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The Russians who fled the mobilization pose a threat to Georgia’s national security

Russian men and women with their luggage walk along a road after passing through customs at the Georgia-Russia border checkpoint of Verkhnii Lars, Georgia, 27 September 2022.
©EPA-EFE/ZURAB KURTSIKIDZE  |   Russian men and women with their luggage walk along a road after passing through customs at the Georgia-Russia border checkpoint of Verkhnii Lars, Georgia, 27 September 2022.

Many Russians who have fled Putin’s partial mobilization have ended up in Georgia, and their presence in this country is creating demographic, economic, political and, obviously, social problems. Besides, Tbilisi authorities cannot be sure whether each of these migrants is a fugitive or if they are agents on Moscow’s payroll. All that is generating a national security predicament that must be managed in due time while the country is trying to maintain its European track, after failing to secure the EU candidate status this year.

Russian refugees in Georgia – from opponents of the Putin regime, to people fleeing the mobilization

In spring this year, many people sought refuge in Georgia, fleeing persecution from Putin’s regime: journalists, activists, representatives of the opposition or whatever is left of it. Part of the TV Rain team relocated in Tbilisi once the television station was temporarily shut down. From here, it remained active on certain social networks in an attempt to keep its audiences loyal. Moreover, in the first seven months of 2022, a number of 723 Russian citizens obtained the Georgian citizenship, IDFI claims in a recently published study. The same experts also say that 1,342 Russians had obtained the Georgian citizenship in 2021.

At present, the majority of Russians who are trying to escape from Russia or have already managed to do so are part of active labor force. They are people without political affiliations who have indirectly supported the military aggression. Unlike this spring, the difference is that this second immigration wave can degenerate into unwanted situations with a potential negative impact on national security. Travel options for Russian citizens are gradually disappearing, while the Russian passport is met with increasing hostility by governments of various European states that disagree with the all-out war on Ukraine.

To what extent are Russians a threat to Georgia’s national security? The case of Ukraine and the Republic of Moldova

Following the war of August 2008 and Moscow’s recognition of the independence of the two separatist republics, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Georgia has defined Russia as an occupier. Georgians see Russia as a country that has repeatedly violated their sovereignty and integrity and continues to pose a threat. The Kremlin is fostering active measures of hybrid nature in its relations with Georgia, which are meant to undermine democratic processes, liberal values, the processes of European integration, and to destroy opportunities of furthering Georgia’s strategic partners with countries other than Russia.

Today, the Russians are also creating demographic problems with  social and economic consequences because they headed for Georgia in large numbers in an attempt to flee the partial mobilization at home.

In recent months, prices in Georgia have started to go up. The real estate market is also facing an increasing demand for temporary housing, and the same can be observed on the market for basic goods, demanded by those who have left the Russian Federation in a hurry. Only tourism is reporting an upward trend, but this is also a temporary consequence. In the long run, Georgia is exposed to structural destabilization, given that different sectors of the economy lack the capacity of providing clients with the goods and services they might need.

Ordinary citizens in Georgia are wary of the Russians’ presence. Their argument is simple: in 2008, Russia launched the war using as an excuse the violation of rights of Russian citizens or speakers. In the current context, no one guarantees that every Russian who arrives in Georgia actually oppose the Russian aggression in Ukraine, the regime in Moscow or the foreign policy measures and instruments promoted by the Kremlin in an area it is trying to annex as its sphere of influence. There is suspicion not every Russian citizen is trying to shun the forced mobilization, that some of the people arriving in Georgia are actually instigators sent here on special missions. Tolerance towards Georgian society is rather owed to the fact that these people fleeing “the empire” means less cannon fodder sent to Ukraine – the same country that supported Georgia in the summer of 2008.

Were we to draw a parallel between certain developments in Ukraine prior to February 24 (the territory of Ukraine was home to a large number of instigators and saboteurs from Russia who were sent here to organize various operations designed to subvert Ukraine’s defenses, something which the authorities have confirmed) or to some events in the Republic of Moldova over March – April this year (the first explosions reported in Transnistria in April, 2022), then this “escape” of people who might have been mobilized can also be used to “infiltrate” Russian instigators into Georgia. Like I’ve said before, their mission may well be simple in the absence of consensus between the government and the opposition regarding various issues: to reduce the authorities’ vigilance, to undermine the resistance of democratic institutions and help reduce people’s interest in Euro-Atlantic integration processes, or to generate public disputes between those who militate for Ukraine in the street and those who are trying to advocate stability. Uncertainty runs high at the moment. The flow of Russian refugees peaked in September, and the authorities’ hesitation in coming up with solutions that should strengthen security has generated discontentment among Georgian Dream (the ruling party) voters, not just at the level of the opposition or civil society.

