By IPS Correspondent
TBILISI, Mar 21 2023 (IPS)
Since the war in Ukraine started in February last year, at least 1.5 million Russian citizens have crossed the Russia-Georgia border, official data states. However, as of today, it needs to be clarified how many of them stayed in the country, but walking the streets of the Georgian capital Tbilisi, the presence of Russian nationals can be seen almost everywhere.
Right after the war started and even more when Russia announced a partial mobilization in September 2022, hundreds of thousands of Russian citizens – primarily men – traveled to countries where they could travel visa-free, including Serbia, Montenegro, Albania, Turkey, and Georgia. Among those destinations, Georgia is among the most enticing because of its mild climate, wine, food, and nightlife-heavy capital. At the moment, Russian citizens can spend twelve renewable months in Georgia, and many of them are planning to stay in the long term, as the war seems would still last long.
The arrival of thousands of Russians has significantly impacted Georgian society. The country is known for its hospitality, but many Georgians are concerned about the effect such a large influx could have on their country’s social fabric. There have been reports of tension between Russians and locals and concerns about potential cultural clashes. While walking in Tbilisi, the Russian language can be easily heard in most bars, cafes, and restaurants, day and night. In contrast, there is a solid pro-Ukrainian sentiment and a not-so-hidden antagonism toward Russians. Every twenty meters or so, it is possible to spot on the streets of Tbilisi a Ukrainian flag hanging from a balcony, at the entrance of a restaurant or bar, or drawn on a wall.
As the Russians poured into Georgia, many Georgians have come to fear that the emigres somehow could serve as a pretext for Putin to target their country in the future, just as it did happen to Ukraine in 2014 and 2022. For this reason, the recent influx of Russians—mainly men who fear being conscripted into arms—has created a tense social climate in Georgia and an increased distrust towards Russians.
Suspicion towards Russian emigration is also motivated by historical events indicating the two countries as potential enemies. Indeed, Russia currently occupies 20 percent of Georgia; in 2008, a five-day conflict (“South Ossetia conflict”) broke out between the two countries over the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Georgia lost control of both areas, and Russia later recognized them as independent states. As a consequence, Tbilisi cut off diplomatic relations with Moscow, after which Switzerland took up the role of mediator country.
Today, stickers reading “Russia currently occupies 20 percent of Georgian territory” are prominently displayed at the entrance to many restaurants, bars, coworking spaces, and local shops. Many Georgians believe that the Russians who have fled their country are not opponents of the Moscow government but do not want to risk their lives at the front in Ukraine. Irakli, a baker from central Tbilisi, told IPS: “If they don’t like Putin, and they don’t share his war, then they should fight and oppose him in Russia, not run away here to Georgia.”
Many Georgians fear that the recent wave of Russians fleeing to their country is less ideological than the first one that occurred right after the beginning of the war in February 2022. There is a widespread belief that, while the first wave mainly included activists, intellectuals, and anti-Putin individuals, the current wave might consist of people who fear being conscripted to fight in Ukraine but do not oppose the Russian government’s policies—including its decision to invade Ukraine.
Because of these concerns, a survey conducted by the Caucasus Research Resource Centers in February-March 2022 revealed that 66 percent of Georgians favor re-introducing a visa regime for Russians. That visa regime was abolished for Russians in 2012, but now many Georgians think it should be revisited. However, the same survey revealed that 49 percent of respondents approved the Georgian national government’s rejection of imposing sanctions on Russia. On the one hand, this data could be interpreted as a tightening of ties with the Kremlin. More simply, it should be read as a policy aimed at not worsening diplomatic relations, as Georgia could fear some retaliation—even military—from Moscow.
Furthermore, Georgia depends on remittances from its citizens working in Russia, and, in the past, its tourism industry has prospered from Russian visitors. Most Georgian politicians agree that the country is pursuing a ‘pragmatic and careful stance toward Russia’ by not imposing sanctions and keeping the current visa-free regime. For example, Eka Sepashvili, a member of parliament who left the governing Georgian Dream party, remains aligned with it on this policy.
Adverse effects aside, Russian migration to Georgia has undoubtedly stimulated the local economy. Many among those migrants are information technology (IT) remote workers, sometimes even hired by Western companies. Therefore, their salaries are way higher than the Georgian average (300-500 US dollars per month), and their living in Georgia guarantees an essential boost to local consumption.
According to the World Bank, the 2022 Georgian economic growth was 10 percent. The surge in money transfers from Russia, the recovery in domestic demand, and the rebound of tourism after the pandemic have been the main reasons for the positive performance. The World Bank further forecasted a 4 percent and 5 percent economic growth for 2023 and 2024, respectively.
Furthermore, a recent Transparency International (TI) report shows 17,000 Russian companies are registered in Georgia. More than half of them were registered after the start of the war in Ukraine. Only in March-September of 2022, up to 9,500 Russian companies were registered, which, according to the report, is ten times more than the entire figure for 2021. According to TI, this trend indicates that many Russian nationals plan to stay in Georgia long term. Not coincidentally, in April-September 2022, remittances from Russia to Georgia amounted to 1,135 million US dollars—a fivefold increase.
