Maksim had a good life in Minsk. The 32-year-old software developer had a high-paying job in the Belarusian office of a big American digital-platform engineering company. He shared a comfortable home with his wife and young son, and they were optimistic about their future.
In early February, Maksim started to worry. The Russian military was building its presence in Belarus, a Russian client state, as rumours of war intensified. Still, he did not think Russian President Vladimir Putin would order an invasion of Ukraine.
He was wrong. On Feb. 24, the Russian attacks began, some of them launched from Belarus. Maksim went into near-panic mode.
“I was terrified,” he said in an interview. “I was worried that I would be drafted by the Belarusian military and sent to fight in Ukraine. My wife said, ‘You should get out of here while you still can.’”
So he fled, alone, to Georgia, a former Soviet republic between the Black and Caspian Seas that does not require entry visas for Belarusians or Russians. “I am not a refugee like the Ukrainians leaving for Poland,” he said. “But in a psychological way, I am.” (The Globe is not using his full name, because he fears consequences for his family members still in Belarus.)
Maksim is now in Tbilisi, working from an Airbnb. Although his wife and child stayed in Minsk, he is far from alone in Georgia. Tens of thousands of young Russians and Belarusians, some from his own employer, are filling the Georgian capital, driving up Airbnb prices to double or triple their usual costs and packing restaurants and bars.
They are generally young professional men with portable IT jobs, who speak near-perfect English and intensely dislike – and fear – Mr. Putin and his Belarusian counterpart, Alexander Lukashenko. Most arrived by plane, taking circuitous routes through Turkey or Armenia, both of which share borders with Georgia.
The Georgian government welcomes this brain drain from Russia and Belarus, partly because the employed young tech workers don’t require handouts, but mostly because the country’s tech sector can use the influx of talent.
Georgia is trying to diversify, as a way of reducing its ties with Russia and lowering its economic and financial risk. One way to achieve that goal is to boost its IT industry. (It is also applying for membership in the European Union.) Russia invaded Georgia in 2008 and occupies about 20 per cent of its land area.
“We are a very friendly and open society,” Levan Davitashvili, Georgia’s Vice-Prime Minister and Minister of Economy and Sustainable Development, said. “Georgia can be a data hub. We need professionals and new IT companies.”
Late last week, Georgian Interior Minister Vakhtang Gomelauri told the country’s Parliament that more than 30,000 Russian nationals had arrived in Georgia since the war started, and about 13,000 of them had stayed. The number of Russian arrivals, he said, was 14 times higher than in the same period in 2019, the year before the start of the pandemic.
Arrivals from Belarus increased tenfold compared to the same period in 2019, to almost 16,000, he said. It is almost certain that the number of Russian and Belarusian arrivals has climbed significantly since Mr. Gomelauri made his remarks, as the war in Ukraine has become more extensive and deadly.
Maksim said he feels “safe and free in Georgia” but thinks he will have to find a new adopted country for himself and his family – one that is closer to Belarus. Poland, Lithuania and Latvia are on his short list, though he realizes airspace closures and other travel restrictions mean all bets are off until the war is over.
Two young Russian men The Globe interviewed in Tbilisi – Max, 27, and Eldar, 24 – decided even before the war started that they would have to leave Russia at some point. They are close friends. Both speak fluent English and worked in St. Petersburg for Russian-owned IT companies (neither would provide his last name, also for fear of reprisals).
“In the last two years, we’ve seen too many arrests, too much police oppression,” Max said. “There is no way to express your opinion, to protest, without being at risk.”
The start of the war finally made them swing into action, for the same reasons that propelled Maksim out of Belarus. “I was afraid that Putin would mobilize all young men,” Eldar said. “I didn’t want to go to Ukraine and kill Ukrainians. I don’t feel much like a patriotic Russian. We could do our work remotely, so we decided to hedge our bets and leave. We are not alone in leaving. There are thousands like us.”
Both are unsure they will stay in Georgia, though they might. What is certain is that they will never return to Russia as long as Mr. Putin is in power, they said.
Their main problem is getting their pay transferred from their employer to Georgia, which has become difficult because of sanctions on Russian banks. They found a “PayPal-like” money-transfer service that allows them to receive their wages, but don’t know whether the system will be able to survive any new sanctions.
Both say they are happy in Georgia, even if they dream of jobs – and freedom – somewhere in the European Union. “The thousands of young people like us from Russia are good for Georgia,” Max said. “Georgia has become a hub for Russian digital nomads like us.”
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