You may have noticed a group of guys gathered in the streets and yards of the centers or the suburbs of the capital, Tbilisi, or other big cities of Georgia. This group, which is usually made up of men standing by apartment building entrances or near porches in the suburbs, has its own name. We call it Birzha.
The Birzha often stands on the same spot of the street although every Birzha is different and the make up of the group is different depending on the time and place. It attracts many different people who are united by where they live and the fact that they are jobless.
In some neighborhoods, it is the heart of the criminal element and the local street life. In others, it is a place for neighbors to gather. These neighborhood Birzhas are more diverse: the elderly play backgammon or dominoes there, children also play some games, and tired ladies just sit down for gossip.
This article, however, is about the particular type of Birzha that is usually found in the outskirts of Tbilisi. The group who loiters there is diverse. If the weather is good, there are a lot of people. And even more people gather there on summer evenings. While all Birzhas are different, this kind is found in every district of the capital’s outer suburbs. Most importantly, the reasons why neighbors stand there are often the same. And the days spent at suburban Birzhas are also alike.
So, what is this Birzha exactly, and how does it impact the whole district? Is there any criminal context in the Birzha today? What are the basic rules of the Birzha culture? And what is it like to spend a day there?
The Birzha is a place where your bros meet. We go out, and we have one place where we all gather. That's Birzha.
Each district has its own spot for the Birzha. It is also a meeting place. Even if you don’t call your friend, you can find him at the Birzha. There have been many times when I didn’t have a phone because it was broken, or I didn’t have a sim card, but I could still find everyone at the Birzha.
Do you know why Birzha is so cool? Because everyone is honest there, and no one will do any harm to anyone on the street. If boys are standing at the Birzha, then it’s a protected territory. That’s why the Birzha should be in such a place where you can see and control everything.
The Birzha is on the street, after all. You just stand outside.
Whatever happens on the street happens at the Birzha. It doesn’t depend on anyone. It’s like a living thing. The development of events depends on who is standing at that particular spot, and it’s constantly changing.
You can find the ones who just stand there hanging around all day, and there are some criminals, too. Those who are street boys or so-called "authorities" have their own street life… Just because you hear something and accidentally witness a fight, does not mean that you are a criminal. You may just happen to stand there and know something but have nothing to do with it. Not all the guys at the Birzha live the street life.
The Birzha is some kind of a phase that you have to go through. I was told in my childhood that it was a kind of school... You see the things here that you can’t find anywhere else. You learn the difference between good and bad, and you also get to know people. You gain some experience. Something might happen that can become useful or set an example for you… You just have to see both sides, so you can tell the good from the bad. So, it gives you some experience of what life is all about.
Oh, the Birzha is a gathering of the unemployed. It’s actually a bunch of lazy-bones, but at the same time, they help a lot of people with different things. You kill time when you are at the Birzha... When the electricity was cut, I knew how to turn it back on. So, I used to do that. We also used to raise money to help all kinds of causes, depending on what was needed. Everyone still helps each other in distress, no matter what the hardship is.
Previously, town squares were the gathering place. Salakbo was the name of one of the squares and gathering places in Tbilisi. People living nearby would meet here, share their thoughts, and tell each other some news. Lakboba – meant meaningless, pointless chatter, and eventually the square was named after it.
As time went on, the city grew. Eastern squares, markets, and street gatherings disappeared in the Soviet Union. Unemployment became a crime, and the jobless were known as “spongers” or “parasites,” who were caught and sent to prison. In the 50s and 60s, students and seniors gathered to talk and kill time at the Birzha. Initially it did not have a criminal context, and it was not as common as it became after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The criminal context of the Birzha emerged later, in the twilight of the Soviet Union. The Birzha also took on the connotation of a principal refusal to work. It was as if standing at the Birzha had become some kind of resistance.
Then the Soviet Union collapsed. Wars, riots, and quarrels began. Illegal guns and drugs flooded in the city. Some men never returned from the war. Others did, but their wounds remained open. The streets of the cities were controlled by criminal gangs. Districts started fighting over the influence and redistribution of their capital.
Cars were stolen from the streets, houses were ransacked, people were mugged in dark entryways. The districts were controlled by criminals. The Birzha became a kind of checkpoint.
