Russians who fled draft in no hurry to return from Georgia
By David Chkhikvishvili
TBILISI (Reuters) – A month after Russia said it had ended a recruitment drive for its war in Ukraine, men who fled to neighbouring Georgia to avoid the draft say they are in no rush to return home.
Russia announced the call-up on Sept. 21 after suffering setbacks on the battlefield – a move that prompted hundreds of thousands of draft-age men to head for the likes of Georgia, Armenia and Kazakhstan to avoid being sent to the front.
More than 110,000 Russians have fled to Georgia this year, statistics from the Georgian government show – an influx that has fuelled both an economic boom and resentment in a country where anti-Russian feelings are rife.
Despite Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu announcing the end of the call-up a month ago, many say they are unlikely to return home any time soon.
“First and foremost the conflict must come to an end,” said Emil, a 26-year old games developer who spent two days queuing at the border to leave Russia.
“It’s got to a stage where everybody is at risk – especially men … I put my safety first. Of course I don’t want to return to a country where police can arrest me for simply walking past them. I want freedom, to feel safe,” he said in an interview in Tbilisi.
The Kremlin’s refusal to cancel an official decree ordering mobilisation has fuelled fears that further call-ups could be announced without warning.
“I have a very vague idea of what should happen in Russia for me to want to go back there. But for now, I’ve rented a flat in Tbilisi for six months and registered a business. I’ll be here for the next six months,” said Slava, a 28-year-old who also works in the mobile games industry.
“I’ll be monitoring what’s going on in Russia. Of course I would love to go back because – apart from certain aspects – I liked it there, and I love Russia.”
Yet the arrival of so many relatively well-off Russians in a comparatively poor country of just 3.7 million has created tension.
“There is a perception in society that the situation is out of control,” said opposition lawmaker Salome Samadashvili, speaking in front of a Ukrainian flag in her office.
Russian-backed separatists control two breakaway regions of Georgia – Abkhazia and South Ossetia. In 2008, Moscow said they were under threat from the Georgian government and briefly invaded other parts of Georgia.
Samadashvili said she fears Putin could use the pretext of “protecting” Russians in Georgia as grounds for a further invasion, just as he did in Ukraine.
In what has become a common protest chant, many Georgians say they consider a fifth of their country to be occupied by Russia.
Many of the Russian arrivals – opposed to both the war and Putin’s repression at home – are sympathetic to that message, and some are putting down roots.
“We made a decision to move … so that we could feel more free,” said Denis Shebenkov, an entrepreneur who moved to Tbilisi in March.
In June he opened a coffee business in Tbilisi, and last month he closed his original coffee shop in St Petersburg.
“When I remember how the police in St Petersburg behaves, or what the city administration and government does – I don’t want to return there at all,” he said.
(Reporting by David Chkhikvishvili in Tbilisi; Writing by Jake Cordell in Tbilisi; Editing by Kevin Liffey and Philippa Fletcher)