Georgians bristle as country becomes reluctant refuge for fleeing Russians- Newshubweek

Georgians bristle as country becomes reluctant refuge for fleeing Russians
Written by Arindam

Pedestrians enjoying a stroll down Tbilisi’s central Rustaveli Avenue have in recent days had to navigate an unusual bottleneck near one of the city’s largest mobile phone stores.

The pavement outside is now filled with young Russians, some waiting in line to buy sim cards and others calling home to tell family and friends they have successfully fled and made it to the Georgian capital.

Vladimir Putin’s announcement last month of a military conscription drive to salvage his flagging war in Ukraine has accentuated Georgia’s status as a reluctant refuge for fleeing Russians.

Georgians’ dismay at their government’s open-door policy — which has rankled since the Ukraine invasion in February — has been rekindled by the arrival of what the interior ministry in Tbilisi currently says are 5,000 to 6,000 Russians each day through their shared land border.

Angered by the influx, a group of protesters led by opposition politician Elene Khoshtaria last week drove 170km from Tbilisi to the border in the Caucasus Mountains to stage a protest.

People walk toward the border crossing at Verkhniy Lars
People walk toward the border crossing at Verkhniy Lars © AP

They and others in the Georgian opposition are demanding either a new visa regime or the closure of the border to Russians altogether. Russians can enter Georgia without papers, making it one of the few places where those escaping the draft can flee.

“Unfortunately we don’t expect anything from the government, or for them to change things. They’re pro-Russia,” said Khoshtaria, who leads the Droa party. “Our protest is to show that the public mood is against [the arrival of the Russians],” she added.

While countries such as Finland have closed its border to Russian citizens, Georgia’s decision to keep its frontier open, despite the public backlash against the new arrivals, has fed speculation that the ruling Georgian Dream party is directing policy to suit Moscow.

The number of Russian journalists and opposition politicians who have been denied entry to Georgia over the past year has added weight to the accusations that the party operates in line with the Kremlin’s agenda.

For many in Georgia, the Ukraine war has been a painful reminder of the menace presented by a revanchist Russian state.

In 2008, Russia’s short but bloody invasion of Georgia left an estimated 180 Georgians dead, more than 1,000 wounded and the territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which make up about a fifth of Georgia’s internationally recognised land mass, under de facto Russian control.

Georgian protesters on a hill overlooking the Verkhniy Lars checkpoint © Daro Sulakauri/Getty Images

For Russians to be seeking refuge in their country as Moscow still occupies its territory has been hard for Georgians to swallow. While in Kazakhstan, which Russians can also enter without a visa, those fleeing a military call up have largely been welcomed, very few Georgians have opened their arms.

Ketevan Meskhishvili, 31, a Tbilisi lawyer, said: “We don’t have a policy that distinguishes Russians who are really against the regime and need a safe place in Georgia” from those seeking to avoid the draft for other reasons.

Some Georgians cite the pretext that Putin used to invade Ukraine — to “save” ethnic Russians in the Donbas region — as a harbinger of what the enlarged Russian cohort in Georgia, a country of just 3.7mn people, could provoke.

“What if, in a few years, the Russians here decide to have a vote for Russia to annex Georgia?” Meskhishvili said. “What’s happened to Donetsk and Luhansk: it could happen to us too,” she added, referring to the territories of Ukraine formally annexed by Putin last week.

Mistrust towards Moscow is so pervasive in Georgia, and integration limited, that the dominant image of imperial self-interested Russians has been difficult to temper.

“The war didn’t start last week. Where was this exodus when Bucha happened?” said Khoshtaria, referring to the Kyiv suburb where Russian forces are alleged by Ukraine to have committed atrocities.

The use of the Russian language in Georgia is one contentious issue, with an insistence among some of the arriving Russians to speak their native tongue often read as evidence of an enduring colonial attitude towards the former Soviet republic.

“Russians who’ve just arrived come to set up and immediately start talking in Russian, like we must know their language,” said Keti Ebanoidze, co-founder of Tbilisi’s popular Impact Hub co-working space. “I speak Russian very well, but I prefer not to. We always communicate in English.”

For many of the arrivals, who are overwhelmingly men, the question of whether to remain in Georgia, move on elsewhere or return to Russia is still open.

“I have cousins in Kharkiv,” said Slava, 32, an IT worker from Moscow, naming the city where Russian forces were expelled as part of Ukraine’s lightning offensive last month. “And there’s a version of this where I get called up and they get called up and we’re literally fighting family against family. That’s why I left.

“I know Georgians don’t really like us, but I think people need to separate citizens from their government,” he added.

Ilya, 30, a recent arrival from St Petersburg, said he would not be returning to Russia until there was regime change.

“I’m against the war, but I didn’t leave earlier because I have commitments to family,” he said. “I guess we hoped [the war] would get better. We stopped thinking about it just to be able to get on with life. But it was an illusion that was shattered with mobilisation.”

Georgian Dream, considered by analysts to be controlled by its Moscow-friendly founding oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili, has defended its open-door policy.

“Russians have always entered Georgia and the previous government had no problem with that either,” interior minister Vakhtang Gomelauri said last week. “Why should this become problematic today, all of a sudden?

With yet more Russians arriving daily, Georgian Dream may have its work cut out to keep popular discontent from deepening.

“Unfortunately when governments aren’t acting, the people have to,” said Khoshtaria, the opposition leader. “What we can do is . . . show the Russians that Georgia is not their backyard.”

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