A recent confrontation between a black man and a group of white Georgian men on Tbilisi’s streets underscored the racism non-white people often face in the country. Despite reporting the matter to the police, the victim’s complaint was not taken seriously, bringing into question the authorities’ commitment to tackling racism.
Black people living in Georgia often complain of the different forms of racism they face on a daily basis. Aggression towards them is not only connected to the growing number of far-right groups in Tbilisi, but wider societal attitudes. Racism rarely attracts media attention in Georgia, and ineffective state policies often facilitate discrimination against non-white people in the country, instead of preventing it.
Hassan Olatunde Abiola (or Nicolas Hassan), a Nigerian national who is studying and working in Tbilisi, was attacked by three young men, who he says identified themselves as skinheads and Nazis. He was disappointed when police treated the case as a ‘verbal insult’ and let the offenders go instead of prosecuting them for committing a hate crime.
‘One of them hit me in the face’
Hassan, after finishing his shift at a bar near the Freedom Square in the early hours of 29 July, visited a nearby shawarma place. While on his way back to the bar, three young men started chasing him.
‘They were shouting at me: “Nigger, stop”. One of them pulled me, made me turn around and told me that I should not be here because I’m black’, he told OC Media. The attackers kept swearing at and insulting him, he says.
At first, Hassan tried to ignore them, but they didn’t stop. Annoyed by the insults, Hassan ‘got angry, but didn’t hit any of them’, he says. ‘You don’t know me, why do you keep telling me things like this?’, he slowed down to ask. Then, one of them hit him in the face.
Hassan recalls that customers of the bar where he works rushed to his aid. Meanwhile, the police arrived.
‘Forgive and forget’
Hassan called the police twice: first when the attackers started following him, and a second time after he was hit. ‘They arrived only after I called them the second time’, Hassan says. ‘The only thing I wanted from the police was to do their jobs’.
He followed the officers to a police station to write a complaint, but was shocked by what he experienced there.
‘While I was at the station, [police officers] told me to forgive and forget’, Hassan complained to OC Media. ‘I said I wouldn’t. I just wanted justice’.
After two hours of waiting, Hassan was told that a translator, which is required to file a complaint, was unavailable at that time, and was asked to return the following day.
‘They told me the next day that they couldn’t arrest or prosecute the offenders because there was no visible physical damage’, Hassan says.
The Interior Ministry said that ‘verbal insults take place on a daily basis’. However, according to the ministry, neither side made a complaint, ‘so it wasn’t a racially motivated attack’. ‘Both sides confirmed that it was just everyday verbal insults’, they continued.
Finally, on 30 July, Hassan filed a complaint with the police, but an investigation wasn’t launched. A police officer told Hassan later that the three men had been ‘reprimanded’.
‘Lost in translation’. A different version of the story
A post detailing the incident was widely shared on Facebook, which prompted the alleged attackers to respond. One of them, Max Lepsveradze, posted a video denying the accusations. ‘We have no connection to fascism, nazism, or racism. On the contrary, we love everyone, and everything’, he said.
Lepsveradze went on to describe what he called a ‘misunderstanding’.
‘My friend asked me to translate something [from Georgian to English] for him [Hassan]. Given that I was drunk, I made a mistake in translation and the phrase turned out to be derogatory for this person, which I did not realise at that time’.
After this, Lepsveridze claims, his friends followed Hassan in order to tell him that his question was mistranslated. ‘But he pushed my friend twice’.
Another young man in the video says that ‘having a conflict in the street with a black person does not mean I am racist’.
‘We did not show aggression because he was black. We did not swear at him, we did not touch him’, he claims.
Not the first case of racial discrimination
During his more than three years in Georgia, Nicolas Hassan claims to have experienced racial discrimination almost every day, but has always tried to ignore the ‘bullies’.
‘I’m not a violent type or a troublemaker, I just live on my own and avoid trouble. Mostly, I am told to get out of this country because there’s no place for me here because I’m black and things like that, but I ignore it’, Hassan told OC Media.
His Georgian friends have also faced difficulties for spending time with him. ‘Sometimes, when I walk with a Georgian girl in the street, people randomly call her “bitch” for walking with a black guy and tell her that she should leave me alone’, Hassan says.
Hassan says that he faces problems not only in Tbilisi. ‘Recently, when I was in Poti [a Black Sea port city in western Georgia], a guy insulted my girlfriend and her mother and said she [the girlfriend] was a slut for walking with me’.
Racism in Georgian media
Despite Hassan’s case going almost unnoticed in Georgian media, several notorious cases of racial discrimination have made the news in the country.
- In June 2014, Aaron Charles, a citizen of the United Kingdom, was a victim of two racially motivated assaults in a supermarket and a restaurant within two weeks of each other.
- Members of notable Georgian hooligan group Bergman attacked two Nigerian nationals in September 2015 on Tbilisi’s Rustaveli Avenue, and posted a video of the attack on Facebook.
- A 15-year-old black girl was told in school to ‘go back to Africa’, because there was ‘no place for her in this society’ and she should ‘hang out with other savages’.
Racist statements have found their way into Georgian media as well. The Media Development Foundation, a Tbilisi-based media watchdog, monitored hate speech in online and print media in Georgia from 1 January to 15 October 2016. Out of total 868 discriminatory comments, 324 contained xenophobia of various types, including racism.
Racist comments made up for only 2% of the data, although it notably included a statement made by the former Georgian ambassador to the US, Archil Gegeshidze, during an interview with Netgazeti in June 2016: ‘The fact is that we do exist and if it were not that treaty [of Georgiyevsk, establishing eastern Georgia under Russian protectorate in 1783], we would have had black eyes and hair like charred logs as the Persians have. It is the merit of our ancestors that we are called Georgians, we have Georgian consciousness, and are identified as the nation’.
According to a 2016 report from the European Commission Against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI), a human rights body of the Council of Europe, at that time there was still no official data on racist hate speech in Georgia.
As Georgia’s Public Defender said, the Prosecutor’s Office started recording statistics of hate crime only in 2016.
Georgia adopted an anti-discrimination law in May 2014 intended to eliminate every form of discrimination and to ensure equal rights of everyone irrespective of race, skin colour, ethnic or social origin, sexual orientation, gender identity, and other qualifiers.
In his 2016 special report, Georgia’s Public Defender said that in the majority of cases he studied (113 in 2016), discrimination, where alleged as a motive, was not taken into consideration during investigations. This, he says, prevents the law from achieving one of its main goals — preventing crime.
[Read OC Media’s analysis: Who was in and who was out in Tbilisi’s far-right March of Georgians]