TBILISI, Feb 16 (Reuters) – On the first day of Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine, Nikolai Kireev sat with his three-year-old son and cried as he read the news.
“That evening I decided it was obvious we had to leave the country as soon as possible,” Kireev, who is originally from Moscow, told Reuters in an interview in his new home in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, where he has opened a bookshop aimed at Russian exiles.
Kireev is one of hundreds of thousands of Russians who relocated to Georgia following the invasion in February and the announcement of a “partial mobilisation” in Russia in September.
According to Georgia’s interior ministry, 112,000 Russians were in the country, which has a population of 3.7 million, as of Nov. 1.
The emigrants have met a mixed reception in Georgia, a country which has deep historical ties to its northern neighbour, having spent almost two centuries as part of the Russian Empire and Soviet Union.
While the emigrants have helped make Georgia, along with neighbouring Armenia – another popular destination for anti-war Russians – among the fastest growing economies in the world, many Georgians view them with suspicion. Soaring housing costs in Tbilisi, powered by the Russian influx, only exacerbates things.
“They aren’t our friends, they’re our enemies,” said Lado Kikinadze, a 29-year-old Georgian student. “But they do business here, and want to drink with us. It’s strange.”
Georgian public opinion is overwhelmingly pro-Ukrainian, and anti-Russian graffiti is ubiquitous on the streets of Tbilisi. Opposition parties have called for a visa regime to limit the number of Russian arrivals.
‘NOT VERY FRIENDLY’
“There are some radicals,” said Gleb Kuznetsov, a businessman originally from St Petersburg. “Or maybe not radicals, but people who are just generally not very friendly towards foreigners, and who were avoiding us.”
Kuznetsov said that his handicrafts shop had been targeted by a wave of negative Google reviews and the door covered in anti-Russian stickers.
For some Georgians, the new Russian arrivals are deeply unwelcome, given recent history.
In the 1990s, Moscow backed separatists in the Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, with the regions’ ethnic Georgian populations expelled.
In 2008, a second brief war with Russia over the status of the breakaway regions cemented a legacy of bitterness. Today, around 280,000 Georgians remain refugees in their own country, according to a 2021 United Nations report.
With thousands of Russians now living in Tbilisi, the exiles have carved out their own areas, gathering in bars, shops and cafes where few locals come and little Georgian is spoken.
Likewise, Russian is less widely spoken in Georgia than in other former Soviet republics, reinforcing the divisions between new arrivals and long-standing natives.
Bookshop owner Kireev, who said he was learning Georgian, said that Georgians make up less than 10% of his clientele.
“It’s very difficult, because we don’t know the Georgian language, we try to learn it. But since this language barrier (exists), it’s quite difficult to dig into it.”
Reporting by Reuters; Editing by Alex Richardson