While some Russian exiles are joining the protests in Georgia, others are staying away

Viktor Lyagushkin, 52, is one of tens of thousands of Russians who fled to Georgia after Moscow invaded Ukraine last year.

He joined mass protests in Tbilisi that erupted after parliament initially backed a bill on “foreign agents” reminiscent of Russia’s legislation on cracking down on Kremlin critics.

Lyagushkin said “many” Russians, but also Ukrainians, took part in several days of anti-government protests in Tbilisi this week.

“The opportunity to go out and express disagreements is important to them because they were denied that in Russia,” he said.

The law was dropped after three days of youth-led protests and outcry from the West.

“I decided to participate because I am not indifferent to the fate of Georgia,” Lyagushkin added.

“I have many Georgian friends and I wanted to support them,” said the National Geographic photographer, dressed in yellow and blue clothes in the colors of the Ukrainian flag.

Lyagushkin used to live between Moscow, Kiev and Tbilisi before settling in Georgia after the Kremlin unleashed an all-out war against Ukraine in 2022.

– “I had to show support” –

Since President Vladimir Putin sent troops to Ukraine, the Russian authorities have stepped up a crackdown on dissent, jailing or exiling opposition activists.

Since the war began, thousands of cases have been opened against Russians for “discrediting” the Moscow army, and some people have been imprisoned.

Lyagushkin said he did not believe a popular opposition movement similar to what he had seen in Georgia could emerge in Russia.

He compared the protests in Georgia to a popular uprising in Kiev that ousted pro-Kremlin leaders from power in 2014 and sparked a confrontation with Russia.

Bogdana Vashchenko, a Ukrainian who has lived in Moscow for more than a decade, can only agree.

The 46-year-old writer and journalist, who now lives in Tbilisi, took part in protests in the southern Caucasus country with Lyagushkin.

“As a Ukrainian and as a person, I knew I had to support Georgia and my Georgian friends,” she told AFP.

Vashchenko said the “lies” of Georgia’s ruling party were similar to those of Ukraine’s pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych, who was ousted in 2014.

“It’s like they have the same agenda, the same plan,” she said.

– ‘Nothing will change’ –

But some Russian exiles here have other issues on their minds and seem indifferent to the recent political turmoil.

In bars and cafés just a few streets away from the protests in front of Parliament, their conversations on Friday evening revolved around rising electricity prices, immigration prospects and memories of their homeland.

Vladimir Kirsanov, in his thirties, arrived in Georgia in September after Putin announced a military mobilization. He now wants to move to Argentina along with his partner Margarita but they are unsure if they can afford the move.

“Nothing will change in Russia in the next ten years,” Kirsanov said, adding that he had no interest in interfering in Georgia’s affairs.

He also doesn’t want to face any problems with law enforcement in Georgia, where he has to stay for at least six months to be able to apply for a Schengen visa.

The Georgian authorities have recently come under fire from human rights groups and the opposition for barring entry to some of the Kremlin’s critics. Some observers have warned that the authorities are drifting dangerously towards Moscow.

Vashchenko sees the “root of evil” plaguing the country in the political apathy of the Russian population.

She said it was important to stand by Georgia, which fought a five-day war with Russia in 2008. And a new war between Russia and Georgia cannot be ruled out, she added.

“Yes, we are afraid, and I think the Georgians are also afraid of the possibility of an invasion,” she said.

“But if we stay at home out of fear, then they will definitely come.”