09.06.2016 Author: Henry Kamens

The Case of Tbilisi’s Kiwi Café and a Media Free-for-all

3453453454When something is reported too quickly and then widely distributed, with all reliable news outlets carrying the same story and quoting the same original source, beware. Take the recent case of the flying sausages. This now-infamous incident in Tbilisi’s Kiwi Cafe sounded to me like a prank. But then it got wide coverage in the US and UK, as if throwing sausages at vegans is some sort of geopolitical statement.

The US and UK have traditionally reported very selectively on events in Georgia because their journalists use the same sources, which are paid by the former government and their Western friends who also don’t want certain stories coming out. The media interest in these countries strongly suggests that the former ruling party, the United National Movement (UNM) was either behind this incident or is trying to make something of it. If anyone thought the UNM still had credibility in Georgia, let them consider the mechanism of throwing sausages to make their case.

I went to the café on May 29, the night after the incident, to investigate. I spoke to customers and staff. Their stories closely mimic the official one reported in the mainstream press. No one will talk about possible UNM involvement because the police have begun an investigation, but nobody has yet been detained, though it can’t be hard to identify “ultra-nationalists” in a small city where everyone knows somebody who knows somebody.

The party line

The Kiwi cafe is in a traditional part of old Tbilisi, and is popular among young people sporting unconventional hairstyles, tattoos and body piercings. Many of its patrons are thought to be gay. It is often described as the venue where foreigners, punks and similar birds-of-feather-flock together.

The café had this to say about the incident. “During a movie screening at the Kiwi Cafe, a group of people who had come to engage in an anti-vegan provocative action entered and started acting violently. They came in talking and laughing loudly and ignored our requests for them to be quiet and not disturb the people who had come to watch the film. Continuing to act loudly and disturbingly, they pulled out some grilled meat, sausages and fish and started eating them and throwing them at us. Then they started to smoke. They understood that such things are forbidden here, and were [apparently] just trying to provoke our friends and disrespect us.

“They were told to leave, because this is a vegan café and our place, and we didn’t want them provoking conflict through their behaviour. They refused, and started yelling, laughing and talking to us sarcastically. They told us things like “Why are you so aggressive? What about love?” showing their disrespect of vegans and our ideas.

“These people were neo-Nazis, part of the “Bergmann” movement, whose members support fascist ideas. They had first come here about a month ago, at night, asking our friend in the next shop about the people who hang out in the café, implying that they were all LGBT people, foreigners, punks, etc. We began to push them out of the cafe, by force, as the situation had gone far enough.

“Hearing shouts, the residents of neighbouring houses came out. One of them pulled a knife on us and told us, “Come outside, we will figure everything out there.” Our friend said that no one was going anywhere, and then one of the intruders grabbed her by the hair and pushed her onto the street, leaving her face down on the asphalt. Then a fight started in the street and we called the police.

“Some of our neighbours had already shown a negative attitude towards us several times, because we are not part of the world they are used to (due to the way we look, the music that we listen to, the ideas we support, and the fact that we don’t eat meat). We are weird by their measurement, and not embarrassed about who we are.

“At this painful moment, when we were at our most vulnerable, the neighbours decided to attack. None of them knew what had actually happened, what had started the conflict and who had provoked it – they were not interested in knowing these things, and still aren’t. Finally, they had a chance to express their baseless hatred toward us – and they started to accuse us, even though we had been the victims of an absurd and unintelligent provocation by fascists.

“The locals took the side of the fascists just because we are “different,” as they see it. They started to say that we were guilty of not only provoking this conflict but disturbing their so-called peace – which consists of watching TV and eating sunflower seeds. They told us that we must leave “their” street, leave the country and do not “establish our procedures” here, because acting like we do is not acceptable in Georgia. They didn’t want to hear what had really happened – they yelled, and groundlessly threatened us. One of them attacked people with a knife – first the fascists, but then us.

“The Nazis got clean away. A passer-by, maybe also local, shouted an insult in at us, and one of our friends shouted back at him. The passer-by yelled that he must be respected because of his age, and then lashed our friend in the face with his walking-stick, which caused a bleeding injury to his face.

“The police finally showed up, and one of policemen was very aggressive towards us, pushing and yelling, telling us we were guilty of what had happened. Some of the café workers were taken away for interrogation. But in spite of all this, and the negative attitude expressed towards us and our visitors every day, the café continues to work and is ready to accept all customers, regardless of nationality, race, appearance, age, gender, sexual orientation, religious views, etc. Equality is the most important thing for us. Animal liberation! Human liberation! ¡No pasarán!””

