Tbilisi, Georgia – The tree-lined Rustaveli Avenue in the Georgian capital Tbilisi was packed with young men with backpacks and suitcases, trying to navigate around this new city.
Sometimes accompanied by wives or girlfriends, they fled their homes in Russia for a partial escape mobilize ordered by President Vladimir Putin to mobilize more personnel on the Ukrainian battlefield.
Those who have previously served in the military, even conscripts, and are now registered in the reserve, are the most likely to receive summons, but even older men no experience was called up.
“Four days ago, we didn’t think either of us would be here,” Alexey, a 24-year-old, said in a restaurant on the cobblestone streets of Tbilisi’s Old Town.
Georgian officials say more than 10,000 Russians are crossing the border every day, and images widely shared on social media show streams of cars speeding toward Georgia and Mongolia.
Prices for direct flights out of Moscow have skyrocketed.
Alexey managed to get a ticket to Vladikavkaz in Russia’s North Ossetia region, just north of the Georgian border.
On the morning of September 24, the queue at the Upper Lars Russia-Georgia border junction was 2,000 cars long, so he rented a scooter to cross.
“I was carrying a backpack that weighed 20 kilograms (44 pounds), so I tied it with a string and pulled it to the back,” says Alexey.
On the way, a policeman checked his documents. Alexey says he’s on vacation.
“OK, run, run, but you can’t follow your conscience,” grumbled the officer before letting him pass.
In Upper Lars, walking across the border is not allowed, so local drivers are offering their service for free. By the border posts lies a pile of abandoned scooters and bicycles.
‘They tried to scare us’
Volodya, another 24-year-old at the restaurant in Georgia, and his partner, with their small dog in tow, were also stopped at a police checkpoint.
“They tried to scare us, saying they were going to drag us to the enlistment office, telling us the border was closed – typical military humor,” he said.
“For every question I answered, the major would answer ‘Great! We need you in the army! ‘ ‘Where do you work?’ I am a decorative painter. “Awesome, you will paint our shoes!”
After a 16-kilometer (10-mile) hike through the mountains on a rainy night, which caused Volodya’s suitcase wheels to slip, they reached Upper Lars and had their passports stamped with no further questions, though no further questions were asked. they noticed other visitors, young men. from the North Caucasus regions, such as Chechnya and Dagestan, were restrained for longer.
Georgia, a mountainous country on the Black Sea located between Russia and Turkey, has always been a favorite destination for Russians touristsfamous for its food, wine and beautiful Caucasus mountains.
Unlike some countries in Eastern and Northern Europe, it remains open to Russian citizens, and the relaxed visa system and locals’ familiarity with the Russian language have meant it is easy to settle down. .
But the two neighbors share a tumultuous relationship because of their turbulent pasts.
Georgia was conquered from the Ottoman and Persian empires in the 19th century and absorbed by the Tsar, then gained independence briefly during the Russian Civil War 1917-23 before being occupied by the Bolsheviks.
During this period, the Georgian revolutionary Iosif Jughashvili, better known as Joseph Stalin, ruthlessly rose to the leadership of the Soviet Union.
After the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, a civil war broke out in Georgia, in which two breakaway regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, were disbanded with Moscow’s help.
In 2008, Russia waged a brief war on behalf of the separatists, and Russian forces are still stationed in what is internationally recognized as Georgian territory.
“We have a lot of tragic history, and this doesn’t just go back to 2008,” says Georgian journalist Lasha Babukhadia. “We had a war in 1991, when Abkhazia and South Ossetia [originally] occupied by Russia, so every decade we have a war with Russia. We have always tried to be independent, and we support Ukraine because they are trying to be independent from Russia.”
So the Georgian public stood firmly behind Ukraine, and blue and yellow flags were hung in the windows of apartment blocks.
At the same time, some Georgians were complaining about the influx of Russian exiles and draft shunrs.
They say that some Russians display colonial attitudes, insisting on speaking Russian as if Georgia were still part of the Soviet Union.
Others have seen them as potential spies or troublemakers on behalf of Moscow.
Some bars, nightclubs and restaurants have banned Russian guests.
“Once, we were sitting in a bar and there was a friend there, he got drunk and shouted, ‘Don’t speak Russian, don’t speak Russian, speak English! ‘ said Bogdan, 25 years old from Moscow. , who flew to Tbilisi on February 25, the day after Russia invaded Ukraine.
“We told him we are also against Putin!”
“When we left, he followed us and told us not to speak Russian; he told us that all Russians are pigs and beat us up.”
Bogdan works for an NGO that has been blacklisted as a “foreign agent” in Russia, and says most of his friends are activists at odds with the Kremlin.
Other Russians who arrived in Tbilisi founded Migration for Action, a group that collects aid for Ukrainian refugees.
“We see people coming to Georgia against the Russian government,” said Lasha Babukhadia.
“The problem is that it’s not just these people who come. There are Russians who support Putin and his regime but they don’t want to sacrifice themselves.
“And some of them, I don’t mean all, try to show that Abkhazia and Ossetia are not occupied. This is a red line for Georgians. You are here. If you don’t recognize our country and country on its borders, why have you come here? Go to Kazakhstan or Belarus. “
‘I love my country’
Back at the restaurant, Alexey and Volodya share their thoughts on the Russian vision.
“My position is that DPR and LPR have been mistreated to some extent [by Ukraine] so I understand why the fighting broke out, but I don’t want to die for someone else’s imperial ambitions,” Alexey said, referring to Russian-backed separatist organizations in Ukraine. currently voting in referendums on whether to join Russia.
“I love my country, I consider myself a Russian patriot,” Volodya said, “but I don’t get into politics and my family wants me alive. So between them and a situation [the war] I’m not sure about, I choose my family. At the same time, I am ashamed that I was not present to witness my brothers.”
Volodya’s partner, who requested anonymity, spoke in a different tone.
“This is not our war, Ukrainians are our brothers – they smile, walk their dogs just like us,” she said. “If Moscow is attacked, we will defend it in the same way.”
Meanwhile, as Georgians get used to more Russians, they are also busy dealing with inflation problems.
“After the war in Armeniaalmost all the Russians living in Armenia go to Georgia and drive prices higher,” said Lasha, referring to the recent conflicts between Yerevan and Baku.
“Apartment owners are raising prices, and ordinary people can’t afford to pay the same rent. So that’s a really big deal.”
And Cost of living The crisis did not spare the Russians either.
“We got lucky, got there while the rent was still reasonable, and we found a place to live for $400 a month,” says Bogdan. “But in a month, our landlady asked us for $500, and we struggled to find anything cheaper. Anyway, the Georgians don’t want to rent it to the Russians anymore.”
But not everyone plans to stay.
From Georgia it became easier to travel to Europe and other regions, which can no longer be reached from Russia by air.
“I will try to go elsewhere because this is already the second wave of migration [since February] and everything is too expensive because of the Russians,” said Alexey. “I’ll try to find remote work somewhere.”
Volodya said: “After tomorrow, we plan to go to Kazakhstan and from there, we’ll see. Maybe Colombia, South America”.