Georgians' attitudes toward Russians have become more negative as a lot of new Russian immigrants are strapped for cash and those who aren't behave arrogantly, Aimar Ventsel writes.
I recently visited Georgia again. I lived there for a month in 2016 and have spent more time in the country than I can count since.
Georgia is a very interesting place and very different from what we think we know about it. The Georgia-Russia war happened in 2008. While it would make sense to think anti-Russian sentiment soared after that, this was not the case.
I have always noticed very warm attitudes toward Russia in Georgia. A diplomat explained that Russia has always been home to a lot of Georgians.
Even though Russia's view of Georgians isn't nearly as favorable, the latter tell their friends and family how well they're doing in Russia when they come home. Salaries and the standard of living are higher in Russia.
Another reason is that Russia is home to a lot of Georgian entrepreneurs who make a fair bit of money there. As put by a Georgian acquaintance, most Georgian millionaires have made their fortunes in Russia. The wealthiest of these, and the gray eminence of Georgian society Bidzina Ivanishvili is a Gazprom shareholder, which is how he made his billions.
Georgian pensioners are especially fond on Russia. They harbor warm memories from the Soviet period, speak Russian and mostly watch Russian television.
However, I detected a change in attitudes the last time around. There is a very cool underground bar called Warszawa in the Tbilisi city center, opened and run by a Polish emigrant. Next door is a wine shop. I spent time at the bar and visited the wine store out of curiosity. It is run by an elderly Georgian man.
We got to talking about this and that until the conversation turned to Russians. The reason is that tens of thousands of Russian citizens have arrived in Georgia since Moscow declared its (allegedly partial) mobilization.
Officially, these new migrants number 70,000, while my well-informed acquaintances tell me that newly arrived migrants from Russia number a few hundred thousands. And so it happened that the Georgian wine shop owner broke into a rant about Russians. There are just so many of them.
The current attitude toward Russian citizens is rather negative in Georgia. In the words of the hostess of my hotel in Kutaisi: "Russians don't have any money!" A lot of new arrivals from Russia are strapped for cash. A lot of people make their living from tourism in Georgia. A cashless tourist is completely useless. The other reason for this shift in attitudes is that Russians who do have money tend to conduct themselves very haughtily.
Tbilisi now has a Russian district with its own shops, cafes and bars. Public order is not a priority there, with people blasting loud music at night and shouting in the streets.
But perhaps the thing that rubs Georgians the wrong way the most is how Russians demand to be served in Russian. People have always spoken Russian in Tbilisi and other cities, but the line is drawn when it is turned into a demand. Bars in Tbilisi now have signs saying, "We don't speak Russian."
I was also told that Russian citizens are finding it increasingly difficult to rent apartments. And that can drivers in Tbilisi refuse to drive Russian customers. Drivers have even asked to see passports and told the customer to get out if it turns out to be Russian.
I drove around for a fair bit during my week in Georgia. Russians running from the mobilization could be seen even in small towns. Young men sitting in small cheap cafes, reading news on their smartphones or talking amongst themselves. A year ago, such tourists hardly ever made it past Tbilisi and Batumi.
The Georgian government has officially said that they will not hinder refugees coming from Russia. However, there are informal attempts to stem the tide of migration. Georgia has shut down the MIR card that was the only form of payment available to Russians after their Mastercard and VISA cards stopped working abroad. It is hoped this might deter Russians from coming to Georgia.
On the other hand, the Georgian administration is combating all manner of Russian opposition activity in Georgia. Criticizing the Kremlin is prohibited and erring against the ban results in repression. All to maintain a maximally friendly relationship with Russia.
Georgia is an interesting and literally multilayered country. However, I often thought about how good it is to be Estonian this time around. The attitude is diametrically different.
Editor: Marcus Turovski