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Thousands have fled to the neighbouring state, whose leaders’ soft stand on the Ukraine war has stirred domestic opposition and accusations of appeasement

Anti-Russian graffiti in central Tbilisi, the Georgian capital. Georgia, which fought a war against Russia in 2008, officially deems it an ‘enemy’ state. But now, an exodus of Russian draft dodgers is reshaping its society.Photography by Anton Skyba/The Globe and Mail

The Larsi border crossing on the Russian frontier looks foreboding from the Georgian side. It consists of a few modern white huts tucked into a gorge at the base of a craggy mountain in the Caucasus range. The road beyond twists to the left, then snakes north into Russia.

For thousands of Russian men, potentially hundreds of thousands, this stark bit of landscape represents freedom – the promise of avoiding possible slaughter in Ukraine, where Russian President Vladimir Putin’s military is taking horrific losses.

But for many Georgians, the border represents a threat. They believe the creeping Russification of their country, which has been partly occupied by Russia since the two countries went to war in 2008, starts here. Georgia is one of the last countries where Russians can enter without a visa, no questions asked. And entering they are.

RUSSIA

Abkhazia

Larsi

checkpoint

South

Ossetia

Tskhinvali

military base

Black Sea

Tbilisi

GEORGIA

0

55

TURKEY

ARMENIA

AZER.

KM

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: OPENSTREETMAP CONTRIBUTORS

RUSSIA

Abkhazia

Larsi

checkpoint

South

Ossetia

Tskhinvali

military base

Black Sea

Tbilisi

GEORGIA

0

55

TURKEY

ARMENIA

AZER.

KM

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: OPENSTREETMAP CONTRIBUTORS

RUSSIA

Abkhazia

Larsi

checkpoint

South

Ossetia

Tskhinvali

military base

Black Sea

Tbilisi

GEORGIA

0

55

TURKEY

ARMENIA

AZER.

KM

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: OPENSTREETMAP CONTRIBUTORS

Trucks, facing toward the Russian border, snake back into Georgian territory near the Larsi crossing.

Since the start of the Ukraine war, about half a million have found their way to Georgia, most of them in two waves. The first came in February and March, shortly after the start of the invasion; the second in September and October, when Mr. Putin implemented the press-gang mobilization of some 300,000 men. The government in Tbilisi says about 115,000 Russians have stayed in Georgia, a tiny country with a population of 3.7 million.

When the mobilization started, thousands of cars stuffed with young Russian men eligible for the draft clogged the Russian side of the border, where some got snatched by military recruitment officers. By last week, when The Globe and Mail visited the area with a photographer and an interpreter, the crush was gone, but the Russians were still coming – about 30 cars waited to cross.

The occupants of a Citroën sedan with Russian plates were happy to talk. Konstantin and his wife, Ksenia, had driven from Rostov-on-Don, about 650 kilometres east of Ukraine, and slipped into Georgia by telling the Russian border guards they were on holiday. They planned to go as far as Armenia, where they have friends. (The Globe is not using their full names because they fear reprisals from Russian authorities.)

“I was not eligible for the first mobilization, since I was too old, but there may be a second mobilization before winter,” said Konstantin, 39. “They are picking men at random all across Russia.”

Ksenia said that, back home, they were reminded every hour of every day that the war they oppose grinds on. “We hear the sounds over our houses of Russian military jets heading into Ukraine all the time,” she said. “I don’t want my husband to die in Ukraine.”

Another member of this Russian diaspora was Anton, 35, a construction worker from Yaroslavl, a city about 230 kilometres north of Moscow. He made his tortuous journey by plane, train and bus to the Georgian border, carrying nothing but a knapsack, and was hitchhiking to a nearby mountain hostel called the White House to figure out where to head next.

He too feared a second mobilization. “I have bad neck problems, but the Russian military does not care about my health,” he said. “I know lots of men who had medical problems but were still forced into the army. If Russia wins this war, they will have to keep fighting because Putin will not stop with Ukraine.”

Women grieve at the funeral of a Georgian fighter killed in Ukraine. Like Georgia, Ukraine broke away from the collapsing Soviet Union in the early 1990s.

Ukrainian flags hang at the Palace of Justice in Tbilisi, and at a ceremony outside the national legislature.

The influx of Russians and their families is reshaping Georgia, creating internal tensions in a small country whose leaders have an inconsistent policy toward Russia. Officially, Russia is an “enemy” state. Still, the government, led by the Georgian Dream social democratic party, puts out mixed messages about its true stand on Moscow.

