasons.