Boulevard of Batumi, a city where Russians and Georgians clashed on several occasions (Flickr)
Since the invasion of Ukraine, many young Russians have left the country for neighbors such as Georgia. Especially after Putin’s announced mobilisation, Tbilisi saw a large influx from its large northern neighbour. With the influx, Georgia is seeing an economic boost, but also many social problems.
Georgia’s economy is booming
With many tens of thousands of Russians arriving in Georgia since February 2022, the country’s GDP in the Caucasus has increased by double digits. The Georgian lari is the strongest it’s been in years, and remittance money is flowing in. It should be noted that the Georgian economy was already in a recovery phase after the COVID-19 pandemic, but it was clearly boosted by the influx of Russians. The Russian migrants are mostly men and often come from economically more prosperous urbanised regions of Russia.
While public opinion in Georgia is anti-Moscow, the business community actually seems to be getting increasingly involved with Russia. In recent months, it has become clear that Georgia is getting only more dependent on Russia economically and that Georgian companies are eager to attract Russians to the country. The Georgian dependency on Russian business gives the Kremlin economic leverage over Georgia, which it has had since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Social problems due to Russian influx
Sentiments in Georgia have been put on edge by the arrival of Russian migrants. In the capital Tbilisi, there are many murals and graffiti calling upon the Russian newcomers to return home. Those who want to stay in Georgia are expected to condemn the war through loyalty tests in the nightlife and face overall resentment. In the popular coastal city of Batumi, where traditionally many Russians holiday, there have been several clashes between Russian visitors and Georgian residents over the tensions created by Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
The wave of Russians who came after the mobilisation, also known as Septemberists, can stay in the country visa-free. However, the Georgian political opposition has repeatedly suggested closing the border. Opposition party Lelo proposed replacing the visa-free policy for issuing short-stay visas with written confirmation of recognition of the Russian occupation and territorial integrity of Georgia. The largest opposition party, the United National Movement, proposed that Russians pay an “occupation tax” of 1,000 Lari, the equivalent of about 350 US Dollars.
According to Novaya Gazeta, an independent newspaper from Russia, about 700,000 Russians came to Georgia since the announcement of the mobilisation. Of these, 100,000 have stayed in the country and 600,000 left for other countries. Besides Russians, 15,000 Belarusians (who fled the Lukashenko regime) and 30,000 Ukrainians also reside in the country. This makes harmonious coexistence in Georgia even more difficult. On top of that, generally speaking, the relationship between Georgians and Russians themselves is anything but excellent.
The relationship between the two countries (and peoples) was already initially clouded by the Russian invasion of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in 2008. These two renegade regions are still occupied by Russian troops. Since the invasion, Georgia has feared repetition, balancing its relationship with the Kremlin. After years of being fervently anti-Moscow, the Georgian government is not trying to put additional pressure on its relationship with Russia.
Georgian Dream, the ruling party, is in a split due to the war in Ukraine, which seems to be increasingly heading in Kyiv’s favour lately with the recapture of Kherson. The party is trying to establish a balanced approach, fervently labelled as pro-Russian by the opposition. Georgian Dream’s collision course against its Western partners only reinforces this sentiment. Georgian Dream chairman Irakli Kobakhidze’s statement on a pro-government channel in July betraying US and EU involvement in the war was dismissed by 48 opposition MPs in August as slander and disinformation from the ruling party.
This appeared to hurt Georgia’s NATO and EU ambitions, but in general, foreign policy is not expected to change in the short term. These ambitions may be nuanced by the Georgian dream, but they persist. Still, geopolitical balance will prevail above all, so as not to provoke Putin. Georgia’s economic and territorial vulnerability to the Kremlin steers the course of its foreign policy. The Georgian people clearly aspire towards rapprochement with the West. NDI surveys show that Georgians continue to support NATO (71%) and EU (82%) membership, despite expectations that this could provoke Russian aggression. However, the majority of the population does not think Georgia should limit its economic relations with Russia despite the invasion (39% compared to 23% before the invasion).
What is next?
With the increased presence of Russians in Georgia, public opinion in the country seems to turn against Russia even further, hurting Georgian Dream who tries to balance ties with the Kremlin. The country’s economic growth contrasts sharply with social tensions that only further erode confidence in the government. While the Georgian people are wholeheartedly behind Ukraine (98%), the government is not entirely so. Potentially, the outcome of the war in Ukraine may well determine the Georgian Dream’s political future.
Author: Mathieu Neelen
Sources: CEPA, Euarasianet1, Eurasianet2, Eurasianet3, ForeignPolicy, ICDS, NDI, NewYorkTimes, WashingtonPost