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‘We didn’t want to be part of the war’: Russians at the Georgia border flee Putin’s call-up

The Guardian
The Guardian
 2022-09-27
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Russians who entered Georgia at the Verkhny Lars border crossing.

Alexandra, 37, a lawyer from Moscow, appeared to almost astonish herself as she said it. Perhaps it was the first time she had, out loud. “We have left our house, our car, our lives – everything.”

Looking down at the top of the blond head of her small child, kicking a stone at her feet, Alexandra explained that she, her husband and son had driven for more than 20 hours from Russia’s capital before dumping their car in the southern city of Vladikavkaz and going on by foot to the border crossing with Georgia.

“We walked for 25km (15 miles) to get to the border with our four-year-old son, between the queuing cars, with no space and lots of fumes.” Asked what they will do next, she replied: “I don’t know, we don’t know.”

Alexandra’s husband, Artiom, 41, who works in radio technology, was at least clear as to why they were there, blinking in the bright sun, with thousands of others among the mountains on the Georgian side of the Verkhny Lars border point. “We didn’t want to be part of the war,” he said. Alexandra added: “My husband was born in Ukraine. He could be mobilised and fighting Ukrainians.”

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Alexandra and Artiom after crossing into Georgia. Photograph: Mari Garshaulishvili/The Guardian

The couple and their child, with only four small bags to their name, walked on, to be mobbed by the horde of taxi drivers who gather daily at the crossing, charging exorbitant fees for the three-hour drive to Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi.

This family, exhausted and bewildered, are just three of the 10,000 Russians that Georgia‘s interior minister, Vakhtang Gomelauri, said on Tuesday were entering the country daily through Verkhny Lars, a bundle of grey buildings and lanes sandwiched in a gorge in the mountains that acts as the only formal crossing between the two countries.

Before Vladimir Putin announced his partial mobilisation of 300,000 people with prior combat or other military service just a few days ago, it had been only 5,000 to 6,000 Russians a day passing through here, a vast increase on the numbers seen before the war in Ukraine but nothing like today.

Those arriving in Georgia now speak of a four-day queue for those fleeing Putin’s Russia by car. Drone footage offers corroborating evidence. It is why many opt to walk or go by bicycle.

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People walk past vehicles with Russian licence plates outside the town of Vladikavkaz towards a border checkpoint between Georgia and Russia. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

But where there is human misery, there is also money to be made. A black market in queue-jumping has emerged for those with the means, said Vasip, 32, a self-employed builder, who had flown from his home in Kalmikiya to the city of Stavropol with his wife, Malida, 38, and their two children, five and two, before taking a car to within 4km of the border and walking the rest.

“You can pay 50,000 roubles to some people, not the police or anything, and they take you to the front of the queue”, he said, shaking his head. “That’s why the queue isn’t moving.”

Yet, despite the obstacles, Georgia’s popularity as a place of exile is growing, alongside that of Mongolia and Kazakhstan, to where 98,000 have fled in the last week.

Finland, the last EU country with a Russian land border that still allows entry to Russians with tourist visas, said last Friday that it would significantly restrict the entry of Russian citizens.

Georgia, in contrast, allows Russians to stay for a year without a visa, an opportunity that 50,000 have already taken an advantage of. Meanwhile, rumours abound the Russian government is planning to close the border with its southern neighbour and the Kremlin’s insistence that “no decisions have been taken” on martial law or border closures, has offered scant reassurance.

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Drone footage shows long queues of vehicles on Russia’s border with Georgia, in Verkhny Lars, Russia. Photograph: The Insider/Reuters

The appearance of masked soldiers and an armoured personnel carrier from the FSB security agency on the Russian side of the border on Monday has only heightened fears. Soldiers have also been seen at the toll crossings on the way to Verkhny Lars, with uncorroborated witness accounts suggesting some Russians had been turned back.

There is growing resentment in Tbilisi about the influx of Russians. Their money has powered increases in rent that some complain has forced then out of their homes, while many feel uncomfortable about hearing the Russian language used so liberally on the streets of Tbilisi, given a fifth of Georgia has been occupied by Russia since the short 2008 war.

The apparent confessions of young men who claim to have been encouraged to come over in the guise of refugees only to spy for the FSB has only fuelled the distrust. The yellow and blue of the Ukrainian flag is everywhere.

But the Georgian government has been resistant to the public pressure to restrict numbers. Emil Avdaliani, the director of Middle East Studies at Geocase, a Georgian thinktank, said ministers were motivated largely by fear. “They are basically trying not to anger Moscow,” he said. “This is a continuation of how Georgia has dealt with the situation with Ukraine generally. There is no super pro-Ukraine rhetoric or support. Surely they want Russia defeated but they can’t really say this. Georgia is not part of Nato, it does not have great allies like Great Britain. It is on its own”.

For Genadiy, 34, a manager in St Petersburg who was making his way over the crossing on his bicycle, Georgia’s reluctance to upset the Kremlin offered an opportunity that he could no longer avoid taking. “I didn’t leave in February [at the start of the war in Ukraine] as it is better to protest, to resist”, he said. “Whenever someone who does that leaves it makes the government happy. But then they announced the mobilisation.”

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Genadiy talks to a Guardian reporter. Photograph: Mari Garshaulishvili/The Guardian

“It is highly unlikely that I would be drafted but there are risks”, Genadiy went on, citing the vague language in Putin’s decree and the danger of an expansion of the draft. “I have a child, I want more children and I don’t want to be killed.”

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