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Georgians alarmed at the arrival of tens of thousands of Russian exiles

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

In Europe, the government of Georgia says more than 100,000 Russians have settled there, many after fleeing conscription to fight in Ukraine. Like Ukraine, Georgia was invaded by Russia. And Russian forces occupy part of that country. So the recent arrival of tens of thousands of Russian exiles has alarmed a lot of Georgians. NPR's Joanna Kakissis reports from the capital, Tbilisi.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: In a park in central Tbilisi, not far from giant posters and banners in support of Ukraine, you'll find a popular bar called Dedaena. The name means mother tongue in the Georgian language. But the most noticeable sign is in English. And it's a warning.

The world should stop Russian aggression. Russia is an occupier, three exclamation points. Putin is evil. If you do not agree with these statements, please, do not come in.

Russians do not need a visa to enter Georgia. But Dedaena manager Tato Londaidze says they do need permission to enter this bar.

TATO LONDAIDZE: We decided to filter people who is against war and who is not. If you are a citizen of Russia, you have to feel your country is aggressor and making these terrible things. You have to be against this.

KAKISSIS: That means filling out an online form acknowledging and opposing the Kremlin's war on Ukraine and the Russian occupation of Georgia. And only then do you get your bar visa, a stamp on the hand that reads...

LONDAIDZE: I don't know how to translate bad word in English. But it's like, Putin is [expletive].

KAKISSIS: Bar patrons like software developer Anna Iashvili support this screening. She compares the recent influx of Russians to an invasion of another kind.

ANNA IASHVILI: For example, if I go out to the supermarket, I only hear Russian-speaking people. I feel like Russia just entered into Georgia. And we're being occupied without a war. Yeah.

KAKISSIS: You're getting emotional about it. It really bothers you.

IASHVILI: It's noticeable that nation changed.

KAKISSIS: Anti-Russian graffiti is all over Tbilisi. Georgians have even demanded that their government close the border to Russians. But Russian dissidents have been settling in Georgia for years. Egor Kuroptev left Russia a decade ago after the Kremlin banned the TV channel he ran.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in non-English language).

KAKISSIS: He and other Russian dissidents in Georgia regularly hold anti-war protests here. Kuroptev says the Kremlin's forced conscription of men to fight in Ukraine has brought more Russians to Georgia than he's ever seen.

EGOR KUROPTEV: Georgia became the No. 1 country in terms of Russian dissidents or political exiles. But the major group are people who don't really care about any politics, but they don't want to go and die.

KAKISSIS: He says that because of the Kremlin's propaganda, many don't even know that thousands of Russian troops have occupied two regions of Georgia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, since 2008. So he set up a special hotline to fill them in.

KUROPTEV: For me, it was important to provide them at least some information about the war, about the occupation of the country, about how to act in the country when you just arrive.

KAKISSIS: Most Georgians feel some sympathy for Russian exiles who oppose Putin. But they are also deeply troubled by the Kremlin's attack on Ukraine and their own bad experiences with Russian imperialism. Khatia Dekanoidze, an opposition member of parliament, says she's concerned there are Putin sympathizers or even spies among the most recent arrivals from Russia.

KHATIA DEKANOIDZE: I consider them as a threat of the national security. For me, there is only one Russia and it is Putin's Russia. So if anybody wants to oppose Putin, I mean, they have to stay in their country and oppose the government.

KAKISSIS: Georgia allows Russians to live here without a visa for up to a year. The interior ministry says its records show that of the Russians who arrived this year, fewer than 120,000 have stayed. But Tbilisi State University professor Iago Kachkachishvili says the real number is probably much higher and is driving up the cost of living.

IAGO KACHKACHISHVILI: The percentage of Russians now in Georgia is almost 10%. So life, everyday life of Georgians, became harder, of course. Prices went up. Accommodation, for example - prices became twice, three times more than it used to be.

KAKISSIS: That has put pressure on the ruling party, Georgian Dream. It's run by a billionaire who made his fortune in Russia and whose family was recently sanctioned by Ukraine.

GHIA NODIA: The Georgian government is afraid to take any step that would make Putin unhappy.

KAKISSIS: That's Ghia Nodia, a political analyst and former education minister. He says the government criticizes its opponents for being too critical of the Kremlin.

NODIA: And that may invite Russian aggression, if you wish - that we are vulnerable, so Georgian government presents itself as the force that prevents Georgia from entering the war. And it has created this conspiracy theory that there is collusion between the United States government, European Union and Georgian opposition, aimed at dragging Georgia into the war.

KAKISSIS: But Giorgi Khelashvili, Georgian Dream lawmaker and former diplomat, strongly denies that his party's policies help the Kremlin.

GIORGI KHELASHVILI: The worst insult in Georgia is to call someone pro-Russian or pro-Kremlin. For us, the major challenge is how to keep Georgia secure and independent from Russia so that we don't fall in the sphere of influence of Russia. And for that, we have done everything that a country's government can do in our position.

KAKISSIS: Georgians like Meriko Gubeladze aren't satisfied with these assurances.

MERIKO GUBELADZE: This war that's going on in Ukraine now is very personal for us. We kind of identify ourselves with Ukrainians. And it kind of woke this sorrow in us, in Georgians.

KAKISSIS: Gubeladze is the chef and owner of a restaurant called Shavi Lomi, which means Black Lion in Georgian. Like many establishments around the capital, the restaurant is filled with stickers supporting Ukraine and slamming the Kremlin as imperialist occupiers. But unlike the bar we visited earlier, Gubeladze and her staff do not check anyone's passports.

GUBELADZE: This very young guy, I remember, 20, 21 years old, who came in once and said in English that, hello, I'm Russian. Can I eat here? And I felt so bad, you know? It's not easy to be Russian right now, so I feel for them. But we have to be very careful, of course.

KAKISSIS: She says she let the young man in. He dined alone next to a sign that read glory to Ukraine.

Joanna Kakissis, NPR News, Tbilisi, Georgia.

(SOUNDBITE OF OLD SCHOOL FREIGHT TRAIN SONG, "HEART OF GLASS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joanna Kakissis is a foreign correspondent based in Kyiv, Ukraine, where she reports poignant stories of a conflict that has upended millions of lives, affected global energy and food supplies and pitted NATO against Russia.