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Home » Why we are wary of Russian émigrés in Georgia – so soon after Russian invaders

Why we are wary of Russian émigrés in Georgia – so soon after Russian invaders

by Cahan Garakhanova
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In this, one of a series of essays on the war in Ukraine from countries in or neighbouring the former Soviet bloc, a Georgian playwright says the government is out of step with the anti-Putin popular mood

hen Russia’s modern tsar escalated his war by announcing the partial mobilisation of reservists on 21 September, another wave of anxiety swept over Georgia. With due acknowledgment that every word written from this region at the moment should be about, or in support of, the Ukrainian people and their struggle, this anxiety is why I’m diverting to focus briefly on how we see this brutal war from Georgia, which, thanks to historical and geopolitical misfortune, happens to be a southern neighbour of Russia.

The invasion of Ukraine has revived painful collective and personal memories of Russia’s 2008 war on Georgia. The trauma from this not-so-distant past rose to the surface again in February and has remained there. The current government of Georgia has tried to ignore it altogether, as if it had never happened.

Thousands of us have taken to the streets in huge public demonstrations in Tbilisi and other cities in support of Ukraine. But the government has steered clear, sticking to embarrassingly careful statements and not even bothering with any diplomatic courtesies towards Kyiv. Instead it deploys a “What do you want, war?” response to its own people’s appalled reaction and opposition demands, implying that joining the sanctions against Russia or acting against Russian economic interests would automatically drag Georgia into the war as well.

This is how the logic of Georgia’s government works – but it is not particularly hard to read between the lines. The ruling party (Georgian Dream) was founded by Bidzina Ivanishvili, the billionaire former prime minister who made his fortune in Russia in the 1990s and remains so influential that he is often referred to as our “informal leader”. Nobody, least of all civil society campaigners, consider it surprising that the government has not dared to oppose Russia openly.

Against this political background few Georgians expected our politicians to take any actual steps in protest against Moscow, despite the public mood. But people are increasingly uneasy at the influx of Russian citizens who have arrived in Georgia since the start of the bombing. Russians don’t need a visa and can stay for up to a year without one, but it is worth mentioning that Georgian border control appears to be stopping nobody from crossing other than Russian opposition activists.

A protest organised by the Georgian political party Droa at the Verkhny Lars border with Russia in September.
A protest organised by the Georgian political party Droa at the Verkhny Lars border with Russia in September. Photograph: Shakh Aivazov/AP

The situation has become more acute since 21 September, with huge numbers leaving Russia via almost every single border checkpoint with neighbouring countries. Those arriving in Georgia are fleeing not just the discomfort of western sanctions, which was the case in the weeks and months after the war began, but now include many who have no wish to lose their own lives on the battlefields in Ukraine.

At first glance, there is no problem at all in a noble act of hospitality – Georgia giving shelter to people who do not want to fight in war is truly a kind act. Beneath the surface, however, problems are brewing. Even without official numbers, a brief walk around central parts of Tbilisi is enough to confirm that the language predominantly spoken in the streets now is Russian.

Few, if any, of these displaced Russians, even if they are fleeing a totalitarian regime and positioning themselves against the war, seem keen to show off their pacifist ideas once safely in Georgia. Apart from a couple of small-scale demos, I cannot recall any significant acts of protest by relocated Russians against the war, let alone in support of Ukraine. At the end of September a popular joke circulating on Georgian social media went: “Oh, man, it is exhausting to read thousands of posts by Russian migrants freely criticising Putin’s politics and the war in Ukraine.” Of course, the truth is very few Russians have taken advantage of the (still existing) freedom of speech in Georgia.

Some are more vocal in expressing their disapproval of the graffiti in the streets supporting Ukraine or comparing Putin to male genitalia. When a bar in Tblisi began asking its Russian visitors for “visas”, issued if they ticked a “Glory to Ukraine” box, many Russians, including the reality TV star Ksenia Sobchak, protested vociferously on social media. I witnessed a Russian customer in my local cafe storm out swearing obscenities when a staff member, who did not speak Russian, politely told her the wifi password was “StandwithUkraine”.

In these instances, the complaint is always about alleged “Russophobia”. Yet a fear now widely discussed among Georgians is that these 2022 arrivals could eventually form a new Russian diaspora and in some hypothetical future scenario serve as justification for the Kremlin to order another attack on Georgia in the name of “protecting” Russian-speaking citizens. However absurd this sounds, one should not forget how Putin has weaponised language and identity issues as a pretext for invading Ukraine.

The legacy of Russian imperialism has cemented colonial attitudes in some – Georgia struggled to end its status as a Russian colony, but is still regarded by many Russians as their holiday home, their back yard, a sunny place where the likeable neighbours often speak Russian, albeit with a funny accent.

Georgian-Russian relations have a long, complex history. But the view I have long held of Russia, as a serious threat to the world order as well as neighbouring nations (a view regarded by many of my western European friends as paranoia about our former colonial masters), has been confirmed by events in Ukraine. The question is what price will have to be paid before Russia is stopped. War in Georgia in 2008 was not taken seriously, nor were the events of 2014 in Ukraine. It took horrific images of atrocities in Bucha, Mariupol and many other places for some western governments finally to take action.

Given the public outcry among Georgians about the bloodshed next door, it is pathetic that the government, which has a responsibility to act, still tries to pretend we are a third party in this war and should remain neutral.

Georgia faces a critical choice: the country has to comply with demanding criteria to acquire EU candidate status. Either the acting government gives up its Russian ties and interests, and its openly pro-Russian rhetoric, and takes adequate action in the right direction, or we remain where we have been for more than 200 years – in the cloaca of the great Russian empire. I take responsibility for the vulgar word choice. In fact, I have tried to curb the full extent of my indignation, fury and outrage in what would otherwise have been an unbroken wail – an expression of hopelessness and misery.

Source: The Guardian

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