The education system collapsed in the 1990s. Diplomas were sold, and the price varied depending on the prestige of the profession. A law degree was sold for $25,000. If you had a law degree and a well-positioned acquaintance, a job and bright future were guaranteed. Those who had neither money, so-called "patrons" or any social capital, remained on the streets.
So, when you don’t know what to do, you stand at the Birzha. Either you had no profession, or you didn’t know that you too could do something in life… It’s not necessary to be a street boy. Someone may work all day and still be outside for the whole evening after work. You may have nowhere else to go. Suppose that somewhere in Europe you could go to a cafe, cinema, or park in the evening. You could just have fun with friends. But you didn’t have that chance here…And there is still nothing today. Whatever there is, it’s very expensive. Going to the movie theater from the suburbs is a whole journey. You can’t socialize with people anywhere. There are no places for it…You get used to that, and you create a socializing environment. You may not have ever wanted to stand somewhere in a suburb your whole life, but you just get used to it.
This kind of criminal understanding pervaded everyone and everything. Little boys dreamed of criminal careers, and my peers dreamed of becoming criminal bosses. The collapse of the Soviet Union turned society upside down, and all the influence, money, and authority were left to those who made use of the civil unrest through various criminal ways. These people automatically became the role models for the generation raised in the chaos, power-cuts and breadlines.
In 2003, the Rose Revolution established a new order. Then President Mikheil Saakashvili declared zero tolerance towards criminals, imprisoned the so-called ‘Thieves-in-Law’, and little or big offenders. Systemic violence against prisoners has become one of the main reasons for losing the 2012 elections.
Even the ones at the Birzhas spoke differently during the Saakashvili era. Before that period, everyone used to talk about the stories of the thieves-in-law, but once I mentioned a thief-in-law in Misha’s [Saakashvili] period, they all went like – ‘Hush! Hush! Don’t talk about it! They may catch us!’ So, even the ones at the Birzha had changed. Half of the district was arrested, and everyone was scared. Those who were not arrested were also very frightened.
They were arrested for various crimes, like robberies, drugs, criminal mentalities, guns, and things like that. They were the ones known for messing things up. In general, none of them was caught red-handed, and the drugs were planted on them... You know, as it used to happen in Misha’s period. We all know how it happened, and that is how all of them got arrested.
Today the Birzha is less criminal, though not crimeless. The existence of the Birzha is also the result of the shortage or inaccessibility of social and cultural spaces in the city. Suburban movie theaters have long been converted into casinos or supermarkets, churches or restaurants have been built in the squares, and exhibition or concert halls have become shopping malls.
Drugs and gambling are part of the modern Birzha. Once the casinos moved to the phones in our pockets, everyone started to play. Therefore, some tablets opened access to psychotropic pharmacies, Subutex taken from the program to be sold for 40 GEL, and other light drugs help boys survive the cold days.
Here's what the Birzha is: A girl called me yesterday, saying she was calling from the Bank of Georgia and confirming the loan for a new phone. Some money was transferred to me before, and it seems they had noticed the transaction. So, she said I was chosen between the few customers of the Bank of Georgia, and they could give me the phone. I said I didn’t have a salaried job, but she told me it wasn’t a problem. I said yes. Today, I went out to Birzha. A courier called and asked me to find him so I could sign the document and take the phone. I did. Then I headed straight to the pawnshop and lost the money even before I came back here. This phone is now in the pawnshop. I have to pay 550 GEL to the bank. The payment was 130 GEL, and I lost it at the casino with the phone in the car, on my way back.
This is what the Birzha is. This is every day.
Here's what one day at the Birzha is like. I wake up in the morning at about 09:00-09:30 AM. I get up, dress up, drink tea, eat breakfast, and leave at 12 PM. I go down there, get my dose of Subutex, which I need every day. After that dose, I start looking for a hit of weed. Sometimes I buy it, and sometimes it’s free. It’s mostly free…After that, I get back to my gang at the Birzha in my neighborhood. When we aren’t high anymore, we go to the bakery to eat Khachapuri. We don’t even bother to go home. Then we start looking for the weed again… I’ve been like that since 2000. Yes, yes, I’m giving it up right now! I have to stop. For sure.
