Ahead of next year's parliamentary elections, anti-Russian sentiment is an increasingly mobilizing force in Georgian politics.
A week after Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine last February triggered an influx of Russian immigrants into neighboring Georgia, a young Georgian politician posted a series of instructions on social media about the “treatment of Russians.” “Keep a cool distance,” advised Giorgi Noniashvili, a member of the opposition European Georgia party. Other advice included not smiling – “you don't smile at the enemy” – and not answering questions asked in Russian.
Noniashvili's proposals reflect Georgian society's widespread attitude toward recent waves of Russian immigration: a certain sense of inevitability, but also deep distrust, if not outright fear. Since the outbreak of the war, and especially after the partial mobilization declared by President Vladimir Putin last September, the number of Russian nationals crossing into Georgia has increased significantly: 148,000 in the third quarter of 2022 alone and 160,000 in the first three quarters of 2022 2023, which is about one Fivefold increase compared to the corresponding period in 2021.
The number of Russian companies registered in Georgia also increased dramatically. According to Transparency International, Russian citizens registered 21,000 companies between March 2022 and June 2023: almost three times as many as in the entire previous quarter century.
The economic impact of these developments was significant. On the one hand, the country is recording double-digit economic growth for the first time since 2007. The Georgian lari has increased in value by 18 percent. At the same time, the country has experienced soaring inflation of nearly 12 percent and rental prices in major cities have almost doubled, making life difficult for locals, especially groups such as students and day laborers.
Nevertheless, the main concerns regarding Russian immigration are not economic but political: in particular, the perceived security challenges. Georgian political experts and politicians have raised concerns that undercover agents could infiltrate immigrant communities to turn them into tools of Russian soft power – and as a pretext for even more military aggression from Russia, which fought a five-day war with Georgia in 2008 and still has military control over a fifth of Georgia's territory. Another major risk identified is an increase in crime and corruption.
None of these concerns are unfounded. On October 10, two former Russian agents admitted that they had been sent to Georgia for espionage purposes after the invasion of Ukraine. There has already been a case in which a Russian-language school was founded that illegally used materials from Russia's highly ideological curricula. Most ominously, Russia has indicated that it will oversee the protection of the rights of Georgia's Russian-speaking minority: the pretext cited by Moscow for sending troops into the breakaway territory of Georgia in 2008 and parts of Ukraine in 2014.
These concerns are shared by the majority of the Georgian population. Graffiti reading “Russians go home” is not an uncommon sight on the streets of Tbilisi. Immigrants faced demonstrations at the Larsi border crossing into Georgia; and according to a poll by the International Republican Institute, as of early 2023, 79 percent of Georgians believed that Russian citizens should not have the right to enter the country without a visa, purchase real estate or open a business. As early as March 2022, 66 percent of Georgians supported the introduction of a visa requirement between the two countries (Russian citizens can currently stay in Georgia for up to a year without a visa).
However, these attitudes are not reflected in the Georgian government's policies or rhetoric. Since the start of the war, members of the ruling Georgian Dream party have downplayed concerns about Russian immigration as “hysterical.” The party's leader, Irakli Kobakhidze, even threatened to tighten anti-discrimination laws in response to what he called a campaign of ethnic discrimination against Russians. In April 2023, with the express permission of the government and in coordination with the Russian authorities, Georgian Airways reintroduced direct flights between Moscow and Tbilisi, paving the way for further Russian immigration to the country.
This discrepancy between public opinion and government policy regarding Russian immigration and general relations with Russia has led to numerous protests and demonstrations. The most serious was in March 2023 against the introduction of the so-called “Russian law”. The bill would have required organizations receiving funds from outside the country to register as foreign agents, mirroring controversial legislation already in force in Russia.
The government quickly linked the dissent to party politics, attributing it to provocations by the “war party” and accusing the demonstrators of ties to the previous government led by the United National Movement (UNM). But amid violent clashes between protesters and police, Georgian Dream was forced to withdraw the bill, demonstrating the effectiveness of anti-Russian sentiment as a mobilizing force in Georgian politics.
Unsurprisingly, the opposition is trying to capitalize on this sentiment and the government's unwillingness to address it ahead of general elections scheduled for 2024. On November 20, Mamuka Khazaradze, leader of the pro-Western Lelo party, proposed a series of restrictions on Russian immigrants, including the introduction of visa requirements and a ban on the purchase of land and real estate.
Just days later, Mikheil Saakashvili, who was president of Georgia during the 2008 war with Russia and is now the de facto leader of the UNM, the largest opposition party, promised to enact even more radical laws that would force Russian nationals to sell their assets in Georgia and leave the country within one year.
These initiatives demonstrate that the presence of Russian immigrants has become a sensitive and contentious issue that will only become more politically important as the election season heats up. Despite public outcry, the Georgian Dream government refuses to curb or regulate Russian immigration in any way. Time will tell whether this policy will have a political cost.
- Tornike Chumburidze
- Sofia Gavrilova