Georgia caught in Russia’s war against Ukraine. What’s the situation on the ground?
December 7, 2022
  • Mack Tubridy
     Independent researcher
Mack Tubridy examines the impact of the war on Georgia-Russia relations and questions whether everyday attitudes of Georgian citizens toward Russians who fled war are as hostile as some media reports suggest.
View of Tbilisi's historical district, a popular destination for international tourists.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has done little to change the already chilly relations between Tbilisi and Moscow. Although Georgia has attempted over the past decade to reset relations with its neighbor to the north following the 2008 Russo-Georgian War, these efforts have not led to significant advances on some of the most critical issues, namely Russia's continued occupation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The war in Ukraine now raises doubts that any progress – at least in the near term – is possible.

Difficult relations

True, economic relations between the two countries were fully restored in 2013 after the now ruling party Georgian Dream came to power, vowing to reduce tensions with Moscow. Russia’s boycott on Georgian wine in 2006, and then the war in 2008, brought Georgian exports to Russia to a virtual standstill in subsequent years. By 2013-2014, exports resumed, increasing by 487% compared to 2012 and totalling USD 275 million.

However, as the war in Ukraine and western sanctions now make clear, these economic ties bring risks. Between January and September 2022, Georgia received USD 2.2 billion in income from Russia through remittances, exports, tourism, and cash transfers from Russian citizens fleeing war. Russia is Georgia’s second largest trade partner, making the latter highly dependent on the former, especially for the import of wheat and oil products.

That in large part explains why the Georgian government has thus far abstained from joining western countries in imposing direct sanctions on Russia, much to the chagrin of Ukraine. But deep trade relations with Russia leave Georgia vulnerable to economic shocks emanating from its neighbor, whose economy, affected by protracted conflict and sanctions, is likely to experience a pronounced slump next year.

Meanwhile, members of the Georgian Dream-led government will point to the absence of further military escalation with Moscow in recent years as proof that its flexible approach – sometimes called “strategic patience” – in foreign policy delivers tangible results. In some ways it has.

Yet this ignores the Kremlin’s own long-term strategy for its continued military presence on Georgian territory, rooted in a process of “borderization” whereby de facto authorities in South Ossetia gradually install fencing on occupied lands near administrative boundary lines. Although borderization as policy is not always clear-cut and is often used as a background prop for domestic political competition in Georgia, what is clear is that this process indiscriminately and disproportionately affects civilians living in the border areas, separating them from their farmlands, family, livelihoods, and critical infrastructure.

A couple of days after the invasion of Ukraine, Russian troops in occupied South Ossetia, whose independence few countries besides Russia recognize, reportedly began putting up signs that forbid Georgians to cross administrative borderlines. Georgian citizens are regularly detained by Russian forces in these border areas. And in May, de facto authorities in the region announced plans to hold a referendum on whether to become part of Russia, though they later scrapped the idea. In either case, the continued occupation of Georgian territory, hardly a bygone issue, has taken on renewed importance since Moscow’s invasion and annexation of regions in eastern Ukraine.

The domestic opposition within Georgia has vehemently accused the ruling Georgian Dream party of pursuing a pro-Kremlin course due to its seeming ambivalence towards Russia. To be sure, Russian authorities welcomed Georgia’s refusal to join western countries in imposing direct sanctions. But while Tbilisi’s response to the war and its repercussions has been strategically cautious, it is still clearly pro-Ukrainian.
"Moreover, Georgia’s prime minister, Irakli Garibashvili, was the only leader from among Russia’s immediate neighbors to publicly condemn the invasion of Ukraine."
At the same time, though Tbilisi has not sanctioned Russia, Georgian financial institutions fully comply with international sanctions, as the U.S. State Department noted in a report published in the summer.

There are pragmatic reasons for Tbilisi’s cautious approach with Russia. If Georgia was to take a harder line against Moscow, then doing so could invite serious security risks for which the country is not prepared. As the political scientists Kornely Kakachia and Bidzina Lebanidze write, the 2008 war left Georgia with virtually no military presence along the Black Sea. In the event of renewed hostilities, Russia’s navy could storm Georgia’s western coast without facing much resistance. Likewise, military reform in Georgia has been stalled for years, with defense spending hovering around USD 300 million annually.

Fear is also an important factor. Survey data show that Georgians fear Russian military aggression in the country or the advancement of pro-Russia political forces. The invasion of Ukraine reawakened these anxieties within Georgian society, where the shadow of the 2008 war still lingers fresh in the minds of many. Therefore, pursuing stability and avoiding further conflict with Moscow is a key priority for the country’s wary political establishment. And for years, Georgians have overwhelmingly supported resolving the frozen conflict in Abkhazia and South Ossetia through diplomacy.

Nevertheless, even though official government policy with regards to Russia has remained largely unchanged since the start of the war in Ukraine, among Georgians there has been a dramatic surge in support for a pro-Western foreign policy course. Before, Georgians generally preferred a balanced position between relations with the West and Russia. But now the war makes such an approach seem far less realistic.
After Russia's missile strike against Ukraine in early October, protesters gathered in front of Georgia's parliament building to demand the government to designate Russia a terrorist state.
How Georgia will achieve a pivot towards the West is the biggest challenge facing the current government

For years, the South Caucasian country has sought EU membership candidacy status. This summer Moldova and Ukraine, both longtime EU hopefuls themselves, did become candidates. Georgia, on the other hand, was snubbed for the coveted status given the bloc’s concerns of “democratic backsliding” in the country. Instead, Brussels handed authorities in Tbilisi a wishlist of political reforms to undertake, or certain conditions that must be met before the country can become a candidate. The snub added fuel to domestic polarization in Georgia, and the government has since floundered on implementing the desired reforms.

