The Unwanted Georgians Don't Always Roll Out Welcome Mat for Russian Exiles
On the 17th floor of a high-rise, with a view over the crowded cityscape of Tbilisi, Artem Ivanov, a Russian IT engineer, is immersed in a reality that he never envisioned. For his work in Georgia, the 23-year-old has bought himself an ergonomic office chair with an adjustable headrest, his only significant purchase since Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
Ivanov works as an IT expert. Among his clients, he says, is a British bank that provided its services inside Russia before the war. He left Moscow in March 2022 with a number of co-workers, but his family is still there, which is why he has chosen to go by a pseudonym for this article. "If I hadn’t left, I would have lost my job." Western sanctions, he says, would have made it impossible for him to work inside Russia.
Ivanov had just started his job at the bank last March, but he didn’t hesitate to leave Moscow. Rumors were flying that the borders would be closed and he was afraid of getting stuck, so he accepted his boss’ offer of a one-way ticket to Tbilisi.
The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 12/2023 (March 18th, 2023) of DER SPIEGEL.
And now he’s here, in a roomy apartment close to the center of the Georgian capital – a young man in T-shirt and sweatpants, quick-witted and funny. He’s used to working hard, and he has the know-how to land on his feet no matter where he ends up. The brightly lit apartment he shares with his girlfriend has two balconies – on the wall hang a series of letters spelling out in Russian "Idiocy and Bravado." A decent synopsis of the current situation.
Up to a million Russians have left their country in the last year, with hundreds of thousands of them ending up in countries with open borders, like Georgia, Armenia and Kazakhstan. Others managed to obtain visas for Baltic countries, Finland or other European countries. A number of Russians made their way to Israel, the United Arab Emirates or even the United States. Four men got stuck in an airport in South Korea, and two managed to make their way to Alaska by boat. More recently, an increasing number of pregnant Russian women have been heading for Argentina because of the country’s lenient visa policies. And with Putin’s war now having entered its second year, that number could rise.
Artem Ivanov sits in his apartment. Behind him are the words: "Idiocy and Bravado."Foto: Dmitrij Leltschuk / DER SPIEGEL
A view of the Tbilisi Old Town: According to Georgian statistics, around 112,000 Russians came to Georgia and remained last year.Foto: Dmitrij Leltschuk / DER SPIEGEL
Tbilisi, with a population of 1.3 million people, has become home to an especially large number of Russians in exile. According to Georgian officials, around 112,000 Russians arrived in the country last year and stayed – now making up 3 percent of the country’s entire population. But Georgia isn’t free of problems of its own. Around a fifth of the country’s territory is occupied by Russian troops. In contrast to western Europe, the debate here does not focus on weapons deliveries and high energy prices, but on questions of domestic security and national sovereignty.
There is significant fear among Georgians of being overrun by their Russian neighbors. Though Georgia has periodically been seen as a potential candidate for accession to the European Union or NATO, the current government is pursuing a clear pro-Russian course – but a significant share of Georgian citizens feel more affinity with Europe. In early March, thousands of people took to the streets to protest a law that would have mirrored Russian legislation and criminalized government critics as "foreign agents." A photo of a woman waving an EU flag despite being sprayed by a water cannon quickly made the rounds on social media. The government withdrew the draft law in response to the outcry, resulting in an indirect threat from the Russian Foreign Ministry on Twitter that war would result if the government in Tbilisi were overthrown. It was an incident that served to highlight the uneasy relationship between Georgian citizens and the Russians that have recently found refuge in the country.
There is plenty of anti-Russian graffiti on the street corners of Tbilisi, signs like "Fuck Russia" and "Russians Go Home." Restaurant receipts include the reminder: "Russia is occupying 20 percent of Georgian territory." A designer store is selling napkins embroidered with the slogan "Goodbye Russia." Some bars have signs demanding that Russian guests sign an anti-Putin declaration before entering.
A sticker reading "Russia kills" on the door of a restaurant in TbilisiFoto: Dmitrij Leltschuk / DER SPIEGEL
The streets of Tbilisi are covered with anti-Russian graffiti, with the anger of many Georgians rising along with the prices.Foto: Dmitrij Leltschuk / DER SPIEGEL
Georgia has experienced two main waves of Russian exiles. The first arrived immediately after Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and included people like Artem Ivanov – tech experts and engineers who could easily find work outside of Russia. Many of the around 43,000 Russians who left immediately after the invasion did so for economic reasons, but the wave also included dissidents and intellectuals. The second, larger wave from late September was largely made up of those seeking to escape mobilization – young men who didn’t approve of Putin’s war, but who remained in Russia until their own lives were threatened.