Artem, a Russian engineer in his forties, arrived in Tbilisi in October 2022 after Putin announced the partial mobilization. He works remotely, so he can afford to continue living in Georgia as long as his salary allows. He stays in a guest house that is usually intended for tourists. The structure has six single rooms and two with more beds to share. In recent months, 95 percent of the tenants have been Russians who have started living here for medium-to-long periods.
Since it is the low tourist season, the landlord has agreed to rent to Russians. Still, with the arrival of the high season in May, he may return to prefer the more profitable short-term rentals.
“For now, I am staying here, but with the arrival of spring, I will probably have to look for a new place,” Artem told IPS.
Despite having a higher salary than the local average, Artem cannot afford many accommodations since prices have skyrocketed. Talking to him and other current tenants of the guest house – all Russian men – it isn’t easy to find someone who would say he doesn’t like Putin. They say they are against the war and worried about the current situation. Still, they go no further, perhaps for fear of sharing their ideas or probably because their opposition to the Moscow government is, in fact, minimal, as many Georgians believe.
Georgi, a Georgian tour guide, tells us that, according to him, Russian migrants are divided into two large groups: men—especially IT workers—who are mainly afraid of being called up but are not great opponents of Putin and those who oppose him fervently. The latter are activists, journalists, intellectuals, and members of the LGBT community—people who risked their lives in Russia—even before the start of the war in Ukraine.
The distrust towards Russians emerged even more during the first days of March when many Georgians complained that Russian citizens living in Georgia had not taken to the streets with them to protest against the so-called “foreign agents’ law.”
The law, which lawmakers dropped on March 11 after days of mass protests in Tbilisi, would have required individuals, civil society organizations, and media outlets that receive 20 percent of their funding from abroad to register as an “agent of foreign influence” with the Georgian Justice Ministry.
The law was largely criticized by civil society groups, opposition politicians, human rights organizations, and even US and EU institutions. They argued the law was an attempt to suppress dissent and restrict freedom of expression in the country, and they compared it to similar legislation in Russia that Moscow has used to crack down on NGOs and independent journalism.
The government of Georgia has been defending the law, saying it was necessary to prevent foreign interference in the country’s political affairs. The term “foreign agent” has highly negative connotations in Georgia and is often associated with espionage and foreign interference. Therefore, supporters of the law argue that foreign governments or organizations may influence “agents” receiving funding from foreign sources and that it is important to ensure that they are transparent about their funding sources. On the other hand, critics of the law argue that by forcing entities and individuals to register as “foreign agents,” the government is trying to delegitimize them in the eyes of the public and stigmatize them as tools of foreign powers.
Alisa, a Russian woman who arrived in Tbilisi in April 2022 and who clearly defines herself as anti-Putin, told IPS that she was contacted on social media by a local resident with whom she had interacted. That person pressed for her to take to the streets to protest against the “foreign agents” law. The Georgian person told Alisa that it was not fair that Russians living in Georgia stand by and watch the protests without joining them and that if they wanted to enjoy the freedoms that are lacking in Russia, then they should actively participate in all aspects of the civic life of an ordinary Georgian citizen, including protesting against that law.
“I didn’t join the protests, not because I disagreed with the demonstrators. Indeed, it was a glorious moment for democracy and the demand for freedom. However, some Georgians should understand that for some Russian citizens, exposing themselves in a protest that is also indirectly against Russia can threaten their lives,” Alisa told IPS.
As Georgia continues to navigate its relationship with Russia and the West, the influx of Russians will undoubtedly play a role in shaping the country’s future. As of today, it is still not clear whether the Georgian government will change its policy toward Russian migrants. The country seems trapped in a dilemma that crosses economic, social, political, and geopolitical aspects. The need to ensure the continuation of economic growth in the short and medium terms suggests keeping the doors open to Russians.
On the other hand, this influx is causing ever-higher prices, which in the long run will probably end up harming the living conditions of the more economically vulnerable locals, facilitating urban gentrification and, potentially, higher social tensions. Finally, from a political and geopolitical perspective, the government in Tbilisi will have to deal with a growing push from the population to get closer to the West and Europe – as seen with the recent protests against the “foreign agents” law – in the face of an inevitable growing link with Russia, precisely given the strong presence of Russians in the country.
As Georgia continues to navigate its relationship with Russia and the West, the influx of Russians will undoubtedly play a role in shaping the country’s future. As of today, it is still not clear whether the Georgian government will change its policy toward Russian migrants. The country seems trapped in a dilemma that crosses economic, social, political, and geopolitical aspects.
The need to ensure the continuation of economic growth in the short and medium terms suggests keeping the doors open to Russians. On the other hand, this influx is causing ever-higher prices, which in the long run will probably end up harming the living conditions of the more economically vulnerable locals, facilitating urban gentrification and, potentially, higher social tensions. Finally, from a political and geopolitical perspective, the government in Tbilisi will have to deal with a growing push from the population to get closer to the West and Europe in the face of an inevitable growing link with Russia, precisely given the strong presence of Russians in the country.
IPS UN Bureau Report