TBILISI, Georgia — Rising above Georgia’s capital city is a 65-foot aluminum statue that stands as a symbol to the people below. In one hand, the “Mother of Georgia” holds a glass of wine to greet the country’s guests, illustrating the ever-present hospitality its citizens are known for.
On the other, a sword, demonstrating Georgia’s willingness to defend herself against those who come as enemies. At no time has this figure been more indicative of the country’s relations with its neighbor to the north than during the current immigration situation facing Georgia.
Russians are now seeking refuge in neighboring countries such as Kazakhstan, Mongolia and Georgia after many Western countries closed their borders to those fleeing Russia. In just one week last month, the Georgian Ministry of Internal Affairs registered 68,887 Russians have entered the country. Aereal images taken on the Georgian-Russian border in September looked chaotic, with men of military age and their families lining up for dayssome no food or water. Flight prices soared and apartment rents in Tbilisi nearly doubled, forcing some students to drop out of school as they couldn’t afford the new high cost of living.
This mass migration followed that of Russian President Vladimir Putin. “partial” mobilization announcement on September 21. “I reiterate, we are talking about partial mobilization, that is, only citizens who are currently in the reserve will be subject to compulsory military service, and above all, those who served in the armed forces have a certain military specialty and relevant experience,” he said. Putin in a televised speech. The Kremlin leader has requested up to 300,000 reserves to help “consolidate” Russia’s four occupied territories in eastern Ukraine.
Reports still vary on the exact number of people who left Russia in the weeks after Putin’s statement. A Kremlin source told Forbes earlier this month that 700,000 had fled since the order was issued. However, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov quickly refuted the claim. “I don’t think those numbers should be taken seriously,” he told reporters. “I don’t have exact figures, but of course, they are far from what is stated there.”
Selena Valyavkina, a Russian psychologist now living in Tbilisi, was one of the first people to arrive in February. “When the war happened, it was just impossible to stay longer,” she told Yahoo News. “I think the main reason I left is that I realized that a lot of people really [didn’t] worry about what was going on.” After the news of the war broke, Valyavkina packed up all her belongings in St. Petersburg and left for Georgia.
“Inside Russia, I received some messages that I am like a rat running away from a sinking ship and that I betrayed Mother Russia,” Valyavkina said. “My mother actually thinks I betrayed my country and her.”
In recent years, Valyavkina has become the target of house searches for her anti-Putin stance and her attendance at anti-government demonstrations. On another occasion, she said, she came to vote in a local election and saw that her vote had already been cast. She contacted the police, but nothing was resolved. “You live with the understanding that at any moment, they can show up at your door, do whatever, and there will be no one to complain about. [to],” she said.
News of Russians seeking refuge in Georgia sparked protests at the border as well as in cities across the country. In Tbilisi, activist Nika Parulava told Yahoo News that the “mass influx of citizens from Russia to Georgia” was a “national security” issue.
“He is a threat to every citizen of Georgia,” he said.
Ulianin Mykhailo, a refugee from Kharkiv, Ukraine, said he feels insecure now that Russian migrants have flooded the city after the draft announcement, adding that Georgians should be worried as they don’t know who is allowed into the country. “All this time during these eight months that they lived in Russia, and everyone was fine,” Mykhailo said. “They quietly support this war, they support their government.”
And this feeling can be felt throughout Tbilisi. Ukrainian flags hang from balconies and windows, and anti-war graffiti can be seen from street to street. Earlier this month, Parulava and other activists replaced street signs in the capital with signs written in Russian telling migrants to return home. It comes as a warning to newcomers to the city that this former Soviet satellite is no longer under Russian rule.
But despite demands that the Georgian government do more to protect its citizens, the government has remained relatively uninvolved. Since the war began in February, Georgian politicians have been treating their aggressor neighbor with care.
The Kremlin’s “special operation” in Ukraine is a painful reminder of Georgia’s own recent history. It was only 14 years ago that the country bore the full brunt of Russia’s oppression.
In 2008, Russia launched a “defensive operation” against Georgia over two “separate” territories in the north. After just 12 days, Russia annexed a fifth of Georgian territory, which included the regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Hundreds of people were killed, and today more than 300,000 Georgians remain displaced after being forced from their homes during that conflict.
Zhana Odiashvili was just 14 years old when Russia began shelling her town of Gori, some 8 miles from the South Ossetian border. “[I have] very tragic and painful memories of 2008,” he told Yahoo News. “I was displaced from the town because it was under air attack. We had to flee to Tbilisi because it was a safer place at the time.”
Now 29, Odiashvili organizes a walking tour in Gori, during which he raises awareness of the Russian aggression the city experienced. In parts of the city, made famous as the birthplace of Joseph Stalin, the walls are riddled with bullet holes from the conflict. Being so close to the disputed region of South Ossetia, the residents of Odiashvili and Gori are constantly reminded of what Russia is capable of. Worse yet, there have been reports of Russia physically moving its border posts further into Georgia, than the country security agency has called “illegal”.
But now the Russians are flooding into Georgia, the country they terrorized just over a decade ago, to seek refuge. Fearing conscription, men have abandoned their lives in search of a new life.
Alexey, 19, was one of these men. On September 20, Alexey read online rumors that Putin was planning to announce a mobilization. A history student, he was forced to abandon his education to escape the war. With the help of some of his teachers, Alexey managed to fly to Tbilisi, where he plans to stay permanently.
“I had originally planned to leave Russia in March, but there was still the problem of finances,” he told Yahoo News. “I was afraid to leave my family and… my job. Also, there were rumors of people being arrested at the border.” These turned out to be more than just rumours. Last week, it was reported that more than 1 million Russians had been banned by the Federal Security Service of Russia to leave the country.
Alexey, whose mother is Ukrainian and had family who lived there until March, said he feared for his life when the mobilization was announced. “The mobilization ended any hope that there could be something good in Russia.”
So can Russians leaving Georgia be refugees? According to Odiashvili, no. “Right now it is the Ukrainian side that is right, so these Russians are not refugees for me. They should be sent back to Russia in the hope that they will bring down Putin,” he said. “If not, they can go anywhere else, but not to Georgia.”