A vegan cafe in the historic center of Tbilisi was forced to cancel an English-language film screening over the weekend when a group described by witnesses as far-right extremists threw meat into patrons’ vegan dinners and started a brawl.
The staff at Tbilisi’s Kiwi Cafe called police on the evening of May 29 after more than a dozen men carrying meat attacked restaurant customers and staff.
The clash spilled onto the street outside and neighbors joined in the brawl — some reportedly fighting against the restaurant’s staff and customers, as well as the meat eaters. Minor injuries were reported.
The attackers fled before police arrived and no arrests were made. Police briefly detained some cafe staff members for interrogation.
Taken out of the context of recent events in Tbilisi, the incident could be dismissed by some as part of a backlash that has emerged on social media recently against anticarnivorous vegan rhetoric in Western counterculture. (That reaction is illustrated by a trending YouTube clip called If Meat Eaters Acted Like Vegans.)
But within the former Soviet republic of Georgia, and considering the angry nature of the violence at Kiwi Cafe, there are darker concerns.
A statement issued on May 30 through Kiwi Cafe’s Facebook page described the incident as “an antivegan provocative action” and called the attackers “neo-Nazis” who support “fascist ideas.”
The statement said the same group had come to the neighborhood a month earlier and asked a nearby shopkeeper whether foreigners or members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community frequented the cafe.
Kiwi Cafe is a counterculture-style gathering place that opened in Tbilisi about a year ago. It is popular with foreigners and employs foreign, English-speaking staff as well as Georgians.
On May 29, the cafe was screening English-language episodes of an American animated, adult, science-fiction comedy called Rick And Morty when the confrontation began.
Customers said the group of rowdy Georgian men entered the cafe as the screening was under way, wearing sausages around their necks and carrying slabs of meat on skewers.
According to the Kiwi Cafe statement, “they pulled out some grilled meat, sausages, and fish and started eating them and throwing them at us, and finally they started to smoke…. They were just trying to provoke our friends and disrespect us.”
Witnesses said the brawl broke out after the men were told to calm down and leave the cafe, which is designated as a “no smoking” area.
‘Georgians For Georgia’
Just three days before the attack at Kiwi Cafe, during Georgia’s May 26 celebrations marking independence from the former Soviet Union, a group of Georgian nationalist extremists marched in the streets of Tbilisi chanting and carrying banners with the slogan “Georgians for Georgia.”
For Georgians, that slogan is an obvious twist on a catchphrase that has specific, dark connotations in the country: “Georgia for Georgians.” The phrase was among the anti-Soviet slogans that emerged from Georgia’s chaotic rebirth as an independent post-Soviet republic.
For many Georgians, the slogan brings back memories of policies and declarations by Georgia’s first post-Soviet president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, that were aimed at protecting the Georgian state and ethnic Georgians.
It also recalls the atmosphere that led ethnic minorities, supported by Russia, to declare independence in Georgia’s breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
The slogan also stirs memories of the tense atmosphere in the newly independent Caucasus country when Georgia’s armed ethnic conflicts broke out during the early 1990s.
In 2005, then-President Mikheil Saakashvili declared that “Georgia for Georgians” was a “poisonous nationalistic slogan.”
But since 2013, when violent threats against gay activists in Tbilisi forced them to cancel a gay-pride parade in the Georgian capital, the slogan has appeared as spray-painted graffiti near Heroes Square in the city center alongside Nazi swastikas and racist slogans.
Kiwi Cafe said on May 30 that it was continuing to work and was “ready to accept all customers regardless of their nationality, race, appearance, age, gender, sexual orientation, or religious views.”
For now, it remains unclear whether the premeditated meat assault against the vegan cafe was merely a prank against an alternative culture hangout that turned violent.
But some Tbilisi residents are concerned that the xenophobic overtones of the violence at Kiwi Cafe, taken together with the march by right-wing nationalists in Tbilisi just three days earlier, could mark the emergence of organized political actions by Georgian ultranationalists.