June 03, 2022

Vetting Russians in Georgia

Vetting Russians in Georgia
A scene from Tbilisi, Georgia neiljs on Flickr

A Russian entering a café in the Republic of Georgia a few weeks after Russia invaded Ukraine might have been confronted by the café owner: “‘Hey, do you support Russia’s invasion of Ukraine? Yes? Then you are not welcome.’”

Zviad Adzinbaia, a 30-year-old International Security and Digital Diplomacy Fellow at the Fletcher School’s Security Studies Program who is living in Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi, said the question is about clarity.

“As a citizen, I’m proud of that clarity, because Georgia has a heavy past, and a continuous pain when it comes to [the] Russian invasion and so-called Russian compatriots abroad,” Adzinbaia said.

Such incidents were relatively rare, said Alena Zaitseva, a 33-year-old Russian who works in marketing and moved from Moscow to Tbilisi five years ago. She runs her own Telegram channel, which she started before she moved to Georgia, to educate Russian speakers – not just Russians, but also Ukrainians, Belarusians, or anyone else – about Georgian culture.

Georgia has welcomed Russian tourists for decades and is home to small communities of ethnic Russians, about 60,000 in Georgia proper and perhaps another 60,000 in the breakaway region of Abkhazia. Adzinbaia and Zaitseva agree that Russians have been well received in Georgia over the years.

Zaitseva explained that it is easier for Russians to come to Georgia than it is for other nationalities, in part because of a shared past. “There’s also a shared religion that has a lot of influence here. And these stereotypes that we’ve always been told about Georgians, that Georgians are our brother people…

“But if you move to a country to live, you need to learn everything that happened before and what kind of relations there are between the countries [where you live and are moving to],” she said.

Zaitseva has heard how some café owners ask Russians about their opinions on the Ukraine war before serving them, but she said that neither she nor any of her friends have experienced it first-hand. Such confrontations have spread largely through rumors. If anything, Zaitseva said she views such instances as “a personal sanction.”

“It’s happening everywhere all over the world, some kind of sanction,” she said. “If I have an apartment, and I want to protest this way, I’ll support the citizens of Ukraine this way, to not welcome Russians. Yes, it happened, and it was in different spheres. And it still exists. There’s one nightclub in Tbilisi, Bassiani…  Even now they don’t let Russians in, even if Russians have lived here for a long time, have residence permits. If it’s written on your ID card that you’re a resident of Russia, they won’t let you in.”

However infrequent such instances may be, they reflect general attitudes of many Georgians.

“At this point, there is no ethnic anger against [Russians],” Adzinbaia said, “but there is one thing, given the Ukraine war and Georgia’s absolute commitment, absolute sharing of the pain, sharing of the past, sharing of the future with the Ukrainians: national empathy.”

Georgian banks require Russians opening accounts to sign a statement that they do not support the war. The Caucasus Research Resource Centers program found that two-thirds of Georgians believe their government should impose sanctions on Russia; others are calling for bans on pro-Kremlin media. Many Georgians also want to screen the Russians who came to their country in the wake of Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

“We don’t know exactly how [many] there are… but my estimate is 20-30,000 new Russians,” Adzinbaia said. “Pretty much Gen Z and Millennials. And… we don’t exactly know their intentions.”

cliffs in Tbilisi
Cliffs of Tbilisi | Clay Gilliland on Flickr

The backdrop for current caution is the history of Russian-Georgian conflict.

In the melee of the Soviet Union's breakup, two Georgian regions, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, sought independence from the newly independent Republic of Georgia. Sporadic conflict destabilized the country for much of the 1990s.

While Russia, South Ossetia, and Georgia signed a ceasefire agreement in 1992, the following year the conflict between Abkhazia and the Georgian state turned into a full-scale war replete with human rights violations and a quarter million refugees.

The simmering continued on all fronts. Then, in the summer of 2008, Georgian soldiers again clashed with separatist forces from South Ossetia, and Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili sent troops to quell tensions. On August 8, believing that the West "had his back," Saakashvili initiated an air and ground campaign against the territory’s capital, Tskhinvali. The same day, Russia invaded on the pretext of protecting South Ossetia from Georgia’s “aggression” and “genocide.” Russia took the region in only five days.

Later that month, on August 26, Russia recognized the independence of both South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Whereas Russia claims that it entered South Ossetia to aid its citizens, entities in the West – including the US government, the United Nations, and OSCE – maintain that the two territories are occupied.

Russia had strengthened ties with South Ossetia before Saakashvili sent troops into South Ossetia. Daniel Fried, a Distinguished Fellow of the Atlantic Council, has argued that “Putin wanted the war. In the summer of 2008, he kept provoking then-Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili until, against US advice, Saakashvili gave the order for Georgian forces to push back Russian-controlled South Ossetian forces that were shelling Georgian villages. The Russian army, prepared and with its pretext in hand, crossed into Georgia in strength.”

