Dispatch – March 7/8: Existential Crisis
“The Russians Are Coming!” Fears Persist as Economy Withers – Estrangement towards Government Grows – Georgia Not Unfriendly Enough for Russia
Georgia so far remains safe from bombs that are falling in Ukraine. But the country, having gone through lots of turmoil over the past years, still finds itself struggling to find ways for physical and moral survival. Here is Nini with usual updates from Georgia.
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RUSSIANS ARE COMING Fears of mass influx of Russians fleeing their country has dominated Georgian public discussion for days. At first, it was reports that thousands of Russian citizens were discussing their arrival in Telegram to escape the economic misery brought by sanctions. Now, the media has been showing long queues as newly-arrived Russian citizens reportedly line up at ATMs and try to get their new mobile phone cards. Economy Minister Levan Davitashvili said that some 20-25 thousand Russian nationals have entered Georgia, on par with the visitor statistics of the pre-pandemic period in 2020, but he did not specify the timeframe he was referring to. Flights from Yerevan, Armenia – which is often the first port of call for the Russians fleeing sanctions and crackdown jumped from three to six a day. Lots of Georgians fear that many in Russia, including potential Putin sympathizers or provocateurs, see their country as a safe haven against the discomfort of current Western sanctions against Russia.
- Economy Minister Dismisses Reports of Russian Influx
- Worries in Georgia amid Reports of Russian Influx
UNCERTAINTY While the most feared scenario is “Russian tanks following Russian passports,” referring to Kremlin practices to justify military aggression based on the pretext of protection of its citizens, there are other concerns too: some believe that Lari, the national currency, which has been depreciating against USD since the onset of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, may suffer further as the newcomers draw cash. This doomsday view is shared by famous Georgian economist Vladimer Papava. However, as Visa and MasterCard exchange systems stop to service the Russian cards, reportedly most newcomers withdraw their money in Yerevan – with Amenia being part of Russia’s own, “MIR” electronic payments system. Others expect real estate prices to soar on demand. There are also fears that Georgia can be misused as a venue for Russian businesses to evade sanctions, a prospect seen both as morally wrong and damaging the country’s standing. And there is a general distrust towards at least part of Russian citizens who, according to public perceptions, feel entitled to take advantage of its hospitality while disrespecting Georgia’s sovereignty.
DILEMMAS But those concerned have been facing moral dilemmas about how to address the risks. The most widely supported measure is that the country, at least temporarily, imposes a visa regime to Russian nationals to filter the visitors, such as differentiating potential refugees from other migrants. So far, the Russian citizens enjoyed visa-free travel to Georgia, but Georgian nationals required visas to enter Russia. But there have also been calls to close the border for all Russian nationals since they are not fleeing war or aggression.
In social media, it also came to controversies as users warned each other against using xenophobic expressions. Radical arguments were also made, such as that no such thing as Russian refugees exist and if someone is at odds with the Putin regime, they better stay there and help fight it (such sentiments may stem from a misconception among some Georgians about what “refugee” and “well-founded fear of persecution” stand for, or what the country’s responsibilities about international protection are).
WATCH OUT Not everybody is happy with where things are going, as concerns were also raised that the sentiments could easily turn into xenophobia. Even if those in Georgia with high xenophobia records often belong to Russia-friendly forces, one has to always watch out not to lose ethics while trying to fight evil – after all, Kremlin could also easily use Russophobia – real or made-up – as a pretext for bad things. “Anti-Russians campaign in Georgia hurts Russian opposition representatives in Georgia, not Putin’s supporters or anyone else. Very sad to see this happening,” known Russian opposition-minded journalist, Egor Kuroptev tweeted. But such warnings apparently contradict the widespread perception created by regular reports about the government not allowing the real Kremlin critics into the country: last such report came in on March 6 as Mikhail Fishman, Russian journalist and anchor of now-suspended independent TV Dozhd (Rain), said he was barred from entering Georgia without explanations.
DAIRY STRUGGLES So is this where all the ill is coming from – a distrust towards Georgian authorities to do the right thing? The ruling Georgian Dream party has continued its overly cautious stance towards Russian aggression. It attracted further shaming from Kyiv after it became known that Russia would be allowing Georgian dairy products to enter its market. Georgian officials, though claiming the process had been initiated back in 2020 and denying the respective talks kicked off in times of war, still failed to distance themselves enough from Russia’s surprise decision.
The government also does little to properly communicate to address the “Russian influx” worries in the public, prompting the civil society to independently come up with measures to counter what they see as dangerous trends. Blaming the mass immigration turmoil on the rival United National Movement party, ruling party Chair Irakli Kobakhidze warned about stricter measures to address potential “discriminatory” treatment against Russian nationals. The communication failure risks to further estrange the authorities from people in times of crisis.
NOT UNFRIENDLY ENOUGH Additional suspicions were raised towards the government after Georgia failed to land on the Kremlin’s latest list of unfriendly nations. With all that’s happening, the trust towards the party in power has rarely been lower in Georgia, and fear that GD may be secretly doing something that can be harmful to national interests has rarely been higher.
HAPPY INTERNATIONAL WOMEN’S DAY!
On March 8, the world marks International Women’s Day. Women and girls are often the ones to suffer most in military conflicts, but the ones whose voices are least heard when such things are decided. May the next year see less blood and evil, and more women actively engaged in upholding peace.
That’s the full lid for today. Join us every Tuesday and Friday for the incisive coverage of Georgia’s political life.