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
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.