May 19, 2022 - 7:30am

Tbilisi, Georgia

While the 2.6 million Ukrainian refugees now seeking sanctuary abroad is attracting most of the headlines in the West, there’s another mass movement underway — of wealthier and Putin-critical Russians fleeing their homeland.

It is to the former Soviet Union that these emigrés have turned, with the Caucasus proving particularly popular: 80,000 are reported to have travelled to Armenia, and over 25,000 to Georgia, where they have also been joined by 5,000 citizens of Belarus. 

Although Armenia continues to enjoy a cordial relationship with Russia, in Georgia matters are rather different, not least because it also suffered a Russian invasion in 2008. Indeed, most Georgians seem to consider Ukraine’s conflict with Moscow as an extension of their own war and are reacting accordingly; Russians are already reporting being subject to abuse in the street, or kicked out of taxis after revealing their nationality, and denied the chance to rent apartments. 

Georgian banks, meanwhile, either require Russian citizens to sign documents affirming their loyalty to Ukrainian and Georgian statehood, or refuse to deal with Russian citizens at all. Government attempts to introduce anti-discrimination measures have been met by an angry backlash and accusations of covert pro-Russian sentiment — accusations which may not be baseless. 

Given these two nations’ fraught history, this animosity is perhaps not surprising. And on a more prosaic level, the sudden arrival of Russians who are prepared to pay higher prices has driven up rent and living costs, which are decidedly unwelcome in a city where the average salary is $400 a month.

For the most part, the Russians who have moved here keep to themselves. They huddle in groups in bars, speaking their own language, giving a taste to come of the social enclaves that will surely follow. Even those Georgians who are fluent in Russian now demand that their Russian clients speak English or Georgian. Indeed, after drinking with a Muscovite friend in a cafe and conversing with an ethnic Russian waitress in her native language, we were asked — politely but firmly — to only speak to her in Georgian or English.

Georgian hostility to Russians far from imaginary, but has mostly been confined to the online realm, according to Russian expatriate Stanislav Pavlov. “I’ve not had any negative interactions face to face here,” he says. “But on social media, there is hatred towards the Russians who’ve chosen to flee.” 

Pavlov is not a recent arrival, having fled the Putin regime in 2018. Alexei Voronin, a Ukrainian who moved to Georgia in 2017, will tolerate Pavlov’s sort who recognised the horrors of the Putin regime, but is less convinced of more recent converts. “They’re coming because they’re frightened of losing their money,” he says. “That’s it. They cannot be trusted.”

Many Georgians share his scepticism. But while this response may be understandable to an extent, it is also worth noting that most of the Russians leaving their country are not diehard Putin supporters; indeed, many have expressed disappointment at their treatment by Georgian people, as they claim to have never supported the Kremlin and its wars. As such, Georgians’ knee-jerk hostile behaviour to Russians could further polarise relations between the two communities.

The thousands of Russian people resettling in Georgia are not invading, they are running – and although their plight does not compare to the horrific suffering of refugee Ukrainians, they deserve pity of a different sort; pity for the Russia that could have been, but never will be. 

Tim Ogden is the Assistant Editor at New Europe. He is based in Georgia.