Tbilisi architecture
The Orbeliani bathhouse in Tbilisi | Violator1 on Flickr

The Georgian government’s response to the war in Ukraine has been calculated, in part, to avoid provoking Russia’s ire. The Georgian Dream party, which gained power in 2012, sought to normalize economic and trade relations with Russia, and now seeks to balance its relations between Russia and the West. Georgia has yet to join Europe in sanctioning Russia, has refused entry to the country by members of Russia’s opposition, and has prevented Russian citizens from flying to Ukraine to fight.

Yet many Georgian citizens are passionately anti-war and have called for stricter responses to the influx of Russians. On February 24, in Tbilisi, some 30,000 Georgians demonstrated in support of Ukraine and in protest of their government’s response to the war.

When asked to express her thoughts on the war, Zaitsev held back tears. “It’s horrible. It’s the genocide of a people. The worst to me is that every Ukrainian had relatives in Russia, every Russian has relatives, family, someone for sure. It seems to me like every second person has a Ukrainian in the family. And I can’t wrap my head around it.”

Zaitseva said she empathizes with Georgians and can understand why some would hate Russians because of their government’s occupation of their country. “Everyone has been saying for a long time, it’s not connected to the war in Ukraine, that it would be great that if, on the borders, Russians would be given a piece of paper to sign stating that they agree that 20 percent of Georgia is occupied."

“It’s a needed piece of paper, but there still isn’t one,” she said.

The question of discrimination, Zaitseva said, is a complex one, but there was certainly an increase of Russophobia after the war started.

“There was discrimination, you can’t deny this,” she said. “But it wasn’t as horrible as it looked in the media at that moment. At that moment it looked very bad. That is, in Georgian media it was very hyped. Now it’s all calmed down, and the number of Russians coming here has decreased.”

Most imptorantly, Zaitseva said, it is best for Russians “to explain their position” regarding the war. “If a person hears this, he’ll understand… that the person doesn’t support Putin. The questions will disappear for this person.”

tbilisi clock
A clock in Tbilisi | neiljs on Flickr

While some intend to stay, Adzinbaia said, many Russians are using Georgia as a transit country, since they can remain in Georgia for up to one year without a visa. Given the political context, he said he believes it is crucial for the Georgian government to monitor who is crossing their border.

“I’m very mindful as a citizen, as a security professional," he said, "that if they stay here for a long time with a lack of clarity from the Georgian authorities, and with the lack of information we have, they may always be used as a weapon by their government.”

Adzinbaia communicates with colleagues in Georgia to understand how life is for the new Russians who have come to his country. “We are constantly exchanging views on what’s going on," he said, "[and talk to] our Georgian-Russian friends here who [hold] Georgian passports." Most Russians, he said, are keeping to themselves, though they frequent popular destinations like restaurants and cafes. Many work in the IT sector, and Adzinbaia said this might be beneficial for Georgia if they are “skilled, open-minded, and not so pro-Putin.”

Zaitseva said that Georgians, of course, respond differently to the “new” Russians. Some were afraid that Georgia would be the next country Putin comes for, and that colors their views. Others see the economic benefit of Russians coming and spending money. Some also believe that the Russians might bring something useful to Georgia, as most are progressive – including journalists, human rights workers, and activists.

Nevertheless, it is difficult for the Russians who have arrived, Zaitseva said. “Some [of the Russians who come] are in very difficult psychological situations because the war in Ukraine puts pressure on everyone. And people who understand even a little bit of what’s happening, like me, as a Russian citizen, I feel responsibility for this act, and feel guilt.”

Many Russians are simply trying to figure out next steps in their lives, and some are returning to Russia because they cannot find work in Georgia. “It’s really hard to build a life here," Adzinbaia said, "if you’re a cameraman for example, or a lawyer. The camera operator positions are full, [the working language is] Georgian, you’re not really needed here.”

Even now, Zaitseva said, Russians living in Georgia are nervous.

“[Russians] are mainly isolating themselves,” she said. “We can call it Russophobia, at one moment there was active Russophobia, and they were afraid to integrate. Because no one knows what kind of reaction they could get from Georgians, and [there’s also the question of] language. It’s always simpler to close yourself off in your diaspora. It’s really a problem, and it existed before the war in Ukraine, but from the beginning of the war, because of their situations, because of attitudes toward them in other countries, I think they’ll be isolated for much longer.”

church tbilisi
The Metekhi Church in Tbilisi | Violator1 on Flickr

A vital question is whether the Russians who have come to Georgia can adapt to the country's values and “respect basic human rights,” Adzinbaia said.

It would also be helpful for Russians arriving in Georgia to try to understand the country and the bilateral history, he said, “learning more [about Russia’s occupation of Georgia] and getting the facts right and asking critical questions of their government.”

“Georgians are not an uncivilized populace," Adzinbaia said. "They’re good toward Russians, but that does not mean that they approve of Russian occupation of their land. And they are welcome to Georgia as a member of the European family of values. Don’t tell me that they want Georgia as a kitchen. Georgia is not a kitchen, Georgia has a great cuisine, but Georgia is a state, is a nation, is an old nation. They are welcome if they have that in mind.”


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