Fleeing Russians exacerbate long-standing economic woes

A major consequence of the war that Georgia is grappling with is the influx of Russian citizens entering the country. An initial wave of Russians flowing into Georgia came after the invasion of Ukraine on February 24, whereas a second and much more massive influx was sparked by Vladimir Putin’s mobilization announcement on September 21. According to Georgian authorities, around 100,000 Russian citizens have entered and remained in the country since the war’s start, or almost 3% of Georgia's total population of 3.7 million people.

While not all Russians who have fled to Georgia in recent months have plans to stay, even those who hope to further travel to Europe or other countries – or even to return to Russia one day – are forced to at least temporarily relocate their lives to a country they might have in the past visited only as tourists, if at all. So given the troubled history between Georgia and Russia, what is the reaction to the influx of Russians among Georgians?

A significant part of media coverage and commentary about the current mood in Georgian society has focused heavily on anecdotal accounts from Georgian opposition activists or of rude, unruly, and ignorant Russians.

For The Financial Times, Nadia Beardman extensively quotes members of the opposition party Drora, led by the former MP Elene Khoshtaria, to paint a broad picture of Georgian attitudes towards fleeing Russians, claiming that mistrust towards Moscow in the South Caucasian country is so pervasive that many view Russians as imperial and self-interested. In an op-ed for The Guardian, the Georgian playwright Davit Gabunia recalls an incident when a Russian-speaking customer at his local cafe stormed out swearing obscenities when a staff member told her the wifi password was “StandwithUkraine.” Natalia Antelava writes in a recent article for CNN that her journalist colleagues, who have fled political persecution in Russia, are reluctant to engage on the issue of colonialism, adding that some can barely speak a word of Georgian.

So too have journalists reported widely on nightlife hangouts in Tbilisi that refuse to accept Russian patrons, such as the underground techno club Bassiani, or restaurants determined to remind diners that 20% of Georgia remains occupied by the Russian military. The hip restaurant Ezo, for example, hands its Russian guests leaflets that harangue them for not protesting against their government or for trying to speak to Georgians in Russian. And a QR code labeled “Menu in Russian” redirects guests to a URL that shows gruesome images of the Bucha massacre in Ukraine, with a caption that reads: “While you get ready to eat delicious food in Tbilisi, your soldiers in Ukraine kill children, women, and the elderly… go to Russia if you want a menu in Russian!”

The general takeaway from such accounts is that politically-rooted tensions between Georgians and Russian emigres are bubbling at the surface of everyday life. But while one might hear Russian spoken in Tbilisi or Batumi more often than in previous years – which, of course, could just as well be from Belarusian emigres of Ukrainian refugees – the mood on the streets can hardly be described as tense. (See more in Russia.Post on public sentiment in Georgia)

To be sure, Georgians do generally support the introduction of a visa regime with Russia, a policy that the opposition has pushed for in recent months, though the government has repeatedly stressed that it does not feel such a move to be necessary. Ironically, it was former President Mikheil Saakashvili – now in detention and awaiting trial in Tbilisi – who in 2012 offered visa-free travel to Russian citizens in an effort to improve relations with Moscow.

Likewise, ordinary Georgians are certainly not thrilled about skyrocketing rent prices, driven up by unprecedented demand. But many are accommodating towards fleeing Russians and try to meet them with understanding, Bidzina Lebanidze, a senior policy analyst at the Georgian Institute of Politics, tells me. In fact, most Georgians hold a favorable view of Russians despite the aggressive actions of their authoritarian government.

What concerns Georgians above all are domestic issues, such as high unemployment, the rising cost of living, and poor infrastructure. Russian emigres are not the main topic of political discussion in most homes. True, this year’s influx of Russians has added an extra layer to longtime socio-economic grievances. But framing these issues around the war in Ukraine and Russian emigres ignores their domestic origins, which have been decades in the making and are the result of local decision making and government policy.

Take, for example, soaring rent prices in Tbilisi. The increases have hit university students particularly hard given a critical lack of dormitories in the city. Students who are unable to live with their family usually rent out apartments on their own or with friends. But for many, the current high rent costs are simply too high, with widespread reports of landlords kicking out tenants to seek better-paying clients, an issue the government has not addressed.

Back in the spring, students at Tbilisi State University protested the return of in-person classes after more than two years of remote learning due to the pandemic. Some could no longer afford the high cost of living in the city. A group of students even stormed the university rector’s office demanding the construction of a new dormitory. Yet their anger was not directed at Russians, but rather at the university administration, which for years has failed to provide much needed accommodations for students.

Georgia’s government has proudly highlighted strong, double-digit economic growth this year, thanks in large part to the influx of Russians, who are transferring money from home, opening up bank accounts and businesses, buying apartments, and spending money at shops and restaurants, all of which has even helped curb inflation.

But ordinary inhabitants of the South Caucasian country are not seeing the benefits as much of this money pours into retail, tourism, and the service sector, as well as into the pockets of landlords. Many Georgians remain engaged in low-productivity work and earn low wages – the average monthly income per capita in 2021 was GEL 365, or about USD 112. For young Georgians especially, who face high unemployment, leaving for abroad seems like the only option for a better life. And the uneven economic boost brought by comparatively wealthier Russians would seem to deepen feelings of insecurity and the desire to search for opportunities elsewhere.
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