Georgians are concerned about Russia’s threats and the war in Ukraine, yet the authorities refuse to act

The Georgian authorities’ silence and reluctance to make certain decisions that should limit Russia’s presence is a topic that has been at the center of an increasing number of public debates. People are concerned with the country’s territorial integrity, which Russia has repeatedly violated, and with the need to find the necessary resources in order to continue the process of Euro-Atlantic integration in the context of Russia’s war in Ukraine.

There is a tacit acknowledgement of the negative impact the Russian presence has, which has not yet “burst out” at street level, with people calling for firm action. For the time being, only civil society and the opposition launch the occasional low-key warning, calling for clear-cut measures that should ensure national security. Ordinary citizens simply contend themselves in staging protests where they display their dissatisfaction over Georgia being denied EU candidate status, despite having met all the necessary requirements. Yet the problems for the Georgian leadership are not over, they have only just begun.

Tbilisi is about to feel the wrath of its own voters, who disagree with its lack of action and political decisions that should protect the country’s security interests. Why? Because Georgia has the sort of political experience shaped by long periods of political participation and social activism. Perhaps people’s wrath has temporarily been dormant after the June protests, and is about to burst out when the situation turns critical from an economic point of view.

Ever since the start of the war, people have also criticized the fact that the government did not firmly condemn the invasion of Ukraine. The reasons behind Georgia voicing a firm reaction might have to do with the problematic and complex dialogue between Kyiv and Tbilisi, which was also affected by the imprisonment in Georgia of Mikheil Saakashvili, who is also a Ukrainian national. Were we to add the “special relationship” entertained by the shadow leadership of the Georgian Dream ruling party with Moscow, then all these shenanigans make sense, although the government might find it hard to explain itself to the population, who will not forget the 2008 war too easily.

How can Georgia respond to problems generated by the war in Ukraine?

Georgians believe the Russians should fight the Putin regime, who has occupied them and taken them hostage, suggesting it was high time Tbilisi took off its gloves in its bilateral dealings with Russia. Tbilisi has been playing host to small-scale protests and flashmobs organized by individuals or various groups who support the territorial integrity of Ukraine. The Ukrainian anthem and flag are now part of the average Georgian’s daily agenda. For the time being, people are only timidly pressing central authorities to take a more hands-on approach. The Ukrainian anthem can be seen everywhere, accompanied by messages of support for Ukraine. In this context, NGOs have already submitted various solutions to the authorities, measures that can be quickly implemented without requiring large investment, such as the introduction of visas, a measure that was put forth as early as August. Another proposal is to shut down the borders. And there’s a third a third option, more radical in nature and with serious implications for Georgia’s statehood: the individual decision of Georgian citizens to leave the country amidst the deteriorating social, political and security situation in the region. This decision might be avoided if the government were to stop oscillating between implementing reforms or consolidating its own power. The implementation of reforms translates into additional opportunities for an enhanced national security, whereas the consolidation of power will only anger voters, for whom the experience of the war of August 2008, revisited from the perspective of the current war in Ukraine, remains deeply etched in the collective mindset.

Ex-Soviet states are always said to find themselves at a crossroads in times of crises. This is not the case of Georgia, although things can always change under the pressure of the ongoing developments. Georgia’s national interests and goals have been defined a long time ago. All it takes, right now, is to update them, to adapt them to the current context, also with regard to the partial mobilization in Russia. Priority should be given to the implementation of reforms so as to preserve the integrity of both democratic institutions and territories. But that requires independent and unbiased mediators, capable of stepping in between the power and voters, between the government and NGOs, between the administration and its external partners. Obviously, Georgians have proved in the last year they will not make significant headway in this respect. Hence the conclusion that Ukraine winning the war would impose new approaches in the way the government does businesses, which would make room for national interests and resilient democratic institutions.  

Tags: Russia , War in Ukraine
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