Giorgi Badridze, Senior Fellow at the Rondeli Foundation
The Russian war in Ukraine, among other things, has resulted in Georgia experiencing a huge influx of Russian citizens. This has served as cause for another confrontation in the country, only this time not within society, but between the majority of citizens, who view the uncontrolled mass immigration as a potential threat, and the government, which flatly refuses to deploy even a minimum level of control. One can regularly hear the top government officials accusing their critics of xenophobia and presenting their own position as “pragmatic.”
Let us look into the facts and try to appreciate how justified each of these approaches is in terms of morality and pragmatism.
According to the Georgian government’s own information, in the first 13 days of war, nearly 25,000 Russian citizens crossed the Georgian border, with the numbers increasing by the day. Officials tried to argue that nothing extraordinary was taking place, as a similar number of visitors had been seen in the same period of previous years. Only, for some reason, they would not admit that the record number of visitors this year represents not tourists arriving for a few days, but potential immigrants which are likely to stay indefinitely. And the number of arrivals is growing exponentially. On March 6 alone, Georgian Airlines had a unprecedented nine flights from Yerevan, bringing hundreds more Russian citizens to Georgia.
The State Security Service of Georgia responded to the criticism by issuing a statement, in which it claims that “the allegation about the so called mass uncontrolled influx of foreign citizens, specifically citizens of the Russian Federation and Belarus in recent days, was deliberate disinformation.” It promised that “security in the country is under complete control.”
That the influx in uncontrolled is evident from the mere fact that Russian citizens continue to enjoy the (unilateral) visa-free regime and that the one person we know who was denied entry to Georgia was a journalist from Dozhd TV (TV Rain), a TV station persecuted and closed down by the Russian authorities. This suggests that the only control that exists applies to those undesirable to Putin’s regime.
It is also hard not to call it “mass” when a stream of thousands of Russian citizens is crossing the Georgian border daily, and when their number exceeds the records of the best tourist seasons. And when, this time, these are not tourists visiting for a few days, enjoying Georgian resorts, spending money, and returning home: This time, they are migrants, escaping the inconveniences created by the sanctions imposed in response to Putin’s war.
Perhaps our citizens will make their own judgement whether they should be satisfied by the assurances of the security service that they have total control over the situation. Yet, if there is a shred of evidence to that effect, it is being kept secret, as the only “achievement” with which they have distinguished themselves in recent years is the revelations of eavesdropping of private citizens, politicians, and clergymen. I would hope that those who have crossed the Georgian border in recent weeks (and in the years before that) did not include members of the Russian intelligence services, like the ones who became infamous as a result of the murders they committed on UK and German soil, and by the acts of sabotage in the Czech Republic and elsewhere, and I consider it as utmost irresponsibility when someone categorically rules out such a possibility.
Further, the issue of security is not limited to a hypothetical problem of saboteurs. For instance, has anyone given a thought, let alone conducted a study into what happens when, either because of blocked bank cards or exhausted funds, thousands of Russian citizens in Georgia become unable to pay their rent and find themselves left helpless amid a virtually non-existent system of social security?
Of course, the influx of Russian citizens should be considered in the humanitarian dimension as well, but we must agree that their absolute majority is not composed of refugees: unlike Ukrainians, they are not fleeing bombs raining down on their homes. Among them there are people who must be welcomed wholeheartedly and offered our full support, yes, but the actions of the Georgian government cause serious concern: as already mentioned, there have been cases seeing them turning away those escaping Putin’s persecution, not just the discomfort of the sanctions.
No, we should not slam shut our doors on Russian citizens, but we should introduce at least a minimum level of control. For instance, a system of electronic visas to help regulate the flow and prioritize those who need our support most. In the age of internet and social networks, it would not be hard to reveal those with a hostile disposition toward Georgia.
It is impossible to discuss this issue without mentioning the Georgian government’s position on the international sanctions. I sincerely hope that no-one entertains the idea that the country, or they personally, could benefit financially from the conditions emerging as a result of the war. This would not just be an immoral, but also a totally foolish and dangerous position. There is evidence that Russia could try to use Georgia to soften the impact of the sanctions, as it has since 2014 with Belarus, which functioned as a stage for relabeling the sanctioned goods (though such a practice would be a direct violation of the agreements signed with the EU, even without any sanctions). Considering the pace with which the number and the severity of sanctions is increasing, no-one with even the slightest common sense would think of making any back-door deals with the Russian government or private companies.
I would strongly advise the Government of Georgia to reevaluate the new circumstances and to immediately design a new immigration system, as well as a new trade and economic policy, one which will take into account humanitarian considerations, but which would also be based on solidarity with Ukraine and the rules of the sanctions introduced by Georgia’s allies, the violation of which would cost dearly not just certain individuals, but the country as a whole.