In the heart of Tbilisi, not far from luxury hotels and high-end shops, lie dingy, Soviet-era catacombs that serve as everything from a public urinal and dumpster to the capital’s alleged epicenter of sex tourism.
Ensconced in this multi-level, concrete arcade are largely Middle Eastern-run nightclubs that feature images of scantily clad women portrayed alongside Iranian, Turkish and Emirati flags. This seedbed of vice recently was thrust into the public spotlight due to reports that the nightclubs had supposedly imposed a de facto ban on Georgian men.
Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili vowed to crack down on the clubs’ alleged foreign-men-only admissions policy. “We are facing a discriminatory practice there, for, as far as I know, local men are not allowed in these establishments. Unfortunately, they only let the [local] ladies in,” Kvirikashvili said during a cabinet meeting in January.
He called on the Interior Ministry and his human rights aide to look into the matter, and make sure the nation’s anti-discrimination laws are enforced. “We need neither the tourists nor the income that spurn our laws,” he said.
The outburst raised eyebrows across Georgia. Few expected the head of government to weigh in on the matter of who enjoys access to which strip club, especially given the many weightier issues that ought to warrant government attention, including ongoing economic problems and the Russian occupation of Georgian territories.
Political opponents criticized what they depicted as a populist stunt by Kvirikashvili. Social media responded with memes portraying the premier as a hard partier. “You can take our money and lands, but you can never take our right to a strip club,” went one joke.
To human rights activists, Kvirikashvili’s fulminations missed the point about the real problem – the dark world of sex trafficking and violence against women. “It is just ludicrous that the minister is discussing with a straight face the troubles that Georgian men may face when trying to receive sexual services – we all know what’s going on in those places,” said Baia Pataraia, a prominent women’s rights activist and director of a women’s shelter, Sapari.
After the brouhaha erupted, Kvirikashvili addressed the issue again and tried to explain that he is primarily worried about prostitution, which is allegedly rampant in the clubs. Critics, though, were not placated and insist that the government lacks the vision to address the sex trade and concomitant crimes.
Watchdogs say that sex workers are highly vulnerable to violence and abuse: if they are victimized by crime, they often do not go to the police, and, even if they do, police officers often do not take their complaints seriously.
Police officers often are the abusers, according to Tamar Dekanosidze, a legal analyst of Georgian Young Lawyer’s Association. “We’ve had several focus group discussions with sex workers, and most of them reported being subjected to physical violence, often repeatedly,” Dekanosidze said. Violence mainly comes from clients, police and family members, in that order, she said.
Down in the bowels of the city, bar owners ardently deny the existence of either prostitution or discrimination. But nobody is willing to speak on the record.
Barrel-chested security guards insist that all club activity is above board. Privately they say that they judge guests based solely on their perceived potential for making trouble, and claim they only turn down “neighborhood boys” who show up intoxicated and spoiling for a fight.
On close inspection, however, there seems to be at least some truth to both the discrimination and sex-trade accusations. By night, the waves of Middle Easterners – all spiky hair, carefully contoured goatees and eyebrows – eddy back and forth through the stygian, underground maze. Only an occasional Georgian customer is sighted. At the top level, past heaps of garbage and putrid odors, are bars like Otantik (Turkish for authentic). More clubs are found a level below, including “Tehran’s Nights” and “Laila” – self-described Iranian disco clubs – and “Karadeniz” (Turkish for the Black Sea). Many of these places offer free entry and one free drink for women.
“My job is to work the clients: make sure that they order as many drinks as possible,” said Maka, a thirty-something Georgian dancer, who spends her nights bar-hopping in the underground and in its environs. “I do karaoke and dance with the clients, and I get a share of what they spend.” She claims she never has sex with clients, but that “other girls do.”
“The Georgians tend to have fights, so of course the bars prefer to have foreign customers, and so do the girls,” she said. She tends to lump all Westerners together as “Americans,” and all visitors from Middle Eastern states as “Arabs.” “The Americans are really stingy. Arabs are the best; they spend money and treat you well,” she said.
The imbroglio over the nightclubs has a xenophobic aspect to it. Tbilisi has an increasingly vibrant Middle Eastern presence, with investments being made in everything from high-end hotels to shawarma joints. Tourists and students have also been pouring in. But the influx of money and visitors from the Middle East is eliciting feelings of resentment among some in traditionalist circles of Georgian society. History remains an issue: Georgian culture is rooted in Orthodox Christianity, and the nation has a long record of resistance to Muslim invaders.
The prime minister has appealed to citizens to refrain from any vigilante action and let law enforcement tackle the sex trade and the allegations of discriminatory practices. Queried by EurasiaNet, Georgia’s Interior Ministry declined to comment on whether instances of sex trade have been uncovered or are being investigated in the area of concern.
One Iraqi man, who holds Georgian residency and works as an informal guide for visitors from the Arabic countries, says he often drops off parties of male visitors at the embattled underground. “The Arabs don’t care much about sightseeing, the mountains and all that,” he says in fluent Georgian. “They want casinos and girls – things that they can’t get at home just like that – and you can find it all in this part of town.”
Giorgi Lomsadze is a freelance journalist and a frequent contributor to EurasiaNet.org's Tamada Tales blog.