"I had never even considered leaving Russia," says Ivanov. Putin has been in power in Russia for his entire life, he notes, and he had grown used to it. Now that he is no longer in the country, though, Ivanov finds the militarization of Russian society unbearable. "Going back isn’t an option." Ivanov is from a middle-class family; his father is a programmer, and his mother works as an event manager – and both are pro-Putin. Even as a young man, it was important to him that he earn his own money, and he took jobs as a driver and at McDonald’s before he went into IT. Here in Tbilisi, he earns far more than the average Georgian income. His clients are all outside of Georgia and he, too, would like to head elsewhere, preferably to England, where he has applied for a visa.
He likes the food in Georgia, and the wine, but not much else. Visa regulations? "Complicated." He's allowed to remain in the country for a year without a visa, to be sure, but each time he enters the country, he is afraid that the Georgians won’t let him in again. Rents? "High, but better than Dubai." Mobility? "Old cars, no business taxis." Plus, says Ivanov, Georgian infrastructure is poor. "It’s hard to buy electronic equipment." In contrast to the way Moscow used to be, there aren’t too many options for spending money in Tbilisi. Still, Georgia is currently experiencing a boom – in part because of men like Ivanov.
Artem Ivanov in Tbilisi
Last year, Georgia raked in revenues of $3.6 billion from foreign remittances, tourism and exports to Russia – three times as much as the year before. The country’s gross domestic product rose by 10 percent in 2022, more than almost any other country in the world.
Some of that comes from the newly opened Russian companies and small businesses. Last year, 15,000 new Russian companies were registered in the country, 16 times more than the year before, for a total of 22,400 Russian-led companies in Georgia. On top of that came more than $2 billion in foreign remittances flowing into Georgia from Russia – money that has gone for things like rent payments for apartments in Tbilisi, the price of which have almost doubled since the Russian influx. Whereas a simple, two-room apartment in the city center cost around $500 per month before the war, rent is now $1,000 or more.
The Georgian economy is dependent on Russia – far too reliant, says the anti-corruption organization Transparency International. In the past, Moscow hasn’t been shy about using economic ties to heap pressure on other countries.
Anger within Georgia about the number of exiles in the country has intensified as the prices have risen – and as the influence of the newcomers has become more apparent. On top of that comes the deep-seated memories of the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008. Taken together, the result has been that Georgians and Russians tend to live in parallel worlds.
Ivanov says that he personally hasn’t experienced any hostility in Tbilisi. But he tends to drink his beer in a Russian-owned bar. He says he was refused entry once to a club that only allows in Georgian patrons, and that he has stuck a Ukrainian flag to his car, which still has Russian plates, to protect it. He stayed home during the recent protests, saying it was mostly about Georgian domestic policy and that it had made him "uncomfortable." He does, though, have respect for the anger that many Georgians feel, he says.
Two men talking in Dust, a new, Russian-owned club in Tbilisi: Russians and Georgians largely operate in parallel worlds.Foto: Dmitrij Leltschuk / DER SPIEGEL
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, there were numerous unresolved conflicts in the regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. In 2008, Russia launched a military offensive, during which Russian troops advanced into Georgian territory. Signs of the five-day war, which ended in defeat for Georgia, can be seen in many places. And since then, thousands of Russian troops have been stationed in South Ossetia, a region that is officially part of Georgia. And just 45 minutes by car from Tbilisi, there is a refugee camp that is home to thousands of internally displaced people, many of whom are angry and desperate. Hatred of Putin in the camp is mixed with hatred of those who have fled the Russian leader. Some of them would like to drive the newly arrived Russians out of the city themselves.
Many are upset with how easy the government has made it for Russian immigrants to open up shops and bank accounts. A survey conducted by the U.S. non-profit International Republican Institute last fall found that 78 percent of the population is opposed to allowing Russian citizens into the country without a visa. There have also been protests demanding that the border to Russia be closed.
Some have taken matters into their own hands. Tsotne Japaridze, a 42-year-old travel guide, collected money via social media last year to print posters and stickers that make it clear to Russians in exile that they are not welcome in Georgia. At least "as long as they don’t accept Georgian history, culture and identity," he says. Many newcomers from Russia, he says during an interview in a café, either know nothing about Russia’s annexation of parts of Georgia, or they act as if Georgia were a Russian province. The back of his hoodie is printed with a map of Georgia, with South Ossetia and Abkhazia clearly marked as being under Russian occupation.
Georgian travel guide Tsotne Japaridze, discussing his fears of Russian exiles in Georgia
"Two-hundred years of Georgian history have been marked by problems with Russia," says Japaridze. He lists off various periods of Russian occupation and the steps Russia has taken to appropriate Georgian territory. Indeed, Georgia was under Russian occupation for the vast majority of the 19th and 20th centuries. "As a travel guide, I have to speak about history," Japaridze says. "And problems with Russian guests always start at dinner, if not before." He says he has experienced numerous "uncomfortable situations" when Russian guests begin accusing him of historical revisionism after a couple glasses of wine.