Some of the many critics of the Georgian government consider the ruling party, Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili and the powerbroker allegedly behind him, multibillionaire former prime minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, closer to Russia than they care to admit (Mr. Ivanishvili was a Russian citizen for 20 years).

“Georgia’s apparent neutrality is a euphemism for being pro-Russia, and our enemy is Russia,” said Giga Bokeria, a former secretary of the National Security Council of Georgia and the leader of the small opposition party European Georgia.

“Russia has a strategic goal of destroying Georgia, yet our government appeases Putin.”

One of the leaders of the Shame Movement, which calls itself Georgia’s biggest protest group, is more blunt.

“We believe Georgian Dream is a Russian proxy,” said Nadar Rukhadze, the group’s pro-European co-founder. “Trying to be neutral automatically means being with a country that has colonized and occupied us.”

Nodar Rukhadze and Dachi Imedadze of the Shame Movement point to an anti-Putin poster at their office.

Georgia is a former Soviet republic – the birthplace of Joseph Stalin, no less – wedged between the Caspian and Black seas at the intersection of Asia and Europe. It’s in a tough neighbourhood, sharing borders with Russia, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Turkey. Georgia has always cherished its own identity and developed a strong sovereignty movement in the 1980s. In 1991, just before the collapse of the Soviet Union, it declared independence.

Its very existence as a standalone state angered Mr. Putin even before Georgia stated its ambition to join the EU and NATO. In a short, bloody war in 2008, Russia gained full control of two breakaway Georgian provinces – South Ossetia and Abkhazia – and stuffed them full of Russian military personnel. It maintains a large military base a mere 60 kilometres northwest of Tbilisi that usually has 4,500 soldiers, a tank battalion and a drone company. They are an unnerving presence for many Georgians, though it is likely that most of the base’s troops and armour have been redeployed to Ukraine, where 23 Georgian volunteer fighters have died, according to local media, which have covered their funerals.

After the 2008 war, Georgia ramped up its pro-Western strategy, to the point of adding its goal to join the EU and NATO to the constitution and hosting NATO exercises. On paper, at least, Georgia maintains that pro-Western stand, though it seems to have been diluted in recent years.

The government insists it supports Ukraine but is sending it only humanitarian supplies, not military equipment. Unlike most countries in the West, it still welcomes Russian visitors, who do not need visas and can effectively stay forever.

Georgia has not imposed sanctions on Russia, and trade between the two countries – Russian oil comes south, Georgian food goes north – has surged since the war started. On our way to the Russian frontier in a van, The Globe counted 22 kilometres of trucks parked by the side of the twisting highway. One frustrated driver, whose truck was loaded with Georgian-made lemonade, said it can take days, even weeks, to enter Russia because the queue is so long and the border checks so rigorous.

In another move seen by the Georgian opposition as coddling Moscow, the government has denied entry to some prominent critics of the Putin government. Among them was a member of punk band Pussy Riot, Olga Borisova, who has been critical of the war in Ukraine. In June, mass protests erupted in Tbilisi after parliament invited a Russian politician to address a parliamentary forum.

Georgian parliamentarian Nikoloz Samkharadze speaks with The Globe about his party's overtures to Russia and the West.

The Globe asked Nikoloz Samkharadze, the chairman of parliament’s foreign relations committee, to explain the apparent strategy of trying to make nice with both Russia – Georgia’s “enemy” and occupier of 20 per cent of its land mass – and the West.

Why are Russians being allowed visa-free entry, all the more so since there have been reports of Russian agents taking advantage of the open border? (In August, Eurasianet published an article about a young Russian man who was unmasked and admitted his role as an informant in Tbilisi for Russia’s security services.)

Mr. Samkharadze said his committee and the party held a lively debate about keeping the border open. “We decided that, if you close the border, you are playing into Putin’s hands,” he said. “You would be closing the border to people who do not want to fight in Ukraine.”

Mr. Bokeria’s view is that the government is gambling its soft stand toward Mr. Putin may convince the Russian leader to leave Georgia alone. He thinks the government fears that a hardline approach, one that might include Georgia supplying lethal weapons to Ukraine, would convince Mr. Putin to complete his takeover of the country, an invasion that would probably overwhelm Georgia’s small military within days.

But he says the government’s strategy offers no protection from Russia – that Mr. Putin no more believes in Georgian independence than he does in Ukrainian independence.

