FEATURE-Russia’s wartime migrants find mixed reception in Georgia

* Thousands of Russians have been emigrating abroad since the invasion of Ukraine. * Some are Kremlin critics opposed to the military attack

* Others have seen their jobs relocated due to Western sanctions. By Umberto Bacchi and Angelina Davydova

TBILISI/ISTANBUL, April 4 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Days after Russia invaded Ukraine, Dimitry, an IT worker from St. Petersburg, was faced with a stark choice: move to Tbilisi or lose his job. As western nations imposed sanctions on Russia, the multinational he worked for told employees it was closing its Russian operations and moving to the Georgian capital.

“They told us they would help us move or we could quit,” said the 23-year-old, who asked not to be called by his real name. Within a week, Dimitry was on a plane bound for Tbilisi, joining other Russians who have packed their bags for a variety of reasons – from avoiding the impact of sanctions to anger at the war and fear of a crackdown on opposition supporters .

An estimated 300,000 Russians have fled since Moscow launched a so-called “special operation” to demilitarize Ukraine on Feb. 24, according to OK Russians, a nonprofit organization that helps Russians resisting the invasion flee abroad. The Thomson Reuters Foundation has not been able to independently verify the group’s estimate.

An online survey conducted by the group in mid-March found that the majority of those leaving were young, skilled professionals, with IT specialists accounting for about a third of the total. Russia has adopted a number of measures to support IT companies and ruled out possible restrictions on international travel for IT staff, Russian news agency Interfax reported.

Many of the Russians leaving their homes have made their way to Georgia, Turkey and Armenia, drawn by visa-free regimes and already existing Russian communities, but not all have been welcomed with open arms. In Georgia, a former Soviet republic that lost a brief war with Russia in 2008 and currently does not control about a fifth of its territory, with Russian troops stationed there, some people view the influx with suspicion.

Some Russian motorists arriving in the country have the red, white and blue flag affixed to their license plates – sometimes with stickers featuring the blue and yellow colors of Ukraine. SUPPORT FOR UKRAINE

Georgia has not imposed sanctions on Russia over the invasion, but according to opinion polls, an overwhelming majority of Georgians support Ukraine. Nodar Rukhadze, a civil rights activist with the Tbilisi-based Shame Movement, an anti-Kremlin group, said he was concerned supporters of Russian President Vladimir Putin could arrive with people escaping repression at home.

Their presence poses potential security problems, he said, adding that his movement called for the introduction of a visa regime and background checks for newcomers. “Unfortunately, we can’t tell who supports Putin’s regime and who doesn’t,” said Rukhadze, who was arrested at a pro-Ukraine rally in Tbilisi in March.

Earlier last month, one of Georgia’s main banks began requiring Russians who open accounts to sign a statement condemning “Russia’s aggression in Georgia and Ukraine,” though the requirement was later scrapped. Activists hung posters on the streets of Tbilisi with a QR code purporting to offer tips on where to eat and other things to do. Instead, readers were directed to websites showing the effects of Russian shelling in Ukraine.

And while rents in the city have nearly doubled in the past month due to increased demand from newcomers, many landlords are refusing to rent to Russians, said Nutsa Nemsadze of real estate agency DazHomes. “I don’t understand why they’re doing this,” she said. “(Russians) are not Putin.” RUSSIAN COMPANIES

Olga Kustova, a 35-year-old engineer and supporter of jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny, said that while she understands the ambivalence towards Russians, she also finds them slightly “insulting”. “On the one hand, it’s very clear. We are Russians and the Russians are the aggressors,” she said, speaking from the Tbilisi apartment she rented in late February when she fled St. Petersburg with her husband, mother and two children.

“But of course it’s a bit unfair to us personally, because we’ve been trying to fight this regime for a long time.” For its part, the Georgian government is trying to secure a long-term benefit from the brain drain of talent and companies from Russia, while trying not to anger Moscow.

As well as barring sanctions, she has tried to prevent some volunteers from fighting in Ukraine and has threatened to take the country’s president to court for making a pro-Ukrainian diplomatic trip without the government’s approval. “Intense efforts are being made to persuade many international companies that have been operating in Ukraine or Russia to relocate their activities to Georgia,” Economy Minister Levan Davitashvili was quoted as saying last week.

According to data from the Ifact news agency, Russian nationals have registered more than 1,000 companies in Georgia over the past month, and coworking spaces in Tbilisi are full. Demand for desks tripled from February to March, said Ruska Chakvetadze, area manager of office space provider IWG in the city.

UNCERTAIN FUTURE Nevertheless, many Russians abroad face uncertain prospects.

More than a month after landing in Tbilisi, Kustova said she could not find a school that would take her son. In Istanbul, to which many Russians have also fled, some reported difficulties in opening bank accounts without a proper residence permit – visa-free entry allows a stay of up to 90 days.

Some have had difficulty finding accommodation because their credit cards stopped working, although Turkey https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/turkey-faces-risks-acting-sanctions-safe-haven-russians-2022 -03-28 has said it opposes sanctions against Russia and does not enforce them. Newcomers can find help through online anti-war support groups such as OK Russians and The Ark, which provide shelter, advice and funds to those in need.

Others seek to move on. “I will probably stay here for two more weeks and then go to a country in the EU,” said Maxim Polyakov, a 37-year-old journalist with the Russian regional online portal 7×7.

“Our team decided to relocate some people (to Europe) for three or four months. We can’t plan… like before, because nobody knows what’s going to happen.” Irina, a 38-year-old opposition teacher from St. Petersburg, fled Russia for Istanbul in early March fearing for her safety, leaving behind her husband and three children . The family hopes to reunite and find work in a third country.

“We believed that even if everything wasn’t perfect in our country, we could still change a lot … by getting involved in politics, civil society and civic education,” said Irina, who asked that only her first name be used. “Now life is showing us wrong. Uncertainty and difficult challenges lie ahead.”

(This story has not been edited by Devdiscourse staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)