When do politicians think of these people? Of course, just before the elections! In the run-up to the elections, the Birzhas often become a tool for mobilizing voters in the district.
What happens at the elections is that acquaintances, like classmates, relatives or neighbors, often come to plead [for votes]. You just stand there while he works…You stand there, doing nothing, not giving a sh*t about politics. And he asks you for help, promising to celebrate the deal. It's not even that you will have a benefit. Some will just help, and some will not.
During Saakashvili's times, they traded on arrested people, promising their sentence would be cut in half if they got the votes in that district. They would tell that to a guy whose brother was arrested. They would even threaten him with prison if he refused to help…They knew exactly how many of us lived there, how many of us could vote and how many of us they needed to win the district. It was the last election of the Nationals [United National Movement]… I mean, in 2012.
This is what the Birzha looks like today – the men, who could not find their place elsewhere, stand in the gray zones of the district. The unrest of the 90s, the wars, and the looting of public goods, left the country in a state of poverty and inequality. Perhaps these are the reasons for the scattered Birzhas in urban districts today: unemployment, hopelessness, broken social system…
Is the Birzha a choice? Maybe it is. But how is this choice made? What does it mean exactly? What does the Birzha look like today? How and why did the Birzha change? Who stands at the Birzha? We asked two researchers: Vakhtang Kekoshvili, a sociologist and associate professor and an activist, who requested a pseudonym. We call him Lasha.
First of all, the Birzha is the result of unemployment. If we go to the Geostat site [official statistics] and check the unemployment statistics for young people, we will see who stands at the Birzha. This is a young Georgian guy; an unemployed Georgian man, who is just left alone with this reality: 'If something works out, it's good, but if nothing works out, then blame yourself…' And just like that, he goes to Birzha. What else can he do? This is the reality of being young. Look at youth unemployment, look at access to education, look at the level of education, look at the perspectives for employment and the prospects of tomorrow, and you will see who stands at the Birzha and why.
The Birzhas of Tbilisi are some kinds of marked territories. Birzha is something that strengthens the neighborhood. Whoever strengthens the Birzha, he strengthens the district. Gathering here also includes some joy of being together which makes you stronger. As with any case of unity, we can find some positive aspects here as well. Standing together at the Birzha creates some kind of an obligation to support each other, reach out, help with something, protect each other's families or loved ones, and so on.
Vakhtang Kekoshvili, Sociologist:
The Birzhas in the city are different from each other. It comes down to where this Birzha is and who is talking about it. The Birzha on the left bank is different from the one on the right bank; the Birzha of Nakhalovka [district in the city] differs from Vake [the most prestigious district in the city]. There are different interests, and various types of socialization take place.
The Birzhas of the 90s were something else. In that period, it was the gateway to criminal life. The Birzha decided who would take the criminal path, and who would choose a different life. It also had the function of protecting the district, when the state couldn’t protect you. Cars had to be protected, apartments should not be broken into, walking in the dark had to be safe… The ones from the Birzha helped the women next door carry the bags. Some groups and Birzhas had even more authority in the neighborhood than, for example, a professor or a teacher.
A lot has changed since the Rose Revolution. Saakashvili confronted the street. He started it with street patrols and catching criminals and then continued with stadiums. The neighborhoods lit up, and the entryways lit up. The prospect of the criminal lifestyle, starting from the Birzha to being a thief-in-law, became unclear. This thief-in-law tradition no longer had power. If a career no longer exists and you have no employment prospects, then interest decreases. It was an important turning point. No one from the Birzha has ever been a supporter of Saakashvili. They oppose him and sometimes even play an important role in the elections.
The landscape of the districts has also changed. New blocks have been built, and new people have moved in. The Birzhas have changed as well. The tradition of the Birzha is slowly fading, and it will soon be forgotten. It’s important that people from the Birzha have also transformed in some cases and in some districts – some are freelancers, some are ravers, some have just quit standing at the Birzha, some have planted weed, and some have become the members of the Girchi party.
The Birzha is still a time of youth. It’s a place for finding yourself, exploring your abilities, making friends, overcoming fears, settling yourself, showing your masculinity, and expressing yourself. The Birzha is a kind of ritual where a child becomes a man. This is probably why the Birzha remains so attractive.