The party spin

Hundreds of stories are now being written on this topic, quoting the same sources, including Radio Free Europe and Georgia Today. Few of these stories show any sign of their authors actually investigating this matter in person, as we at VT are in the process of doing.

Thus far, we have yet to find one mainstream news report which offers an alternative view of what may have happened. Having lived in Georgia and the region for 20 years, this gives these stories all the hallmarks of ones flagged up beforehand, pre-written by the UNM’s publicity machine. Therefore the attack itself was also pre-planned, like the many famous media hoaxes we have seen here, such as the fake TV reports of a Russian invasion which showed what purported to be live footage of tanks driving through Tbilisi. That took place during an election year, and lo and behold, there are parliamentary elections coming up this year.

The current government is not so one-sided, stupid or controlled as the previous UNM one, which was of course led by Mikheil Saakashvili, who is wanted on a multitude of charges and has taken Ukrainian citizenship to try and escape Georgian justice. It is also pro-Western but does not automatically toe the US line, in particular making serious attempts to stop some of the criminality (illegal arms dealing, terrorist training, extrajudicial murder) which the US introduced and the UNM enthusiastically embraced, in exchange for payment and protection.

But precisely for this reason, it doesn’t have the media reach the UNM government had. Lots of people have a vested interest in promoting the UNM line, to prevent details of their own corrupt dealings with them getting out. This is why the European Parliament started protesting about the detention of members of the previous government, who faced very serious charges, when it did not say a word about the jailings and harassments of UNM opponents which went on daily during UNM rule, and were documented in the local English-language papers which all the diplomats read.

The UNM has very little support left within Georgia. This does not however make a practical difference. Eduard Shevardnadze had close to zero domestic support when he was installed as president of the country by criminal gangs. But was the darling of Western leaders, who thought he was only as bad as they were, and hated eventually having to admit that he was worse. If he was good enough for them, Georgians had to like it, regardless of what Western democracy is supposed to mean.

There have already been several attempts to undermine the present Georgian government, most recently through releasing sex tapes featuring some of its members, which were most probably made by a crime boss in the pay of the UNM. As soon as the attack on the café took place the Voice of America Learning English programme included it, without any fact checking, as part of its online course, here are plenty of other news items it could have included, which might provide better texts for English language students, but this one was selected and thus set in stone, as teaching materials aren’t edited later on or contradicted after the event.

The implication of the comments made during attack of the café is that the present government is corrupting the country by introducing foreign ways, despite the fact that most Georgians are Orthodox Christians and thus technically obliged to be vegan for over half the year. This line of reasoning exactly concurs with that of the UNM, which is trying to position itself as the true voice of the Georgian nation, and therefore that of its Western apologists.

When guns don’t work

The exiled Saakashvili has tried to stage a coup to regain power, only to be caught doing it. He has tried to mobilise the population through a series of rallies, but few people have turned up and those who did have gone home instead of regathering and raiding parliament. Nevertheless, he continues to provoke artificial conflict for international consumption, this time using sausages, and suspiciously well-organised neighbours, as no other method seems to be working.

Long-term contacts in the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Patrol Police have told me that the facts of the incident were not those reported because “the full story cannot be told at this time.” This confirms that certain “friends of Georgia,” as the foreign supporters of the UNM invariably styled themselves, may be involved. The operators of the café also claim that they have been pressured by their landlady, who lives upstairs, not to talk about certain aspects of the incident. Tracking down the true owners of any building in Georgia is a difficult task, but they generally turn out to be connected with the deposed UNM, the building having been confiscated from another owner somewhere along the line.

The incident doesn’t seem to have put people off the Kiwi Café. Business is still booming, as I saw when I went there with a group. Its ordeal has worked well as free advertising. Despite this however, I was still told that it will soon be closing down because of fear, at least fear of the landlady upstairs and who stands behind her.

The ironic thing is that this attack is being linked with anti-gay activists and the anti-gay sentiment of the general Georgian population. Homosexuality only became an issue in Georgia when the present government brought its present laws into line with EU standards. This was part of the deal which saw it sign an Association Agreement with the EU.

Most Georgians want to join the EU, but not swallow every last regulation if they don’t agree with them. If the UNM and its Western friends really are using the anti-gay movement to undermine the Georgian government after forcing it to pass the very laws which provoked it into existence, one wonders if Georgia really has any friends at all.

Henry Kamens, columnist, expert on Central Asia and Caucasus, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.