These Russians who refuse and flee the war
Tbilisi (Georgia), correspondence.
Approaching the Georgian border, a line of several thousand Russian cars stretches for nearly 30 kilometers. Up to 30,000 vehicles can end up stranded at Lars, the only open land border crossing between Russia and Georgia. On board, mostly men who hastily left their country. “We want to escape the partial mobilization (declared on September 21 – Editor’s note) by Vladimir Putin. I do not wish to fight, kill or be killed,” explains Volodya, in her thirties, left suddenly because “friends have just been requisitioned” as part of the « special military operation » in Ukraine.
The gigantic cork that winds along a winding road between the mountains seems never to stop. If the alert was already high since the invasion of Ukraine on February 24, Georgian customs and border guards find themselves hard at work » Round the clock, confirms one of them. We must watch this endless stream of Russian “tourists” entering Georgia by the thousands. Because they don’t need a visa ». This “Kazbegi Lars” checkpoint remains the only legal way to get to Georgia from Russia by land. The wait can reach the day. There are no more direct flights between the two neighbours. Since the 2008 conflict, entry through the separatist regions – Abkhazia and South Ossetia – remains prohibited. Tbilisi considers these two entities to be occupied by Russia.
On the spot, the Russians who cross the border sometimes forget to erase the famous letter Z (symbol of the partisans of the “special operation”) on their vehicle. But they take it badly: the border guards show themselves to be intractable by sending them back to their country right away. « Not all of these refugees oppose the Kremlin’s policy in Ukraine but are, for the vast majority, seeking to flee in order to avoid being mobilized and sent to the front »observes a young Russian living in the Georgian capital.
one step before armenia and turkey
In Tbilisi, the government has so far made no restrictions on this massive influx of Russian men of military age, sometimes accompanied by their families. The only obligation for candidates for exile: pedestrians not being allowed to cross the border, they must find a means of transport. This formality leads to a real traffic of bicycles, motorcycles, scooters, skateboards, etc. Taxis lie in wait for customers and offer to cross the border without incident… for a fee. For 150,000 rubles (2,480 euros), motorcycle taxis go up the lines of cars to drop off their customers at the border post. As for the more athletic, it is possible for them to buy a bike by paying 200 to 900 euros. Last trick to cross the border: board a car where there are places left, in exchange for 800 to 1,000 euros per seat.
The phenomenon has been going on for two hundred days. Starting in March, a few days after the Russian invasion of Ukraine began, some 300,000 Russians arrived in Georgia. Only 40,000 of them would have remained there, according to various sources. Most would only pass through Georgia, leaving for Armenia, Azerbaijan or Turkey, countries where they can go without a visa. It is thus possible for them to open bank accounts and escape Western sanctions. To date, almost 60,000 Russian citizens have opened an account, compared to 45,000 in February. The Georgian Minister of the Interior, Vakhtang Gomelauri, puts forward substantial figures. Since September 21, about 10,000 people have crossed the border daily, compared to 6,000 at the beginning of September.
Within this country of 3.7 million inhabitants, this massive influx of Russians is causing real social tensions. In Tbilisi, where 1.5 million citizens live, high inflation is felt due to the massive import of rubles (in cash or through transfers). Russian bank and credit cards (like Mir) do not work following international sanctions against Moscow. The Georgians complain about the rise in prices, they who suffer from a high unemployment rate (18% officially) and salaries much lower than in Russia. This inflation reaches 80% in real estate. Newcomers rent apartments as soon as they arrive via the Airbnb network. Others, among the wealthiest, buy housing in order to set up as self-employed; 9,000 would have made this choice since the end of February. These are Russians belonging to the upper middle class or wealthy. Hotels have also tripled their prices for booking rooms. Georgian owners remain vigilant. « We refused rentals after discovering on social networks that some Russians supported Vladimir Putin’s regime… »notes Gia.
“Russians are not welcome”
Faced with the massive presence of Russians, Georgian activists posted themselves at the border carrying a banner: “Russians are not welcome. » “We didn’t hear much about the conflict in 2008. To date, 20% of Georgian territory remains occupied by the Russian army in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The border with Russia should be closed”, condemns a resident of Tbilisi. Georgian social networks broadcast images of protest, without however causing serious incidents, against the Russian presence in the arteries of the capital. “Russians, leave this country. Your government is not our problem”shouted the crowd, especially in front of the crowds of Russians in front of the telephone stores specializing in the sale of SIM cards.
Right in the heart of the capital, like Rustaveli Avenue, the Russian language dominates most of the crowded terraces. In several restaurants, as a sign of protest, the waiters refuse to speak the Pushkin language or to display menus in Russian. Despite these tensions, coworking centers for Russian citizens have been opened in Tbilisi and several independent journalists opposed to the regime have banded together to disseminate information via alternative media. “It is true that most fled so as not to have to fight. Few of us really oppose the Russian authorities. But it will come with a war that a majority does not understand and does not want”, analyzes Vitia, originally from Volgograd. This influx of Russian citizens has affected the entire Caucasus region. A total of 300,000 men have left Russia since the mobilization order.