“If we want statehood, we have to show that we are ready to fight,” he said. “If Putin knows we are not ready to fight, he is more likely to invade.”

He also thinks that keeping the border open is dangerous. “The inflow is helping to normalize Russia’s presence here,” he said.

Giga Bokeria, leader of the European Georgia party, accuses the government of trying to appease Mr. Putin.

Ghia Nodia, a politics professor at Georgia’s Ilia State University and a former cabinet minister, agrees that growing Russian presence could compromise Georgia’s security in the long term.

He noted that the second wave of arrivals, unlike the first, may not actually oppose Mr. Putin or the war itself. “They may not have any political ideals,” he said. “They just don’t want to fight in Ukraine.”

As their numbers increase – a second mobilization would trigger another surge in arrivals – they will inevitably gain cultural and political power, maybe even forming their own political party.

“Many people here think the Russian arrivals pose a threat” because they carry a grudge, Prof. Nodia said. “The propaganda in Russia is that Russians are mistreated in Georgia. That has been a Russian narrative for a long time, as it was in eastern Ukraine.”

There have been no reports of abusive behaviour toward the new arrivals, though at least one bar in Tbilisi, Dedaena, requires Russians to fill out a “visa” form: If they say they did not vote for Mr. Putin, that they condemn the war and that they approve of the now-famous phrase “Russian warship, go fuck yourself,” they are allowed in.

At this Tbilisi bar, signs warn pro-Russian patrons to stay away. When their hands are stamped for re-entry, it is with obscenities against Mr. Putin.

Anti-war graffiti in Tbilisi. The city, and Georgia generally, is home to growing numbers of anti-Putin activist groups made up of Russian exiles.

The Russian presence can be seen pretty much everywhere, certainly in Tbilisi.

Young Russian techies, most of them from the first wave, were generally welcomed in Georgia and have bolstered the country’s now-burgeoning IT sector. Russian cars are ubiquitous, and Russians are opening their own private schools. To the annoyance of locals, the new arrivals – who also include Ukrainians and Belarusians, some of whom are wealthy – have pushed up home prices and rents by double digits.

Russian exiles are also forming civil society groups, a few of them of the anti-Putin variety. A video by Russian anti-Putin band Megatonna was screened at a recent event in Tbilisi sponsored by Emigration for Action, which raises money for medical supplies and psychological care for the 35,000 Ukrainians who have fled to Georgia.

“We want to transfer our feeling of guilt for the war to the responsibility to help Ukrainians,” said Katerina Kiltou, Emigration for Action’s co-founder.

Katerina Kiltou is co-founder of Emigration for Action, which offers support to Russian exiles.

Grisha Sverdlin runs a group that helps Russian men hire legal counsel to avoid the draft.

At the same time, Georgia is emerging as a hub to help Russians flee the war.

Grisha Sverdlin, a 43-year-old advocate for the homeless from Saint Petersburg, fled Russia in April after being arrested three times for participating in anti-government protests.

He set up a group in Tbilisi that uses hundreds of volunteers around the world. It helps Russian men avoid the draft by hiring legal counsel to fight conscription orders, sending them into hiding inside Russia, advising them how to surrender to Ukrainian forces if they are already in Ukraine or instructing them to leave Russia for the few countries, including Georgia, that allow visa-free entry.

Mr. Sverdlin explained how his group hired professional smugglers to take a man who had received mobilization orders from Russia to Belarus. They forded a remote river on the Russia-Belarus border and made it to Minsk, where the man flew to Armenia.

Mr. Sverdlin fears for his own safety, as Russian authorities almost certainly know of his whereabouts and activities. “I myself know that I cannot go back to Russia as long as Putin is in power,” he said.

The Russian exiles The Globe met in Georgia were relieved that they had escaped Mr. Putin’s war machine, even though they had left friends, families and jobs behind.

Alexei, 28, a Siberian who lived in Saint Petersburg, where he worked as a photography editor and teacher, was detained for seven days for taking part in an anti-war protest. When Mr. Putin announced the mobilization in September, he returned to Siberia, where 100 young men from his town of 3,000 were rounded up by the military. So he left again, by train to Kazakhstan, and ultimately reached Georgia.

“The guy right next to me on the train was taken off at the Russian border and sent to military service,” he said. “I was never so scared in my life. But they left me alone. It really was like a lottery, and I won the lottery that day. I did not want to kill Ukrainians and now I don’t have to. In Georgia, I can plan for my future because I have a future.”

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