Russians Go Home: An Unwelcome Parallel Society in Georgia
While Europe continues to deal with the pressure created by displaced peoples seeking refuge from the War in Ukraine, former Soviet states are experiencing a marked increase in Russian nationals residing in their borders. The Red Line's Nate Ostiller reports from Georgia, where economic activity is booming but the impact on Georgians has been more varied.
Tbilisi in 2023 is a place of startling contrasts, where you can feel the tension in the air. Russia’s military aggression against Ukraine has most directly impacted the two countries most directly involved, but all neighbouring countries have felt the shockwaves of the war. In Europe, especially in Poland, millions of Ukrainian refugees have flooded in, seeking asylum, and as the war has dragged on, many have settled down and begun the process of assimilation.
Further east, however, the vast majority of those fleeing the war are Russian citizens, who have left to avoid mobilisation, to escape the tightening repression in Russia, or simply because they feel that the economic situation in Russia has become untenable in the wake of widespread separation from the west. Whatever the reason, millions of Russians have relocated to neighbouring countries, such as Georgia, and just as Ukrainians have in Europe, many have begun to settle down.
Much has been written about their experiences and thoughts as immigrants, but the perspective of locals has been reported less. The influx of Russians has reshaped society throughout Central Asia and the Caucasus, but Georgia holds a unique place due to its comparatively politically open society, a ruling government at odds with the populace, and recent history of aggression from Moscow. The result has been a bewildering mix of forces that is plainly visible on the streets of Tbilisi.
As one of the few countries that Russians are still able to travel to, hundreds of thousands of Russians have come to Georgia since the full scale invasion began in February 2022. Many simply used Georgia as a transit route to another country, but perhaps more than 100,000 Russians have remained according to various statistics, with the majority living in Tbilisi and to a lesser extent Batumi. Georgia’s lax visa regime with Russia allows for Russian citizens to stay for 365 days, which can be extended indefinitely by a quick border hop to Armenia or Turkey. Recently, Russia announced that direct flights to Georgia would resume, a controversial move that sparked protests at the airport in Tbilisi as Russian tourists arrived.
Walking around Tbilisi, one is met with a stark contrast between the sentiments of the people, which are clearly illustrated by the colourful anti-Russian graffiti that is ubiquitous around the city, and the huge number of Russians walking around. Russian language is heard everywhere, and Russian businesses have popped up, catering to largely Russian customers. As both Georgians and Russians have commented, there is essentially a parallel society in Tbilisi; Georgians and Russians largely do not interact, and Russians often acknowledge that they feel unwelcome, and that locals are more or less waiting for them to leave.
The Cost of Living Crisis
One of the most obvious impacts of the influx has been the dramatic increase in rental prices, which have provided a boon for Georgians who were fortunate enough to own apartments they could rent, but conversely has also created a cost of living crisis for those who rent, especially students and young people. In November 2022, nine months after the beginning of the war, rental prices had already gone up by 210 per cent - apartments which had previously gone for around 1000gel (~$350) in a trendy city center neighborhood were suddenly being rented for double, sometimes even triple, while Georgian salaries remained low.
As of March 2023, the average Georgian salary was ~$700 a month, while the average rental price for a one bedroom apartment in a centrally located area is around $1,000. Landlords have capitalized on this increase, and there are many stories of Georgian tenants being evicted in favour of Russians who were willing to pay double. In the grand scheme, Russian migration to Georgia has created economic benefits, including a significant GDP growth, but it is unclear how equally it has been spread. As of the end of 2022, as many as 1 in 3 Georgians stated that they had difficulty affording food regularly, a significant increase from before the war.
The economic side is only part of the picture, however. To be sure, many Georgians associate their financial woes with the arrival of so many Russians, but their discomfort towards their northern neighbours staying in their country is arguably much more about history. There is a sense that Georgia (and the rest of the Caucasus, including the Russian North Caucasian republics) have long been viewed as backwards and exotic by Russians, and their time in the Russian Empire and later the USSR was a period of occupation.
In the grand scheme, Russian migration to Georgia has created economic benefits, including a significant GDP growth, but it is unclear how equally it has been spread. As of the end of 2022, as many as 1 in 3 Georgians stated that they had difficulty affording food regularly, a significant increase from before the war.
Moreover, Russia’s involvement in Georgia’s wars in the 90s, and then the direct conflict in 2008 between Russia and Georgia has resulted in around 20 per cent of Georgian territory currently being occupied. Unsurprisingly, there is considerable bad blood between Georgians and Russians in light of this. A survey taken in early 2023 showed some startlingly illustrative figures: 87 per cent believed that Russia constituted the greatest political threat to Georgia, 79 per cent thought that the visa-free status for Russians should be ended, and remarkably, only 4 per cent said that Russians are well received in Georgia. Another study found that an overwhelming majority across the political spectrum (including a majority of Georgian Dream supporters) would like a visa regime to be introduced.
