In Georgia, the mountainous, Europe-facing, ex-Soviet republic in the Caucasus, prostitution remains illegal but widespread. Somewhat similar to neighboring Turkey, Georgia has the distinction of maintaining good diplomatic relations with the European Union, Russia, Israel and Iran. As a result, it attracts tourists from all of these countries. With a population of 3.7 million, it has been able to turn itself into an attractive tourist destination, and hosted about 3.5 million tourists in 2017, which provided around 18 percent of the country’s GDP. Israelis, Iranians and Turks don’t need visas to travel to the country, and they form a large part of the clientele, many attracted to the country for cheap and easy-to-access sexual services.
Georgia is also dealing with a serious human trafficking problem, often linked to prostitution. There are also reports of increasing child prostitution in the country, And yet the US State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons lists Georgia as a Tier 1 country, which means it fully meets the minimum standards of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act.
Some officials in this nascent democracy have a relatively progressive attitude to sex work, and a number of NGOs work hard to offer support to sex workers. The country has incorporated relevant UN and Council of Europe conventions against human trafficking, especially cases involving women and children. Still, problems remain and the growth of the industry outpaces NGO resources.
And a lot of this growth can be attributed to Iranians. In its latest report, the State Department lists Iran as a Tier 3 country, which means it is not meeting the minimum standards for fighting against human trafficking and is not making a significant effort to do so. The report takes Iran to task for the fact that “female victims of sexual abuse, including sex trafficking victims, faced prosecution for adultery, which is defined as sexual relations outside of marriage and is punishable by death.”
Georgia: A Cheap and Easy Option
Iranians share centuries of cultural and popular exchange with Georgians. But until a few years ago, you’d be hard pressed to find any Iranians living in Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, despite the city’s long-lost history of hosting Iranian merchants, workers and intellectuals. Things have changed quickly recently though, especially since a visa-free regime for Iranians was established in February 2016. Pressed by economic insecurity and stifling social limitations, citizens of the Islamic Republic have been leaving the country in droves in recent years. Those with the means make it to desired destinations in North America, Western Europe or the Antipodes. The rest have to make do with cheaper and easier options, like Malaysia, India or Armenia (tens of thousands of Iranians live in each of these countries, many studying in their universities.)
Georgia has now been added to the latter list, and it is easy to see the impact of this move during any trip to the country. Thousands of Iranian tourists can be found around Tbilisi and it’s not unusual to hear Persian songs blasting on its streets. Iranian restaurants, tourist agencies and real estate dealerships dot the popular Rustavelli neighborhood. There are also a few examples of another type of Iranian establishment: dingy nightclubs that double as effective brothels.
The presence of Iranian prostitutes in Georgia has been intermittently reported in Iranian media. Last year, a local Persian blog claimed 17 Iranian nightclub/brothels were operating in Tbilisi. Another published an interview with a 26-year old sex worker from the city of Kermanshah. Similar accounts have been published by a number of travelers.
In July, IranWire visited Tehran Nights, a nightclub with a reputation for harboring sex workers. A stone’s throw from Tbilisi’s central Freedom Square, the nightclub shares its under-the-stairs location with a couple of similar, foreigner-oriented establishments. One is Turkish, as the abundance of red-and-white Turkish flags around it reveals. A number of young men (mostly Iranians, Turks and Arabs) hang out outside, loudly debating about how to spend the rest of the night, with most plans involving prostitution.
Arriving at around 11 pm, we are Tehran Nights’ first customers of the night. The dark room boasts a stage with a dancing pole and colorful flashing lights. The owner, an Iranian man in his 50s, comes to greet us. He introduced himself as Cyrus, asks what music we’d like to hear and gestures to the staff to get to work. Two young women start a provocative dance around the pole. One goes behind the bar to take our orders. A number of elderly women retreat to a corner, drinking their beers. They clearly fit the profile of brothel madams and conversations with them confirms this. They boast of having a number of “girls” but say we should go through Cyrus. As with the rest of the staff, the madams are all Georgians and conversations show them to mostly hail from provinces outside Tbilisi. The dancers start a routine with customers, obviously recognized as a run up to offering sex for money. They ask for a lighter and try to introduce themselves to the men present. “Cyrus,” meanwhile, is more straightforward and offers us any women from the stage to take home. When asked if he also works with Iranian sex workers, he is quick to pull out his phone to show pictures.