These days, though, Japaridze no longer works with visitors from Russia. And now that there are so many Russian newcomers in Georgia, his distrust has grown even more intense – to the point that he even thinks that an attack from within is a possibility. "As a new ethnic minority in the country, Russians could win seats in parliament," he says. "It’s possible that they could claim that their lives in Georgia are in danger and call for help from the Russian army." Just like what happened in the Donbas region of Ukraine.
Russian IT expert Artem Ivanov on his balcony in Tbilisi: "I had never even considered leaving Russia."
Dmitrij Leltschuk / DER SPIEGEL
The men who allegedly fled mobilization back home, he says, are young, big and strong. "God knows who these people are. Maybe they are collecting information and will act as saboteurs during protests against the government."
The political debate in Georgia has been fiercely polemical for years. Scenarios such as the ones envisioned by Japaridze are almost certainly overwrought, but they make it clear just how fragile the situation in Georgia is, a country where Russians are both occupiers and refugees. Many experts in Tbilisi point out that Georgia is hardly able to defend itself militarily. And observers are likewise certain that the influx of newcomers from Russia also includes spies who could be helpful should Russia decide to launch yet another military adventure.
The pro-Russian billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, who pulls the strings in the Georgian government from the background, was clearly flirting with the Kremlin with the recent "foreign agent" draft law. His party, Georgian Dream, is rather restrained when it comes to support for Ukraine. Tbilisi does not participate in the Western sanctions regime against Russia and the government also rejects arms deliveries to Ukraine. In addition, the opposition accuses the Georgian government of waving through sanctioned goods from Turkey to Russia.
Roman P. has never thought too much about politics. But men like him, who arrived in Georgia as part of the second wave of immigrants from Russia, are viewed with a great deal of suspicion by many Georgians. A carpenter from Rostov-on-Don, he arrived in Tbilisi in late September to escape the conscription authorities, having fled in a panic with his girlfriend.
Among the possessions they brought along is a disco ball, which now hangs from the ceiling of their 15-square-meter (160-square-foot) room in a former refugee hostel. Roman P., who asked that his last name not be printed out of fear for his family back in Russia, shows their tiny bathroom, the toilet directly beneath the shower. In the living space, they have a sofa bed and a table at the window. "When I have enough work, life is good," says Roman P. But when he doesn’t, things are quite difficult. A package of antidepressants is lying on the refrigerator.
He is able to earn a bit of money as a plumber and electrician. "Luckily, there are a lot of problems with the pipes here," he says. Some 95 percent of his customers are Russian speakers, he says, adding that he recently wired a sound studio for a Belarusian musician. He benefits greatly from the exiles from Moscow, since they are generally able to pay well – and when he does help Georgians, he says, he generally charges much less or not at all because of their lower incomes.
Roman P. of Russia fled his homeland to avoid being drafted. "Some Russians still see Georgia as a Russian province. And that’s how they behave."Foto: Dmitrij Leltschuk / DER SPIEGEL
Roman P. is from a working-class family; his father is a plumber and his mother a seamstress. He still hasn’t told his father that he has fled the country. "He wouldn’t understand," he says. "People in Russia have difficulties when it comes to thinking for themselves." All too often, he says, people don’t have to make decisions on their own in Russia. But in Georgia, things are different. "That’s difficult for a lot of people."
Roman P. knows that there are plenty of Russians in Tbilisi who assume that every Georgian they run into on the streets can speak their language. "Some Russians still see Georgia as a Russian province. And that’s how they behave." He and his girlfriend are hoping to build a future in Georgia and have children, but he is still afraid that the Georgians will turn him over to the Russians. He hasn’t yet dared to open a bank account. And he says he would never even consider signing his name on an anti-Putin declaration to get into a bar. The mutual distrust is significant.
Olesya Vartanyan, an expert with the International Crisis Group
Experts believe that a renewed Russian attack on Georgia remains a possibility. Russia did withdraw a number of troops from the occupied areas of Georgia for redeployment in Ukraine. "But that doesn’t mean that Georgians should feel safe," says Olesya Vartanyan, who focuses on the southern Caucasus in her work for the International Crisis Group. "It didn't take much of effort in 2008 for Russian to send in its tanks and divide the country in two," she says. Any kind of escalation at all, she says, could result in an incident, the consequences of which the Georgians would no longer be able to control.
Snow still covers the ground at the line of demarcation between occupied South Ossetia and the rest of Georgia. Not a sound can be heard, except for the crunching beneath David Katsarava’s boots as he walks. It comes across quite clearly in the mobile-phone video the self-proclaimed border guard is showing in a Tbilisi hotel. In the clip, he is looking for traces in the forest: footprints, markings, barbed wire. Katsarava leads a volunteer unit that patrols the borderline between Georgia and the territories occupied by Russia. In the video, he is standing among trees that have been marked with red crosses and angrily discussing yet another apparent Russian incursion into Georgian territory.
