Vladimir Putin’s decision to mobilize men for the war in Ukraine has triggered a huge exodus of hundreds of thousands to neighboring states. Georgia is one such. First, because it borders Russia, and second Russians do not need visas to cross the border.
The results of this mass movement are unknowable, but it is already clear they will be significant.
The numbers are enormous. In the six days following Putin’s announcement on September 21, more than 100,000 Russians entered Georgia. A further 100,000 have arrived in Kazakhstan, packing into hotels and dormitories, while thousands more have left for Finland, the Balkans, and elsewhere.
Car queues at the border with Georgia extend for some 18km (11 miles.) As the days go by, the numbers of what many Georgians term “deserters” is likely to grow further. Russian bloggers talk about spiraling corruption on the Russian side of the border, with $500 the going rate to bribe a passage past the border guards.
To reach the Georgian border, many travel from Moscow to Makhachkala, the capital of Dagestan, where protests against mobilization abound. They then take mini buses southwards at nearly $100 per seat. Prices on the border for ordinary items have grown tenfold. Many who try to cross by car have had to abandon their vehicles in the long queues; some simply walk across as pedestrians.
The Russian and Georgian authorities have been caught off-guard. Russia has now stationed an armored vehicle at the crossing, to stop fleeing conscripts. Moreover, Russian and Georgian media sources confirmed that Russia will open a special mobile military commissariat close to the Russian side of the border to seize those who are fleeing.
The decision is likely to further complicate the already chaotic situation on the border, which is compounded by growing hunger, a lack of water, heating, and charging points.
All this will seem benign if Georgian authorities close the border. Rumors on this upcoming decision swirl in Tbilisi, but no preparations or statements have been made so far.
The Zemo Larsi checkpoint has served for centuries as a connector between Georgia and Russia. More importantly, it also serves as the only land connection for Armenia to reach its patron. Troubles on the border could hit Armenia hard, forcing it to accelerate work on opening alternative sea routes from Georgian ports to Russia.
Growing refugee numbers threaten to upend the fragile security situation in Georgia.
The Kremlin has occupied two Georgian regions since the 2008 war. With troops stationed in the Abkhazia and Tskhinvali (South Ossetia) regions, relations with Georgia are always tense, and ordinary people are uneasy at any sign of Russian influence, including overhearing Russian spoken in the streets. Georgians are angry that fleeing Russians are not political objectors to the war in Ukraine, but are for the most part seeking simply to avoid military service. “Where were they when Mariupol was bombed?” one young activist asked in a private discussion.
There is also the internal Georgian economic dynamic. Incoming Russians have sent property rental prices up exponentially. Students from various Georgian regions have therefore been unable to begin their university studies in Tbilisi. Officially the country’s economy grows, but the gap between the wealthy and the poor is becoming increasingly glaring. And even as Russians arrive, ambitious Georgians are departing. Some 100,000 left the country in 2021 alone, and the number is likely to be higher this year. Thus there are also fears about fragile Georgian demographics – the country has a population of just 3.7 million.
Tied into this latter point, there is also a question of internal security. Back in February-March when Russia invaded Ukraine, and during the summer, visiting Russians were mostly seen as tourists. Though their number was staggering (some 800,000), the quality of those visitors was different. Tourists willing to spend money boosted economy and by early September most tensions seemed to ease. The mobilization order changed the dynamic. Now Georgians are not expecting tourists, but tens of thousands of residence-seekers. Questions arise as to where they will live, and whether they would be able to pay for themselves.
So far the Georgian government’s reaction has been muted. It reflects the balancing game it has been playing ever since Putin invaded Ukraine, seeking to avoid too much support for Ukraine and too much criticism of the Kremlin.
But maintaining this fragile equilibrium is becoming increasingly difficult as the number of Russians soars, while the opposition and frightened ordinary Georgians express their anger. Parliamentary elections are due in 2024. It will be hard to reconcile this combination of challenges until then.
Emil Avdaliani is a professor at European University and the Director of Middle East Studies at the Georgian think-tank, Geocase.