'Good' vs 'Bad' Russians
In the 16 months I’ve been located in Tbilisi, the palpable tension is hard to ignore. Conversations I’ve had with Georgians, especially younger generations, clearly reflect the overwhelmingly negative sentiment expressed in the surveys. Many businesses have signs in their doors such as this, and a well-known bar ‘Dedaena Bar’ gained acclaim from Georgians and notoriety from Russians for introducing a ‘visa’ that Russians have to fill out if they would like to enter.
Even more common are Ukrainian flags and other graffiti in solidarity with Ukraine’s struggle against Russia. An in-depth story from Caucasus-based JamNews that focused on the Russian perspective of this story found that some Russian immigrants interviewed were aware that in order for them to be considered ‘good’ Russians they should begin any interaction with a direct statement that they are against the war. There are some protests of anti-war Russians and Belarusians on Tbilisi’s main drag, Rustaveli Ave., typically with the Blue and White and Red and White flags that represent opposition to the regimes of Putin and Lukashenko. However, their turnout is usually in the low-hundreds, a fraction of more than 100,000 who are in Tbilisi, and dwarfed by other anti-war protests largely composed of Georgians.
Many Georgians whom I’ve spoken with feel that most Russians are indifferent about the war, or else they pay lip service in their opposition to it because they know it is expected of them. In one particularly illustrative incident at the downtown bar Ambavi, I witnessed an ostensibly anti-war Russian man talk about how horrible but the Putin regime was, but when he was pressed on why he wasn’t there protesting, he grew defensive and was promptly shown the door by a group of Georgian patrons. In a sentiment often echoed around Tbilisi, they told me they didn’t appreciate how his defensiveness or that he had mentioned his own hardships while Ukraine was being bombed and Georgia was occupied. If he had begun the conversation with a clear and concise, “hello I’m Russian and I’m against the war”, they explained, they would have had no problem with his presence there. This distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Russians has been expressed by some Georgian opposition politicians, who have stressed that more information should be gathered about Russians arriving so that only the ‘good’ ones (those openly against the war) would be allowed entry.
However, another prevailing opinion is perhaps best expressed by the graffiti below, which is actually tamer than many of the vitriolic messages seen and heard around the city.
The owner of the now-famous Dedaena Bar said in an interview that “we [Georgians] find it really offensive when they [Russians] are here having a good time.” Many Georgians who I’ve spoken to, especially younger generations, have similar disdain towards the new arrivals, stressing that to them, their presence here alone is unwelcome, regardless of their position towards the war. Although the open hostility expressed by graffiti does not as often spill out into verbal altercations or fights, it is an explanation for the existence of the parallel society that has grown in Tbilisi. According to the JamNews investigation, some Russians are fully aware that they “are clearly not liked here”, and as such they prefer to go to Russian bars such as Ploho Bar or D20 Bar, where the vast majority of patrons and staff are Russians. Similarly, many Georgians prefer to stay away from such places, and one Georgian friend told me felt very uncomfortable at one of the Russian bars we had ended up at. On my street, a Russian café recently opened, and it has since become popular, with young people spilling out onto the sidewalk. Despite the menu and signs being in English, I have yet to hear anyone outside speaking a language other than Russian.
The New Middle Class?
While the prevailing sentiment is a wish, articulated in varying degrees of forcefulness, for Russians to leave, there is also the general acceptance that many will stay, and even a fear of the economic situation if they were to suddenly leave. As Russians have become an increasingly inextricable part of the local economy, particularly the rental market, there is concern that it could implode without them. On the other hand, many Russians have now settled in Georgia and begun to lay down roots, such as buying buildings and pressing for more Russian-language schools. Some (although not all, as is a common misconception) Russians who have arrived earned more than the average Georgian salary, which has heightened the prospect of them supplanting Georgians as the new urban middle class.
To be sure, the future of Russians in Georgia, and that of Georgia in general, is largely dependent on what happens in the War in Ukraine, and the fate of Putin’s regime. Russia has previously used the claim that they are seeking to protect Russian speakers abroad as a pretext for military aggression against Ukraine and Georgia, and in the slim chance that Moscow should eventually prevail in some way in Ukraine, there is fear that they will turn here next.
Written by Nate Ostiller. Images by Nate Ostiller.
Edited by Wade McCagh.