Using GPS data and cameras, Katsarava documents how Russian occupiers are secretly moving the border. The maps used by the Russian military to delineate the territory they claim are not recognized by the Georgians. And Georgia has refused to engage in negotiations so as not to legitimize Russian sovereignty in the region.
Katsarava is a muscular man with a calm voice. He was once the head of a canoe and rafting federation, and the owner of an adventure tourism company. But then, he says, "I shifted my life into the forest." Six years ago, Katsarava together with 20 men, began patrolling the demarcation line.
Self-proclaimed border guard David Katsarava (right) patrolling the demarcation line to Russian-occupied South Ossetia with one of his men. They often head out and night, and fly drones during the day.Foto: Dmitrij Leltschuk / DER SPIEGEL
Katsarava (right) on the demarcation line between Georgia and South Ossetia: "The Russians want to stir up fear and depopulate the border line."Foto: Dmitrij Leltschuk / DER SPIEGEL
The line dividing Russian-occupied South Ossetia from the rest of Georgia is around 400 kilometers long. Much of it is forested and hilly, and it runs through several dozen villages, some of which are claimed by both parties. Village residents are repeatedly apprehended and imprisoned by the Russians because they unknowingly crossed into territory claimed by the Russians. Katsarava refers to them as "kidnappings," and says they primarily have a single goal: "The Russians want to stir up fear and depopulate the border line.” Katsarava wants to prevent that.
He says he has wanted to defend his country ever since he was 12 years old. On April 9, 1989, he was watching as an anti-Soviet demonstration in Tbilisi was brutally put down by Soviet soldiers. At least 20 protesters were killed in that incident, and hundreds injured, some of them severely. The "feeling of terror" has never left Katsarava, and it grew with the occupations of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. When Katsarava read on Facebook in 2017 that Russia had retaken the Georgian part of a village on the demarcation line, he organized a group of volunteers for defense.
Since then, Katsarava and the 10 people still with him patrol the demarcation line almost every day. They frequently set out at nighttime, he says, and fly drones over the area during the day. He and his team also deliver food to villagers. Still, they can’t really do anything aside from document movements along the border. "I am constantly in danger of getting kidnapped," he says, and he believes the situation has become even more difficult due to the influx of Russian exiles. He, too, believes that some of those who arrived with the second wave are "sleepers," who could be activated for operations at any time.
David Katsarava and a member of his team on the demarcation line between Georgia and South Ossetia
Georgia’s close economic ties with Russia, the government’s pro-Russian course and the painful history of occupation have combined to stoke understandable fears among the population. For young Russians who are opposed to the regime back home and are searching for a new home in Georgia, it isn’t an easy situation to navigate.
Dance the fears away: That is the recipe recommended by Lena Miklashevskaya. And it is one that applies to both the fears harbored by Russians, and those held by Georgians. The 27-year-old moved to Tbilisi from Moscow last July and has opened up a club in the Georgian capital together with her partner. Called Dust, it lies hidden beneath an electricity utility in the city center and includes 1,000 square meters of space, including a bar, a bistro and plenty of room for dancing across two levels. She wants it to be a place where Russians and Georgians can party together.
Miklashevskaya, a woman with green eyes and honey-colored curls whose father comes from Georgia, has traveled widely and is quite urbane. She spent the entire previous night partying, but she is back in Dust on this afternoon. Miklashevskaya operated a loft for events in the Russian capital before moving to Georgia, and her partner here used to run seven bars in Moscow. When Putin invaded Ukraine, they both realized that it would become far more difficult to earn money in Russia.
They decided on Tbilisi. "Here, there is nothing left of the Soviet mindset," she says laughing. "We want to create a space here for everybody." But that's easier said than done. Even just finding Georgian employees has been a challenge, she says. And locals have been hesitant to come – despite the fact that Tbilisi is known for its nightlife.
Lena Miklashevskaya in Dust, the club she opened in Tbilisi. She had hoped it would be a place for Russians and Georgians, but locals have been slow to show up.Foto: Dmitrij Leltschuk / DER SPIEGEL
Miklashevskaya doesn’t really like talking about it, but ultimately says: "You get cancelled here pretty quickly. Sometimes, a Russian name on the door is all it takes." It’s like a curse on the place, she says.
Her favorite event thus far at Dust took place at the end of last year. It was called "The Burial of a Nameless Dictator." The ringing of the Kremlin bells were played over the stereo system, roses were strewn about on the floor and there were candles everywhere. The climax of the ceremony was a model stabbing a knife into the head of the dictator’s body.
Miklashevskaya shows a video of the event. It was just as she had always imagined it: Dust, on that evening, became a place of mourning and self-empowerment. Still, most of those who attended that night were Russians.