The Russians are coming to Georgia. This time at least they’re not in tanks, but as visitors either arriving as tourists or staying in the country indefinitely. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine forced many liberal Russians to flee the country, and Georgia which offers a unilateral visa-free regime, quite naturally represented an attractive destination.
Initially, some tens of thousands came, but as the war in Ukraine has dragged on and the numbers grow there is a rising fear in Georgia that the initial wave has now been superseded by something more ominous under the disguise of tourism.
The numbers are huge. The inflow of some 250,000 Russians to a country of about 3.7 million has increased tensions, especially in tourist areas. Some plan to stay longer — in the March-June period alone, 6,400 companies were registered by Russian citizens in addition to a fairly high number of real estate purchases in major Georgian cities. In August these figures are expected to increase further.
The large numbers do offer some economic recompense. Indeed, the Georgian currency, the lari, fared fairly well over the past months and recovered some of its losses against the US dollar. Though monthly inflation is tapering off only very slowly, economic growth is good.
But the influx has caused security concerns. The opposition claims that among the Russians there are numerous Kremlin agents. Some of those concerns were evidenced in a recent revelation made by one Russian resident claiming he had been sent into Georgia to spy on compatriots.
Demographic fears are also rising as greater numbers of Georgian leave the country for work in Poland, Germany, and especially the US. In 2021 alone, nearly 100,000 people departed. For a country of its size, the numbers of arriving Russians are staggering, as is the scale of Russian tourists cum seekers of permanent residence.
An online petition has now been launched in Tbilisi to push the government into re-introducing visas for Russians. This comes at the moment when calls for a complete ban for Russian citizens are increasing across Europe and especially in the Baltics and other border states.
The ruling party, Georgian Dream is on the fence. And while it tries to pilot a balanced approach to the problem, the opposition accuses it of covert pro-Russian sentiment. This is not helped by the ongoing tensions between Georgian Dream and the country’s Western partners, which also fuels allegations about the party’s true intentions. Though it is unlikely that a major shift in Georgia’s foreign policy will occur, there are indeed indications that its approach to its historically close ties with the EU and NATO will be more nuanced and more distant. More geopolitical balancing will be on display.
Many Georgians try to show their negative stance toward the inflow of Russians by exhibiting anti-Russian signs, graffiti, or Ukrainian flags. Batumi, Georgia’s major sea resort, is filled with Russians and tensions are palpable across the city. The main boulevard has signs declaring “Moscow Will Burn” and “Russians Go Home.” Europe Square has nearly daily flash mobs of people waving Ukrainian flags and exhibiting banners with “Russia is a Terrorist State.” Russians respond with slurs and gestures.
In one instance, a Russian protesting against Georgian songs being played in a café triggered a violent response from local Georgians, while Arab tourists watched on stupefied. Social media in Georgia are filled with similar cases with locals expressing discomfort when approached in Russian.
While the majority of Georgians may be decidedly anti-Russian, the business sector is disregarding social tensions and is seeking to lure as many Russians as possible. Georgia is economically increasingly dependent on Russia, something that has become even clearer in recent months. Yet as bilateral trade grows and tourism flourishes, there is still very much a live collective memory of the Kremlin using economic leverage in the past.
Most Georgians are also able to distinguish between the different types of Russian arrivers. Many have fled Russia because free speech is trampled upon and because weakness or doubt are now seen as treachery. These people understand that the war in Ukraine will be a long conflict, perhaps even decade-long, with unknowable consequences. They create cafes and live within small, mostly Russian-speaking social groups. Their presence is seen as less threatening because they tend to blend in rather than stand out, and they often appreciate the fears and demands of the local population.
The ambiguity in the streets of Georgian cities exemplifies the challenge the country is currently facing as the regional balance of power teeters — if Russia’s military successfully occupies large parts of Eastern and Southern Ukraine then the South Caucasus will look like a very different place.
If Georgia re-introduces visas, it might well anger the Kremlin, or so the government’s logic goes. Social disturbances, even at the level of rioting, might potentially instigate a Russian reaction. So the Georgian government chooses to do what it does best — waiting on yet another critical situation hoping for the worst of the storm to pass.
This worked in the past crises. This time, however, the situation is much riskier.
Emil Avdaliani is a professor at European University and the Director of Middle East Studies at the Georgian think-tank, Geocase.