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‘Get out’: Influx of Russians to Georgia stokes old enmities

<i>Irakli Gedenidze/Reuters</i><br/>Crowds gathered outside Tbilisi Airport to protest the resumption of direct flights from Moscow
Irakli Gedenidze/Reuters
Crowds gathered outside Tbilisi Airport to protest the resumption of direct flights from Moscow

By Christian Edwards, CNN

Tbilisi, Georgia (CNN) — Above Tbilisi’s Old Town stands the Mother of Georgia statue, like a less imposing Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro. “Kartlis Deda,” as she is known to Georgians, holds a wine cup in her left hand and a sword in her right. She offers a choice to new arrivals. Come as a friend, you are our guest. Come as an enemy, you are not welcome.

Tbilisi, an ancient Silk Road city, is no stranger to foreigners turning up on its streets. But the arrival of more than 100,000 Russians in the country since Moscow launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year has left Georgians uncertain whether to welcome them as friends or shun them as foes.

The government’s recent attempt to force through what critics see as a Kremlin-style “foreign agent” law, and the huge protests which prevented this, have not helped émigrés to settle in or locals to feel at ease alongside the new arrivals. Many in Georgia fear what they see as the creeping Russification of their country – a story they know all too well.

Georgia, a former Soviet republic, has long been caught between Russia and the West. Despite gaining independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, a potential European future is still struggling to be born. Georgia’s stance towards Russia is decidedly mixed. The two countries have had no formal diplomatic relations since Russia invaded Georgia in 2008 – but Russians living and working here enjoy lax visa requirements, making it an easy choice for those who fled last year.

On the streets of Tbilisi, the reception for Russian émigrés has also been mixed. “It’s a whole range of attitudes,” said Ivan, a 20-something IT consultant from a city in Russia’s far east. CNN is withholding Ivan’s real name, to protect him from retribution should he ever return to Russia.

Some Georgians are “warm and welcoming” and treat Russians as their “brothers,” Ivan told CNN. Others tell them to “get out.” The key difference is age, he has found. “Those who are welcoming are mostly people who were born in the USSR. The ones who are Russophobic are mainly young people,” he said.

Ivan recalls an incident in a bar some months back. Recognizing his “Slavic appearance,” he said, a young Georgian woman approached him and, unprovoked, said “Russian warship, go f*** yourself” – echoing the words of a Ukrainian soldier defending a Black Sea island against the Russian navy in the early days of the war.

“I try to react with understanding, because I understand the reasons why this is happening,” said Ivan. But such incidents can take their toll. “I do feel a sort of frustration.”

George Mchedlishvili, an associate professor of foreign policy at Tbilisi’s European University, explained the skittishness of some Georgians. “For some, the Russian language is a trigger for them. It’s the language Russian soldiers spoke.”

Recent Russian aggression remains fresh in the memory here. Russia invaded the separatist regions of Abkhazia in 1992, and South Ossetia in 2008, when it fought a five-day war with Georgia. To this day, Russia occupies 20% of Georgia’s internationally recognized territory. Georgians have seen Russians pour into their country many times in the past – not always, as last year, with suitcases and pets, but with guns and tanks.

Ivan arrived in Georgia with a suitcase – but he could have found himself arriving in Ukraine with a gun. Having served in the Russian army some years ago, he became a “valuable asset,” he says, after President Vladimir Putin announced a partial mobilization in September.

The next day, officers visited his registered address – his mother’s house in his hometown. “Initially she didn’t want to open the door, but they were persistent. They just kept coming every hour,” he said. Ivan had moved to St. Petersburg for work long before, but when he heard the news of these visits, he knew he had to leave Russia. He took a train south the following day and then a taxi to the Georgian border.

“I was lucky to pass the border,” Ivan said. He had been arrested in March last year for protesting against Russia’s war on Ukraine and spent several days in prison before being released, he said. Although he did not face criminal charges, he feared his details might have been stored and that he would be blocked from leaving the country. But he crossed the frontier without any trouble.

‘Guilty until proven innocent’

Despite having made himself an “enemy” of his own state, Ivan says he still feels like the “enemy” in Tbilisi. Some Georgians have been more forgiving towards Russians who fled their country immediately after the war began. They are seen as being genuinely opposed to the conflict, while those who fled conscription are seen as only opposed to fighting in it.

