Washington Post Article: Russians fleeing to Georgia face resentment

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Washington Post Article: Russians fleeing to Georgia face resentment

Washington Post Article: Russians fleeing to Georgia face resentment

The messages are spray-painted across the city, thousands of them, cursing Russian President Vladimir Putin and telling Russians to “go home.” Many restaurants and cafes, including the ones where Russians hang out, pointedly display signs declaring their support of Ukraine. A few even demand loyalty pledges, saying that Russians should enter only if they first condemn the invasion or denounce Putin as a dictator.

“We need to make sure that brainwashed Russian imperialists do not end up in our bar,” reads the declaration form at the Dedaena bar.

For months now, hundreds of thousands of Russians have been spilling into nearby countries, seeking refuge from repression, to avoid the repercussions of broad Western sanctions, and, in the most recent waves, to escape the prospect of being called up to fight. Georgia is one of the most enticing destinations, known for its mild climate, its wine, its food, its nightlife-heavy capital and, crucial to the incoming Russians, its visa-free entry rules.

But Georgia is faced with an influx it did not seek and does not know how to handle.

The former Soviet republic of 3.7 million people has spent much of its modern existence trying to disentangle itself from Moscow and draw closer to the West.

But wresting itself free has proved challenging. Russia launched an invasion here in 2008 — a “peace enforcement” operation that left lasting marks on Georgia and presaged the Kremlin’s war in Ukraine. Georgia’s government, after years of being vehemently anti-Moscow, now tries to avoid provoking the Kremlin.

Many Georgians say the recent months have been deflating, as they try to square how Russians could wage war in their country and 14 years later use it as a haven.

“We are super-pissed they would choose us as an escape route,” said Keto Urushadze, 23, who has her own memories of the war, being shaken awake by her family in the middle of the night, told to pack her bag as helicopters whirred.

The European Union countries bordering Russia have banned entry by most Russian travelers. Central Asian nations such as Kazakhstan remain open and welcoming. Among Russia’s neighbors, then, Georgia stands as the tense middle ground — a place where Russians get an automatic year-long stay at the cost of coming face-to-face with resentments.

So many have come here that rents in Tbilisi have soared nearly 80 percent since last year.

Some of the newcomers say they’re uncomfortable speaking Russian and have downloaded Georgian language apps on their phones. Some say they seek out Russian-owned businesses, little enclaves where they can relax.

“It’s hard to be here,” said one Russian who had arrived three days earlier, sitting with his brother at a former Soviet factory remodeled into a co-working space with galleries, bars and a hostel. On the walls of a nearby courtyard with outdoor tables, one sign said, “Ukraine will prevail,” and another sought donations for Kyiv. The Russian brothers, who had fled in a rush after the mobilization drive was announced, said they left so much back home: a car, parents, a girlfriend for one of them, jobs for both.

“Our government made bloody hell,” one of them said, speaking quietly. “I understand how the Germans felt after World War II.”

While the first wave of Russians consisted heavily of intellectuals opposed to Putin, with some even joining anti-Kremlin protests in Tbilisi, Georgians suspect the newer wave is less ideological. Many Russians just don’t want to die in what they see as a bad war.

Data Lapauri, 34, who co-owns the Dedaena bar, says Russians shouldn’t get the privilege to opt out of the discomfort. Since April, the bar has required Russian patrons to check the boxes of a digital form acknowledging a long list of their government’s misdeeds. Lapauri said that over six months, 2,500 Russians have accepted the conditions and come in for the electronic dance music and drinks including homemade grape vodka. But just as many others, he said, have turned around and left.

In August, the bar’s website was hit with a denial-of-service attack as well as thousands of one-star Google reviews and death threats on its Instagram account. A month later, the bar received a visit from Ksenia Sobchak, a Russian socialite and TV anchor with millions of social media followers who has alternated between Putin supporter and critic. She confronted Lapauri at the entrance, asking him to defend the choice of “singling out Russians.”

Lapauri noted the outcome of the 2008 war, in which Georgia fully lost control of two Kremlin-aligned breakaway regions. “Because 20 percent of Georgia is occupied by Russia,” he said. “It all goes together.”

“But what does Ukraine have to do with Georgia?” she asked.

“Don’t you see the connection?” he said.

So much about Georgia’s relationship with Russia relates to that 2008 war and its painful aftermath.

It was Europe’s first war of the 21st century. The conflict had been building for years, and tensions flared after an April 2008 NATO summit where members pledged one to day include Ukraine and Georgia in the alliance. Putin’s interest in sending a warning to Georgia and the West collided with the Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s stated desire to retake two breakaway ethnic minority regions that are within Russia’s circle of influence. As Russia positioned itself to recognize and potentially annex those regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Saakashvili gave the order to launch strikes. Russia responded with intense force. Soon, Georgia was defending its capital.

