Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, especially after the mobilization in Russia, tens of thousands of Russians have come to Georgia. Many Georgians are suspicious of the new immigrants: They accuse the Russians of not wanting to deal with the Putin regime.
Christmas is celebrated in Georgia on January 7th. The country is home to numerous religions, but most Georgians are Orthodox. At a Christmas market in the center of Tbilisi at the end of December, handmade chocolate filled with alcohol - made with love for the Ukrainian army - is sold. The Georgian President resides a few steps further in the Orbeliani Palace. The front garden is lit up for Christmas, in the entrance there is a festively decorated Chichilaki, a Georgian Christmas tree, and a meter-high Ukrainian flag hangs on the side wall. Russia's war against Ukraine is omnipresent on the streets of Tbilisi even during the Christmas season, and there's no mistaking which side Georgians are on. "Ukraine is Georgia is Ukraine" and "Glory to Ukraine" is written on houses or on billboards. But "Visa for Russians" (so far Russians can enter the country without a visa) or "Russki go home" are sprayed on walls. The city administration tries to remove the graffiti from time to time, but they usually reappear overnight.
Public opinion is in stark contrast to the fact that after February 24, tens of thousands of Russians fled to Georgia and are now mostly staying in the two major Black Sea cities of Tbilisi and Batumi. The numbers are inaccurate because the government refuses to record the Russians entering or leaving the country with registration forms at the border. It is estimated that there are currently around 120,000 Russian exiles in Georgia who plan to remain in the country for the time being.
Katja from St. Petersburg has been in Tbilisi since March. She is working on an investigation into the two major waves of emigration, also known as "Fevralyonoks", February Russians, and "Sentyabryonoks", September Russians, depending on whether they left their country after the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine or the mobilization have left. She wants to learn more about the reasons for emigration, the attitude to the war in Ukraine and plans for the future. She has already received more than 950 questionnaires for the Fevraljonoks and conducted numerous interviews with them. The survey of the Sentjabrjonoks is still ongoing, the results should be available in January.
Much has been written about the short-term economic impact of Russian emigration to Georgia since the beginning of the war: a booming economy, thousands of start-up companies, a strong currency, high economic growth, and rising rental and real estate prices. But what do the immigration waves mean for Georgian society, what does the new everyday life look like in which so many Georgians and Russians now have to deal with each other? Katja talks about the Russian "infrastructure" that has been created in Tbilisi since the spring. In June, Dissidents Books, a Russian bookstore connected to a café that hosts regular events, opened in the posh Wake district. At the beginning it was about the Russian translation of the children's book "Ente, Tod und Tulpe" by Wolf Erlbruch, later Russian classics like Puschkin, Tolstoj or Mandelstam were discussed, in late summer there were also dance evenings from "Swing Dance Tbilisi".
Another Russian initiative called "Emigration for Action" (efa) has been in a house in the old town since April. Here Russian emigrants collect humanitarian, especially medical aid for Ukrainian refugees who have come to Tbilisi. Since the end of September, Russians who speak out against the war and who fled from the mobilization have also been helped here. Film or board game evenings also take place in the efa.
What these and other initiatives founded by Russians in Tbilisi have in common is that they are practically not integrated into the Georgian environment. Katja reports that there are few activities at efa that are open to Georgians. What she means is that the events are almost entirely in Russian. "Georgians can of course also go there, but only Russian is spoken." However, many Georgians are allergic to Russian, and especially to Russians who don't want to talk about the war in Ukraine and don't care about politics.
In October, the controversial Russian journalist Ksenia Sobchak, daughter of the former mayor of St. Petersburg and Vladimir Putin's mentor, wanted to enter a trendy bar in Tbilisi. The owner, Data Lapauri, refused her entry. "If Russians don't know that 20 percent of Georgian territory is occupied by Russia, if they don't know that the Russian army is in Georgia and Russian tanks are 20 kilometers from here, Russian soldiers pretending to be peacekeepers , being in Georgia illegally and kidnapping people, if they don't know that but just come here to eat khachapuri then they are not welcome here." The conversation, in which Sobchak spoke only Russian and Lapauri answered her in English, went viral in no time.
In six months, a parallel Russian society has emerged in Tbilisi, which many Georgians view with suspicion. They accuse the Russian emigrants of creating a new comfort zone in Georgia without wanting to deal with the regime in their own country, Russia's responsibility for the war in Ukraine, or Russia's role in the South Caucasus. In fact, many events are held in Tbilisi about tensions in the region for which Russia shares responsibility, such as the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan or the unresolved conflicts in Georgia. Russia is almost always an object that is talked about, there are hardly any Russian experts with whom you can talk about developments in the region. Or wants to talk.
At an event on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, speakers from Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia agreed that it would be best if Russia left the region politically and militarily. And even if that sounds like a pious wish: If the Russians then began to treat their neighbors with respect rather than as former colonies, if they respected their national, political and cultural independence and would no longer question them, then that would be the case it would probably be easier for many Georgians, who are actually famous for their hospitality, to welcome Russian guests again.
Stephan Malerius heads the South Caucasus regional program of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation in Tbilisi.