Georgia faces politically and economically turbulent times. The continuing war in Ukraine has sped up Georgia’s pro-European course, which most Georgians support. In June 2022, the EU rejected the country’s application for EU candidate status, causing not only the largest rally in Tbilisi in recent years under the slogan ‘Home, to Europe’ but also the rise of a new civic movement in support of Georgia’s European course. The pro-European activists have set the Georgian government several serious tasks to fulfil by the end of 2022: de-oligarchisation, political depolarisation, and the protection of free media.
Meanwhile, another challenge facing Georgian society is a new wave of migrants from Russia in the context of the war in Ukraine. After the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, Georgia became one of the top destination countries for politically active, educated, and socially engaged Russian citizens. Who are these Russian-speaking émigrés in Georgia? A new ZOiS pilot project seeks to explore political and social dimensions of the recent wave of migration from authoritarian Russia to various countries, including Georgia. The aim of this project is to examine migrants’ self-organisation and transnational engagement.
Newcomers in Georgia
Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began in February 2022, more than 30,000 Russian citizens have left Russia for Georgia in fear of closed borders, a general military mobilisation, and, in some cases, criminal persecution and arrest. Georgia is attractive for young, opposition-supporting Russians and IT specialists working for international companies because of its liberal visa-free regime. Migrants can stay for a year without registering, and political activists can continue their activities in the field of human rights and in the anti-war movement. Additionally, Georgia’s moderate costs of living and low level of bureaucracy in many spheres make starting a new life relatively easy.
According to a quantitative survey conducted in April 2022 by Russian social scientists who had relocated to Georgia and Armenia, the new migrants tend to be young, mobile, and educated. Sixty-two per cent were born in the 1990s or 2000s, 75 per cent of them come from Moscow or St Petersburg, and only 19 per cent have children under 18. Whereas half of the Russian émigrés consider their relocation to Georgia temporary and plan to move to another country, the other half want to stay in Georgia for longer; but so far, few of them have started to learn the Georgian language. Yet, this does not mean that they remain passive.
In June 2022, I visited several self-organised co-working and meeting places for Russians in Tbilisi. There was a strong sense of openness, internal solidarity, and willingness to consolidate their presence in Georgia and overcome their isolation. Among the major activities of politically engaged Russian migrants in Tbilisi are social anti-war projects and solidarity with Ukraine and Ukrainian refugees. Several projects aim to offer humanitarian aid and help Ukrainian refugees in Georgia to adjust to life in a new country, enabling Ukrainian citizens who were forced to relocate to Russia to migrate to Georgia. For instance, the volunteering initiative Emigration for Action organises fundraising events with the aim to buy medicine and other goods for Ukrainian refugees in Georgia.
Meanwhile, the field of everyday activism, which already shaped migrants’ lives before their relocation to Georgia, includes a variety of civic initiatives and social projects based on horizontal non-hierarchical forms of self-organisation. Among these are Prostranstvo Dom, Freek vegan сafé, ecological catering, bookshops, and feminist festivals, to name just a few initiatives. Another example is Politika Space, a network of civic youth projects aimed at developing a culture of dialogue, democratic values, and pluralism of opinion. Mobilising their voices by circulating and sharing information on social media is crucial for activists who left their homeland. This proactive form of protest allows newcomers to distance themselves from the Russian regime and thus helps to expand the exile community’s scope for action and reduce mistrust on the part of the receiving society.
Migrants’ relationships with Georgian society
According to an International Republican Institute poll in April 2022, 90 per cent of the Georgian population identifies Russia as the country that poses the greatest political threat, and 83 per cent see Russia as an economic threat. Russia is strongly viewed as an aggressor that in 2008 occupied 20 per cent of Georgia’s territory; consequently, many young Georgians perceive Russian as the language of colonial power. According to a 2022 poll by the National Democratic Institute, most Georgians are concerned about Russia’s growing influence on Georgia’s politics and economy. Given the influx of Russians into Georgia, 66 per cent of Georgians support the introduction of a visa regime for Russian citizens.
Unsurprisingly, whereas in neighbouring pro-Russian Armenia, attitudes towards Russian newcomers are positive, in Georgia more reserved feelings prevail. This is partly out of fear of Russian president Vladimir Putin’s regime and the possibility of a move by the Kremlin to ‘protect Russian citizens’ and strengthen Moscow’s influence in Georgia. In March, there were cases of discrimination against Russians in Georgia and even calls for a boycott of Russian products. According to my recent observations and conversations with activists in Tbilisi, the situation now seems to be normalising. Yet, new Russian migrants prefer to remain invisible and distance themselves from public protests. Their desire not to interfere in Georgian domestic politics is a way to avoid additional trouble for a government and society that have provided a temporary shelter for them.
Generally, Russian migrants feel safe in Georgia and support the country’s pro-European course. However, some self-reliant activists are uncertain about their future in Georgia. One of the long-term effects of the war in Ukraine is the creation of a new, vulnerable group of migrants in Eastern Europe, which could become an important factor in Europe’s future geopolitical landscape.
Dr Tsypylma Darieva is senior researcher and head of the ZOiS research cluster ‘Migration and Diversity’. Together with Dr. Tatiana Golova she launched the pilot project “Political migration from Russia and Azerbaijan”.