Paata Sabelashvili: “Nobody knows better than the community what is being used and what people feel; so the community should be the expert.”

11 May 2017

Paata Sabelashvili founded Georgia’s first-ever LGBT organization, and worked with a range of organizations in the areas of harm reduction, HIV/AIDS, hepatitis, and STIs. He was involved in several regional and international networks and also served as a board member at ILGA-Europe. He also had been a member of Georgia’s Country Coordinating Mechanism. Paata has led nationwide advocacy campaigns and holds two masters degrees from Central European University (Budapest, Hungary), and Tbilisi State University (Georgia). Since 1 January 2017 – Advocacy Coordinator Eurasian Coalition on Male Health (ECOM).

How did you begin your public activities?

If we speak about things relevant to our sphere, in 2006 I launched the first LGBT organization in Georgia: Inclusive Foundation. I was working with a Danish organization at the time, and everyone in the NGO sector knew me well, but even my friends, human rights activists, were asking me, “Is this really a human rights issue?”

LGBT rights?

Yes, these activities: can they exist at all? And then I got arrested for marijuana use, they destroyed our office; it was very homophobic. But as I was a member of the ILGA [International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association] Board, they released me after an international outcry.

I signed a process agreement in order to be released from prison. They say being sentenced on probation is easier, but that’s not true. I got 5 years on probation; I paid about 5,000 Euros as I had to buy the right to leave my country: 300 Euros per month, about 1,500 in a year. Otherwise they may not let you leave the country, and that’s crucial for an activist.

When did that happen?

In 2009, and it took me the whole year of 2010 to recover. My comrades treated me very badly. They told me it was very irresponsible of me to do something illegal, to do drugs, that my actions created a threat for our activism and I had to be punished.

I was greatly ashamed of myself when I got arrested. What would my colleagues think? It was a shame they caught me using drugs; I was a serious man, not a junkie, how could that happen to me?

Until then, I hadn’t even thought about the problems faced by drug users. There are a number of complexities in the system that you can’t understand just by reading reports, until you enter it. And I understand those people that haven’t seen an open drug user. Of course they need time to realize it.

Is that how you got into harm reduction?

The first time I heard about harm reduction was in 2011. I just saw a vacancy at the Harm Reduction Network and decided to apply. A friend told me they would be doing advocacy. I thought, at least they won’t be pointing their finger at me because I’m a drug user.

Was harm reduction really different from LGBT issues?

I hadn’t had any experience with harm reduction. That was also a challenge for an openly gay person. As a rule, all programs target injecting drug users, and in Georgia that has to do with the 1990s with their criminality, street mentality and disdain for gay people. What helped me were my criminal record and the fact that I was sentenced on probation. They realized that we actually had similar problems. It doesn’t matter why you’re being persecuted. I should also say I brought gender sensitivity to harm reduction: we now have more programs for women who use drugs.

Were there any organizations in Georgia at that time?

Yes, in fact the Network has existed since 2006. They were a Global Fund Sub-Recipient and provided needle [exchange] services. Now there are 14 sites in 11 cities, and mobile sites have reached very many people. In addition to the harm reduction services, my goal has been to create advocacy platforms for HIV/AIDS, hepatitis C and drug policy, and for women who use drugs. The Network has become a platform for the whole civil society to discuss all the issues.

We were doing very important work but I felt that I was constrained by corporate ties. I couldn’t do the type of activism that I wanted. Which is a more extreme type of activism that I believe in, because nobody listens to evidence. The authorities don’t think they can tackle all problems by doing prevention. They think they’ll just waste the money and junkies are going to die anyway, they are worthless and will end up in prisons regardless.

Russia lives by approximately the same logic...

In Russia they say that and in other countries they think that. Just as homophobia is a thing, narcophobia is a thing as well.

How do the ultra-right and the Church treat you?

The Church faces other issues now, those are internal issues. As for narcophobia and homophobia, we don’t bother each other. I think the Church has to be ignored, left out of the public space, but we should let them say what they want. The more stuff they say the sooner people realize what this is all about.

Back to narcophobia, the police really despise us. They think we are all done, that each of us will turn another ten people into junkies. Members of Parliament have to take a test, it says if you’re “healthy” or a “junkie”. There are 150 “healthy” people there; apparently we need to look at them, to listen to them. They are healthy and we drug users are sick. We don’t have a presence there, so who will make decisions on our behalf?

Are you participating in politics yourself? For instance, the LGBT community often participates in politics.

Not yet; it’s too early for that. But there already are gay-friendly politicians. They have limited support; they can’t get even 5% to enter Parliament.

So the White Noise movement is your new activism?

Initially this was a movement to save one person [journalist Beka Tsikarishvili who was arrested for possession of 69 grams of marijuana in 2013]. We named it “Beka is Not a Criminal!” On October 24, 2015 we won the case in the Constitutional Court. This was our first claim, our first victory, and we renamed ourselves White Noise. We explained the movement’s philosophy at the conference: small dots that mean nothing on their own but together signal the need for change, or the noise won’t go away.

What does your movement do?

It’s an unprecedented case of grassroots activism. Why are we so popular, why do we have 20,000 followers, so many views? It doesn’t matter if you’re young or old, what you’re using and how you’re using, how you were caught and with what. We try to help everyone, absolutely everyone. We can find pro-bono lawyers via Facebook: “Who is licensed to practice criminal law? We’ll send you the personal number of a person who needs to get out.” We have begun to look for other people capable of defending their rights. People with cameras, writers, artists, designers; they all have their skills and they come and provide their input. All our videos are made free of charge. People watch them and join. You don’t make them join by using some stupid marketing tricks; no, you use your marketing skills to promote your truth. That’s very important because the truth cannot always find its way.

How do harm reduction programs operate in Georgia?

Something that I always thought regional services were lacking, whether in Kiev or Tbilisi: they always give what they have and not what is needed. Right now harm reduction is a bit behind the reality. We come to our government people, knock on their door and say, “You have to change - you’ve spent so many years working this way. You need to use new approaches.”

In Paris of London, they have everything. And they don’t say, “This is from the Global Fund or from some other organization. There was a delay.” They do everything so as to make sure that it’s not a concern for you as a user of their services. They make it easier, more comfortable for you. Here they say, “You should be content with whatever is available.” It doesn’t work that way.

So what is the situation with diseases like in the region?

In Tbilisi, 25% of HIV positive people are gays. Every two years the number increases two-fold. And this doesn’t alert anyone, this is normal. This is bullshit; it needs to stop right now and forever.

Do you see prospects for the region?

We need to grow in these new conditions and to be a step ahead of those states that criminalize everything, ahead of the very dangerous imports of all kinds of drugs. Nobody knows better than the community what is being used and what people feel; so the community should be the expert.

The community approaching these issues is an irreversible process. I see more and more people from Georgia and from other countries. We need to help them become interested in harm reduction because this is a promising approach, because it’s the only thing that works. Nobody can say something else would work better.