Unaware of his previous imprisonment, some Georgians see Ivan as one of the less politically aware Russians, he said. The trick, he says, is to prove your “innocence” as quickly as possible, by showing you are opposed to the actions of the Russian government – perhaps by wearing a Ukrainian flag.

But some encounter more exacting standards. “There are some bars that make you sign when you enter,” said Daria Polkina, 27, a freelance graphic designer from Moscow. “If they suspect that you’re Russian, they make you sign a paper that says ‘I am against Putin and whatever he is doing.’” Russians who do not sign are refused entry, she said.

Polkina has signed before but said such prerequisites hardly make for an amicable evening, adding there have been “bad encounters.” “Mostly, when I meet Georgians, when they ask me where I’m from, I say I’m from Russia – and then follow up with ‘I’m sorry,’” she said. “It makes me feel ashamed, guilty.”

Even bars in the Georgian capital without these restrictions make their feelings known. Many bear signs ranging from the direct (“F*** Putin”) to the historical (“Russia is an occupier”) to those setting out the terms of engagement (“We don’t speak Russian”). Most Georgians speak or at least understand Russian but have been increasingly unwilling to do so. “I speak Russian, but I don’t speak Russian,” said a barman in Tbilisi’s Sololaki district.

The result is that many Russians have started keeping to themselves – opening their own bars and cafés. “I’m trying to find places here in Tbilisi that have an accommodating and friendly atmosphere,” said Polkina. “A place where there’s mostly a ‘no politics’ rule.”

Apathy: A luxury Georgians can’t afford

But many Georgians are frustrated when Russians come to Tbilisi and try to live a life free from politics – a luxury few Georgians can afford.

Mchedlishvili said that, while there are few “staunch, flag-waving, chest-thumping supporters of Putin” in Georgia, there are many Russians who are “like a clean sheet. They have next to no knowledge about international relations – and sometimes, one can see, they have no interest. That is what some Georgians find irritating.”

These more apathetic émigrés, Mchedlishvili said, “would have wanted everything (in Russia) to stay the same – until they lost their comfort zone. Until they realized there was no Starbucks. Then they go to the place where all these niceties are available.”

Salomé Dzvelaia, 31, a local translator, said that while Russians have been content to stay in their “comfort zones” in Tbilisi, life for locals has grown increasingly uncomfortable. The average Russian is more than twice as wealthy as the average Georgian; the influx of migrant and foreign exchange flows into Georgia have been so great that a recent IMF report found that Georgia’s economy grew by 10% in 2022. But the boom has caused unrest: Rent spiked by 75% in Tbilisi last year, pricing many locals out of the center.

“Georgian people – they can’t afford $800 a month,” Dzvelaia said. When she decided to rent out her apartment last year, “I got so many calls in two minutes. About 20 calls from Russian people. They said, ‘We’ll pay double. Please, we need this apartment.’” But she refused these offers, instead renting at the original price to a Georgian woman who had recently been evicted from her apartment, after a Russian family offered to pay way over the market rate.

Dzvelaia said it upsets her to see Russians having a “good life” in Georgia. She acknowledged that her words may sound xenophobic but explained that her resentment stems from Russia’s expansionist actions that have shaped her life since before she was born. While some Russians attempt to live free from politics in Georgia, Dzvelaia says she “can’t escape from politics.”

Dzvelaia’s family are from the now-occupied region of Abkhazia. When Russia launched its invasion in 1992, they first came for people of stature, in an attempt to terrorize the rest of the population, she said. When her grandmother, a famous writer, went to buy bread one morning, her grandfather, who owned a factory, got a knock at the door. “Are you Khuta Jgamadze?” a group of Russian troops asked him. When he confirmed he was, he was shot eight times. Dzvelaia’s family buried him in the garden.

According to Georgian Orthodox tradition, Dzvelaia’s grandmother pledged to remain close to the grave for a 40-day mourning period. But the invading Russian forces advanced closer in this period and thousands of people began to evacuate. Dzvelaia’s mother, who was heavily pregnant with her at the time, decided she could not wait any longer. She fled with her husband before the 40 days were up, while the grandmother stayed.