“Of course, we have Iranians, all ages, all tastes,” he says. “A bit more expensive than Georgians but still affordable for you. We also have Russians, blacks, Armenians. We are here to serve.” Prices range from 40 to 200 dollars, with a little bit extra for an overnight stay.
Cyrus tries hard to sell Georgia as a sex tourist destination. “It’s nearer than Thailand and more hassle-free than Dubai,” he says. “It has replaced them as the new capital for getting girls. Trust me!”
Later I get the chance to talk to a few of the Iranian businessmen who frequent Tehran Nights.
“When you are new and don't know anyone or if you need someone quick, Tehran Nights is the best,” Amir, 47, who is active in the real estate business, says. “They don’t leave you disappointed.”
But Amir — not his real name; he only wanted to talk to IranWire if I agreed to use a pseudonym — is quick to add that the sex workers he has met in Tehran Nights are a “temporary solution.” He usually resorts to the longer-term option of importing his own prostitutes from Iran. He has a married life in Iran but also runs an office in Tbilisi. He has received a legal residence permit here here and spends about half of the year in Georgia. Cheap flight connections means he can go back and forth easily.
“It’s not very complicated,” he tells IranWire. “And we don’t call it prostitution or ugly names like this. We basically pay for travel costs, accommodation and a general monthly rate. My woman stays here and takes care of the house while I am away. It works for everyone.”
Iranians in the City's Sex Trade
Although I was unable to interview an Iranian sex worker in Tbilisi, I did speak to Georgian counterparts who spoke to me about their Iranian colleagues.
“I know of an Iranian woman who was a tourist here,” says one of them, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “She was just here to have a good time. Had a job in Iran but made 200 dollars a month or something. She was in a club when this Israeli tourist took her for a sex worker and offered 100 dollars immediately. She was shocked and offended and said no. But her money ran out soon and she didn’t want to return to Iran. It was an easy way out. She’s been working ever since.”
I also spoke to an Iranian sex worker in Dubai about the Tbilisi scene. Through her I learned about Mojgan, an Iranian sex worker who moved from Dubai to Tbilisi. According to our source, Mojgan met an Iranian madam named Naazi in a Dubai prison. Naazi specialized in bringing in clients from “government people and rich Isfahanis,” [Isfahan is country’s third biggest city and a commercial hub of central Iran].
“Naazi ended up taking Mojgan to Georgia and Mojgan is there now. They don’t go to that place [the Tehran Nights club] because it’s too crappy,” the source said. “But there is a house in Tbilisi that Naazi runs. They say the work there is easier than Dubai and authorities are bribed easier. But most Iranians there are the youth and tourists [and not wealthy] which means they can be [employed] as harassers [of sex workers] and don’t have much money.”
I ask if she knows of anyone being forced to go to Tbilisi.
“Well, they don’t abduct you, but it becomes forced soon enough,” the source said. “They give you promises. They say you can make 5 billion rials in a year and then you can go back to your life. But this is when the disaster begins. They make sure you get addicted. To alcohol, to drugs. Then you’ll do anything to get these. Then they get your passport and tell you that you’ll be executed if you go back to Iran. They beat you up, they insult you, even jail you. They make you think there is no way out. And you know the government will be on their side when you see clerics and IRGC [Revolutionary Guards] people with all their beards coming here and working with the Johns and Madams.”
The degree of Iranian involvement in the Georgian sex work scene is yet to be established beyond anecdotal accounts. But there is no doubt that it’s significant and growing. Georgian authorities have recently closed down some Iranian bank accounts due to money laundering regulations. A number of Iranian nightclubs and casinos are used as money laundering avenues, according to sources in the Iranian business community of Tbilisi who spoke to IranWire. A network of sex work, business, tourism and money laundering operates in this small country and not all of the nodes in the network are aware of the broader picture. And, as Iran descends into a deeper economic crisis, regional countries like Georgia are expected to be increasingly affected.
“Like the vast majority of Iranians, we don’t do anything illegal here and we are here to stay on good terms with the locals,” says Amir. “We also don’t have the dirty money of the Iranian regime. Having a little fun on the side shouldn’t be seen as our main purpose here.”