Currently, the policy of the Georgian authorities is maneuvering between mostly pro-Ukraine public opinion and support for Western policies inside the country, on the one hand, and the risks of a renewed conflict with Russia and the national economic problems, on the other.
Georgia and Russian emigrants
The huge influx of Russians to the main cities in Georgia is advantageous for part of the national economy: banks, the service sector (restaurants, shops, hotels, tourism), taxi drivers and transportation; those who are renting out apartments and office space; and the construction business (real estate prices have jumped).
Although there is no sociological data on it, pro-Ukraine sentiment predominates across society as a whole, and the presence of Russian emigrants has likely played a role. In a popular Agrohub supermarket in Batumi that I visited the other day, the vast majority of customers were Russian. It is the same at other large supermarkets. There is a Soviet joke about how a Georgian teenager in the resort town of Kobuleti, when asked what he wants to be when he grows up, replies that he would like to be a vacationer, because they have a lot of free time and money, are well dressed and eat out at restaurants. Something similar is playing out now, as it is mostly Russians of the IT generation who have come to Georgia – they can work online and have sufficient funds to sit out the war or even settle in the country. They look modern and successful, open offices and trendy cafes and bars; they are frequent visitors of restaurants. Queues have popped up at some Batumi restaurants, which never happened before. Tbilisi is seeing much of the same.
The fact that almost all the customers of supermarkets and the clientele of restaurants are Russian irritates those Georgians who see them as representatives of the aggressor country, as well as a significant part of the population whose standard of living is much lower than that of the Russian emigrants.
A joke went around Georgian social networks that, when finally approached by a Georgian customer, a cashier at a supermarket burst into tears and even sang a Georgian folk song with the man. (The other day, the same joke but with Armenian characters and an Armenian supermarket was told to me by a friend from Yerevan!)
Besides the rising prices for food, housing, etc. – which are at least somewhat due to the influx of Russians – there are concerns that Russian emigrants are taking jobs away from Georgians.
Naturally, Georgians’ views are also shaped by the memory of the recent wars in Abkhazia and Ossetia, as well as the issue of refugees (people forced to leave Abkhazia and South Ossetia) and the consequences of the 2008 war, including the occupation of some Georgian territory and the Russian policy of "borderization” (when new borders are erected by rolling out “border infrastructure” like barriers, barbed wire, signs, etc.) around the occupied territory of South Ossetia.
Friction and risks
The Georgian government does not yet seem to have a strategy for building relations with Russian refugees/emigrants. The problem is too new, too complex and too delicate, and depends very much on how events unfold in Ukraine.
The tense situation that has developed in Georgia creates the risk of a social explosion, like in 1989 in the Uzbek SSR, for example, when riots broke out between Uzbeks and Meskhetian Turks "over a plate of strawberries." Any offense, any transgression, any inconvenience that we are inclined to forgive a compatriot, when it is someone from another country or of another nationality in question, triggers hostility and aggression.
Russians and other foreigners began to buy real estate in Tbilisi and Batumi long before the February events. It was mostly Muscovites, but Ukrainians and Belarusians were also active in the market. The practice was to bring them down on short tours that blended tourism and entertainment with real estate purchases.
In Batumi, there is an area known as "New Boulevard" (the continuation of the "Old Boulevard" along the seashore), which is being feverishly developed, where the majority of the inhabitants aren’t Georgian and the Russian language predominates. The local population speaks with them, as well as with Ukrainians and Belarusians, in Russian. In addition, Russians (and sometimes Belarusians) often pretend to be refugees from Ukraine, knowing that Georgians will be friendlier to them.
Thus far, the Russian emigrants haven’t acted as an organized group, but tensions between Russians and Georgians have arisen concerning schooling for children and intercultural communication in particular. In recent years, a generation has grown up in Georgia for whom Russia isn’t a center of gravity or a source of nostalgia.