In a press briefing on March 11, Georgian Interior Minister Vakhtang Gomelauri revealed that approximately 25,000–30,000 Russian citizens had arrived and stayed in Georgia following Russia’s launch of full-scale military aggression against Ukraine (Kommersant, March 11). Most of these individuals were escaping asphyxiating Western sanctions and fear a further escalation of repressions by the Russian authorities. Many Georgians are worried about this process (Civil.ge, March 4).
David Avalishvili, a columnist with the independent news and analytical agency Nation.ge, noted that since Minister Gomerlauri’s first statement, this resettlement figure had doubled. “Before the [COVID-10] pandemic, about a million Russian tourists came to Georgia [annually]; but now it is not tourists who are coming but those who want to become residents,” Avalishvili said. He continued, “These Russians are seeking a long-term stay in Georgia for three particular reasons: they can remain in this country for one year without a visa; in addition, Georgians speak Russian; and a quick business registration allows them to transfer their businesses from Russia to Georgia” (Author’s interview, March 19)
Georgian member of parliament Teona Akubardia, who serves as the deputy head of the legislature’s defense and security committee, claimed, in a March 20 interview with this author, that the Georgian government is either unaware of the associated risks from these population inflows or is unwilling or unable to respond to them. “Russia often uses such situations to infiltrate its agents to target countries. Moscow uses them for provocations, including in the cyber sphere. And I wonder why the government of Irakli Garibashvili does not discuss these risks at a special meeting of the Georgian National Security Council,” Akubardia mused. The lawmaker noted that she does not support the idea of restoring the visa regime for Russians, which was canceled by then-president Mikheil Saakashvili in 2012; but she is calling on the border police to more carefully check all those Russians seeking to enter Georgia during the Kremlin’s war on Ukraine.
Russian President Vladimir Putin banned direct flights from Russia to Georgia in 2019. Therefore, Russians now come to the South Caucasus country on connecting flights, via Yerevan, Minsk and Istanbul.
Prior to the war, Ilona (28 years old, last name withheld), had served in the Moscow office of a large United States company. In an interview on March 16, she told this author that to flee her country, she purchased a ticket for a Moscow–Istanbul–Tbilisi flight; but at the last minute, Turkey canceled all connecting flights from Russia to third countries. She had to fly to Yerevan and, from there, drive to Tbilisi (275 kilometers) by taxi.
Ilona said she does not support Russia’s war against Ukraine. She wrote about this many times on her Facebook page and is petrified that she will face punishment for publicizing her anti-war views. Therefore, she made the difficult choice to emigrate and plans to work in the same US company remotely—from the territory of Georgia. On the Armenian-Georgian border, she had to wait for several hours while the Georgian border guards meticulously questioned her about the purpose of her visit.
Oleg—who asked this author, in his March 20 interview, not to reveal his last name because of security risks for him and his family still living in Russia—underscored that the only reason he is staying in Georgia (he arrived on March 16) is to save his small business “from the Western sanctions against the Putin regime.” But Oleg has run into a large problem: the Georgian authorities are preventing him from opening an account with a Georgian bank. Russians need to wait for many days while undergoing background checks before they can open a local bank account. And some end up being refused.
Additionally, MasterCard and Visa credit cards issued to Russian citizens by Georgian banks only work on the territory of Georgia. Oleg had hoped that since Russian-issued MasterCard and Visa cards were blocked in the European Union and the US, he would be able to receive a similar card in Georgia and use it to travel around the world, do business and pay his bills. But that does not seem to be possible. Moreover, the Bank of Georgia (BoG), the largest private financial institution in the country, has required all Russians wishing to open a local account in any currency to first sign a document condemning Putin’s policies against Georgia and Ukraine (Interpressnews, March 4). Oleg is ready to sign this document, but he is afraid that the Russian special services will find out and punish his family living in Yekaterinburg.
The first noticeable result of this current wave of Russian migration to Georgia was a significant increase in residential rents in two cities: the capital Tbilisi and also in Batumi, on the Black Sea coast (Mtavari.tv, March 19). Rental prices of one-bedroom and even studio apartments have tripled: from $200–250 per month to $600–700. Elena (from Kaliningrad) said that she could not find an apartment in Tbilisi, where she lived with friends for several days, and was forced to move to Batumi, where she now rents a studio for $700. But Elena is happy because she knows of someone else who moved to Tbilisi from Moscow with his family and could not find any place to live. This person was forced to spend the night with his children at the railway station, where he was unable to buy a ticket to Batumi (Author’s interview, March 20).
The newly arrived Russians tend to rent apartments in Tbilisi and Batumi for six months or a year. They, on the whole, have not yet lost hope of eventually returning to their homeland. But almost none of them are buying longer-term housing for another reason: the former president of Georgia, Saakashvili, recently warned that the Russians who purchase apartments or other real estate in Georgia are “making a big mistake” because, if he and his team return to power, all that property will be confiscated, sold at auction, and the money will be transferred to a fund for the restoration of Ukraine, which is suffering from Russian aggression (Mtavari.tv, March 17).
Despite all the obstacles they face upon arrival, the number of Russians moving to Georgia is not decreasing, but growing every day. For a small nation of less than four million, which only escaped Russian domination a generation ago, this has already become both a political and potential security issue. In particular, Saakashvili has warned that the appearance of a large ethnic-Russian minority in Georgia can be exploited by the Kremlin as a pretext for a new invasion.