Officially, the war ended after five days, with international mediation led by France. But the conflict continues, at a much lower volume.

Russia never took its troops out of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and, over the years, it has transformed them into sealed-off Kremlin protectorates that Russia designates as independent nations. In South Ossetia, Russia has built military bases and installed motion detectors, watchtowers and electronic phone jammers along the boundary line with the rest of Georgia. That border used to be porous, little more than open fields, with people from communities moving back and forth. Now there are 50 miles of razor wire marking a boundary that Russia has interpreted in its own favor, grabbing extra land here and there.

“Hybrid warfare,” said Marek Szczygiel, a Polish diplomat who leads an E.U. mission in Georgia that is designed to monitor the cease-fire agreement but is regularly denied access to South Ossetia.

He said Russia has been detaining Georgians who cross the boundary or get too close to it. Sometimes they are released quickly and sometimes they are locked up for years.

The Washington Post visited the boundary area in October, chauffeured by local police and volunteer patrolmen, one of whose pickup truck window carried the message “Russia is an occupier.” The convoy stopped at Bobnevi, a stone village that Georgia only partly controls; because one of its homes is cut off from the rest by the razor-wire border, a micro-sized Russian annexation.

“There’s an 89-year-old lady who lives on the other side,” said David Katsarava, 45, one of the volunteers, who called her when he arrived. “She’s incredible.”

Soon, an elderly Georgian with a wool hat appeared across the fence, waving her cane as a hello, then passing over a basket of apples and pears while accepting some potatoes in return. The woman, Valia Vanishvili said her home had been a part of Georgia until one week in 2011 when Russian troops started stringing razor wire across her property, cutting her life in two. On one side: her house of 62 years, her two cows, her chickens. On the other side, now inaccessible: a slice of her property, the rest of the village, her daughter.

“They even detained my son-in-law at one point” for one week, she said. “He was standing right where you are. I tell my daughter not to visit [at the fence] because I’m scared they’ll take her away, too.”

Vanishvili said that “even right now,” Russians were watching. One of their bases was visible on the horizon. A sign, in Cyrillic, noted the beginning of the “Republic of South Ossetia.”

“I don’t know what they want with our land,” said Darejan Narikashvili, 66, another villager, on the Georgian side. “Russia is huge. Don’t they have enough land as it is?”

For all that Russia has lost in the past eight months — clout, economic standing, military equipment and troops — it still has extraordinary leverage over Georgia. Olesya Vartanyan, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group, called South Ossetia a “Damocles sword” hanging over the country.

Georgia has condemned the Kremlin’s aggression in Ukraine, but it has also broken from the West in its refusal to impose sanctions. And in a fiercely debated move, the Georgian government has maintained the country’s visa-free entrance policy but reportedly also refusing entry to several high-profile Putin critics.

Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili has said his government is protecting “national interests.” In addition to wanting to avoid another war, Georgia depends on remittances from its citizens working in Russia, and, its tourism industry, in normal times, has prospered from Russian visitors.

“I think we are pursuing a pragmatic and careful stance toward Russia,” said Eka Sepashvili, a member of parliament who recently left the governing Georgian Dream party but remains aligned with it on policy.

Those in the political opposition say the Georgian Dream party — founded by an oligarch who made his fortune in Russia — has turned the country away from the West while trying to keep peace with Putin. They say the open-border policy presents a security concern: Putin eventually could launch a conflict in Georgia under the pretext of defending Russian citizens. As with Ukraine, “Russia wants to destroy Georgia’s statehood,” said Giga Bokeria, leader of the political party European Georgia-Movement for Liberty.

For Levan Merabishvili, 29, what hurts the most is the realization that Georgia can’t stand up to Russia. He lives 45 minutes outside the capital, with thousands of others, in a grid of thin-walled, single-story homes built in haste after the war — a community for people displaced from South Ossetia, who fled the war or the aftermath, when Russia tightened its controls. The homes were designed to be temporary. But 14 years later, people are still there.

“Nobody ever gets used to living here,” Merabishvili said.

His mother stayed behind in South Ossetia, and he has been able to see her in periods when Russian troops have allowed crossings. But in some instances, he and his mother have gone up to a year apart. He is free to call Putin a “poison.” His mother cannot.

“Officially, she has no position,” Merabishvili said.

He said his life has turned out relatively well: He has a girlfriend, and he manages evening shifts at a plastic recycling company. But he still feels anger toward Russians. Other people in the displaced community, he said, “are even more radicalized than me.” The community has a school and a small main street with a grocery store. But unlike the capital, there are no Ukrainian flags, no signs telling Russians not to enter.

There’s no need for them, Merabishvili said.

Given the sentiments in the community, he said, this is one part of Georgia to which no Russian would want to come.

Vasil Matitaishvili in Tbilisi and Natasha Abbakumova in Riga, Latvia, contributed to this report.