The government said the raids on May 12th targeted drug dealers, in response to at least five recent drug-related deaths. Yet the standoff, Mr Chaladze says, is about something bigger: a struggle between Georgian traditionalists and a growing movement of social liberals in Tbilisi. (Both tendencies are represented inside the ruling party, Georgian Dream.) A new, Westernised generation “want to express themselves not only by dancing, but through different lifestyles,” says Ghia Nodia, a professor of politics at Ilia State University in Tbilisi. “It’s not a teenage rebellion stage—they are beyond that.”
Many young people in Georgia saw the raids as an assault on their culture. The clubs have become islands of tolerance for nonconformists, sexual and otherwise, in a country that remains prudish and patriarchal. Just hours after the raids, thousands gathered outside the Georgian parliament to protest under the slogan “We Dance Together, We Fight Together”, demanding the resignation of the interior minister and prime minister, along with reform of the country’s harsh drug laws. The march turned into a rave that ran through the weekend, with loudspeakers on the steps of parliament filling the street with house and techno music. “It felt like Paris must have in ’68, just without the clashes,” says Mariam Pesvianidze, a filmmaker.
On Sunday afternoon, counter-protesters with shaved heads arrived, wearing masks, to spoil the fun. “Bassiani and Gallery are gay clubs, where drugs are being sold and the youth are recruited in illegal activities,” said Dimitri Lortkipanidze, a leader of Georgian March, an ultranationalist group. With the country “on the cusp of civil confrontation”, as President Giorgi Margvelashvili later put it, police separated the groups. The interior minister came out to apologise for the police brutality, quelling the protests—for now.
The clubbers have allies. Tourism is a fast-growing industry in Georgia, generating nearly 7% of GDP in 2017. The government promotes Georgia as a hip destination for millennials, and Tbilisi’s nightlife is “part of the experience”, says Maia Sidamonidze, a former head of Georgia’s national tourism administration. Bassiani has been hailed by Resident Advisor, a trend-setting music website, as one of the world’s best clubs, drawing comparisons to Berghain in Berlin. After the raids, support poured in from DJs who have played there. “Bassiani stay strong!” wrote Ben Klock, a German techno artist.
Some in the government have warmed to the club culture. Tbilisi’s new mayor, Kakha Kaladze, a former footballer for AC Milan, campaigned on backing clubs and has established an official post for developing the nightlife economy. (Some think the raids were a message to Mr Kaladze from rivals inside Georgian Dream.) The son of Bidzina Ivanishvili, Georgia’s richest oligarch and de facto leader, is a rapper who advocates liberalising drug laws; the day after the raids, he released a new song called “Legalise”. Coincidentally, hours before the raids Mr Ivanishvili, who had long ruled the country from the shadows, took back the post of chairman of the Georgian Dream party.
Video of the rave spread internationally on social media, especially in the former Soviet Union. Sergii Leshchenko, a reformist MP in Ukraine whose wife is a popular DJ, called it “an example of how sovok (the Soviet mindset) has been definitively defeated in the heads of the young generation” in Georgia. Some Russian liberals admired their bravery. “If thousands of people had started a rave outside the Duma, the consequences would have been grim,” says Elena Gracheva, a Muscovite who was visiting when the protests erupted.
In Tbilisi, activists have threatened to return to the streets if officials do not liberalise drug policy and allow the clubs to reopen. The battle, like the music, looks set to go on.