“They killed her on September 27 – the day I was born,” said Dzvelaia. Her mother gave birth to her in the woods lining the paths through Georgia’s mountainous Svaneti region, lodged high up in the Caucasus. Her family were among the 250,000 Georgians displaced by the invasion, in what the United Nations has recognized as a campaign of ethnic cleansing. They have lived in Tbilisi since.

To help Russian émigrés better understand this history, Mchedlishvili runs classes on Georgia-Russian relations for new arrivals, “so when they see signs like ‘Russians go home,’ they understand the reasons for that.” He wants them to understand that “some people cannot exclude politics,” so invites Dzvelaia to tell her story to the class.

“When I’ve explained the story before, I’ve never cried,” she said. “But there, when I was standing in front of Russians, I cried. I was shaking.” Members of the class did, too. They came to hug her, one by one. Mchedlishvili said he hopes work like this can “contribute to a potential thaw” in relations between the two groups. “Whether it will persist remains to be seen, but this is an individual responsibility of the citizens – both Georgians and Russians.”

Georgia on a precipice

Since the war began, it is hard to find a street in Tbilisi that has not been painted with a Ukrainian flag. But different shades of blue and yellow are also visible: those of the European Union flag.

“I need everyone to understand that Georgia is a European country,” said Dzvelaia. “We all really want to join the European Union for a better future, because if we don’t… I think the situation will get worse.”

The view is widely shared among Georgians: 83% of the population approve joining the EU, according to a 2022 survey by the National Democratic Institute. Even those with less skin in the game feel the pull. “If I was Georgian, I would also want to be a part of the European Union,” Polkina said. “The old generation is all about how things used to be. The young generation are about how things could be. They’re like, ‘we want to be part of the European Union – Russians, don’t f*** this up for us.’”

But one of the few places this view is not held in Tbilisi is the most consequential. Many accuse Georgia’s parliament, led by the ruling Georgian Dream party, of showing little interest in greater alignment with Europe. In July, the EU gave Georgia a list of 12 demands to meet, if the country is to earn candidate status.

Georgia’s government has not responded to a CNN request for comment for this story. But in public statements, the government has stressed its commitment to meeting the EU’s demands. Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili said ahead of the Council of Europe summit in Iceland this month: “Our key message is that Georgia, our country and our Georgian people, deserve the candidate status.”

But critics say this is mere posturing; the government has been tugging in the opposite direction, drifting further into the Kremlin’s orbit. Some affiliates of the ruling party made their fortunes during the breakup of the Soviet Union and retain a muted fealty to Russia. But their sympathies have become less and less discreet.

In March, the government passed a controversial law which would have required companies which received a certain proportion of their funding from abroad to register as “foreign agents.” The Kremlin has passed such laws in the past, which have been used as a pretext to suppress independent media and civil society.

“This law means they have taken us back to Russia,” Manana Bubutashvili, 63, told CNN at the time. She was among the thousands of Georgians who took to the street in protest against the bill. It reminded her of the demonstrations she had attended in 1991, as Georgia fought to secure its independence against Russia. “I was here 32 years ago… Everything we have done, everything we have been fighting against, it means it was all for nothing,” she said.

However, after several nights of intense protests in March, which saw Georgians defiantly wave the EU flag while being knocked back by water cannons, the government announced it would scrap the bill it had just passed. Having slid towards autocracy for many years, Georgia appeared to have heaved itself back from the brink.

But it remains close to it, many fear. And, at a time when most Georgians are crying out to become more European, its government is keeping the country tied to its Soviet past. Earlier in May, Russia announced it is restoring direct flights to Tbilisi and will allow visa-free travel for Georgian citizens. Videos posted on social media show Georgian demonstrators standing outside Tbilisi Airport on Friday, holding placards reading “you are not welcome.” Police also detained several people protesting the resumption of direct flights.

Polkina said she cannot imagine when it will be safe to go back to Russia. But increasingly, she worries that Georgia is starting to look all too familiar. “I fear that Georgia is a little bit too similar to Russia. I’m afraid it could go either way: It could get better and move forward to the European Union. Or it could get worse and become like Belarus. I really hope that won’t happen.”

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CNN’s Niamh Kennedy, Eve Brennan, Rhea Mogul, Sophie Tanno, Hannah Ritchie and Katya Krebs contributed reporting.

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