TBILISI, Georgia – “The world must stop Russian aggression,” reads a poster on the wall of a bar in this South Caucasus nation that has become home to tens of thousands of Russian emigres since the invasion of Ukraine.
“Russians who come to Georgia should never forget that they are coming to a place that is being attacked by their country,” said Data Lapauri, the owner of Dedaena bar.
For many Georgians, the Kremlin’s incursion into neighboring Ukraine has revived painful memories of the 2008 Russo-Georgian war and Moscow’s support for Georgia’s breakaway regions. At the same time, a flood of anti-war Russians who fear conscription, economic crisis and a political crackdown at home have become a noticeable presence on the streets of the Georgian capital Tbilisi.
While most Georgians have no problems with the new Russian community, some tensions continue to bubble as the six-month war in Ukraine shows no sign of ending.
In one sign of friction, some Georgian business owners have begun requiring Russian customers to confirm that they do not support President Vladimir Putin — orally or in writing.
Dedaena is one of the companies that has implemented a “visa policy”.
Russian citizens who want to enter the bar must fill out an online form and agree to a list of statements, such as “I condemn Russian aggression in Ukraine.”
Visitors are also asked not to speak Russian or engage in political discussions while intoxicated, according to the online form.
“It is an extreme policy to say that people of a certain nation are not welcome here. But I don’t want someone who supports the war in Ukraine and voted for Putin at the bar I own. We don’t want to serve the occupiers,” Lapauri told The Moscow Times, sitting on the bar’s terrace on a busy Thursday evening.
Other cases of Georgian business making special demands from Russians include Bank of Georgia, which briefly asked Russians will sign a form in March saying they “condemn Russia’s aggression in Georgia and Ukraine.”
The most famous night club in Georgia, Bassiani, has reportedly Russians stopped from entering because of their nationality.
Dedaena, named after a famous 19th-century book for children learning Georgian, decided to implement the “visa policy” because of “a growing number of cases of misconduct by Russian tourists,” Lapauri said, adding that it’s a way to protect the pub and keep it friendly and nice.”
“It is very common that people from Russia do not even request – they demand service and menus in Russian or to pay in rubles. Sometimes aggressive. As if it were something that belonged to them. I would definitely prefer not to introduce the visa policy because it doesn’t look good to me — it looks terrible. But we were forced to do it,” said the bar owner.
However, many Russians living in Georgia say such measures violate their rights.
“I think that such measures are unacceptable, they contradict international laws – any discrimination based on nationality or political views is unacceptable,” Russian citizen Ulyana Kalinina, who moved to Georgia in 2017, told The Moscow Times.
“It incites hatred in the country where we all live,” she said.
Dedaena’s rules for Russians led to a series of cyber attacks last month in which the bar’s online pages were flooded with negative reviews. The attacks were apparently orchestrated by Male State, a Russian group with extreme nationalist and radical chauvinist views.
While some locals resent what they see as the colonial attitudes of incoming Russians, others have stressed that a large Russian community could also pose a threat to security and political stability in Georgia, a country of just 3.7 million people.
There is no accurate data for the number of Russians who have moved to Georgia since the Ukraine war, but the figure is believed to be in the tens of thousands.
About 6,400 companies were registered by Russian citizens in Georgia between March and June this year, according to Transparency International, which was three times more than in the same period in 2019 before the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
Security concerns have also been fueled by reports of Russians working for the Federal Security Service (FSB) in Georgia. A Muscovite claimed in July he was recruited to spy on Russian dissidents in Tbilisi, while an employee of opposition leader Alexei Navalny who worked for the FSB also recently admitted to relocate to Georgia.
“I’m afraid there could be some kind of provocation from Moscow because of the large number of Russians,” said Nino, a Georgian who declined to give her last name.
“People come here, they start buying apartments, they have a residence permit, they don’t learn Georgian and then – who knows – what if Russia comes here to ‘protect’ its people like it does in Ukraine?” she told The Moscow Times in Tbilisi.
While the Georgian capital is known for its hospitality, restaurants and nightlife, some politicians called for the introduction of visas for Russian tourists since the war.
Ukrainian flags are a common sight on the streets of Tbilisi, and one street banner on display during a recent visit refers to Georgia’s famous cuisine: “Putin kills people in Ukraine while Russians eat khachapuri in Georgia.”
There is also proof that Georgian border guards are increasingly denying access to prominent Russian journalists and activists when they try to enter the country.
Those who oppose restrictions on Russian citizens argue that targeting Russians is likely to only increase tensions with local residents.
“Most of the people who moved to Georgia do not support Putin’s policies and the war – these are the people who go to demonstrations and speak loudly about their political views,” said one Russian expatriate with Georgian roots.
“This [restrictions] can backfire and push people back to Putin,” she added.
At the same time, a number of Russian opposition activists believe there is nothing problematic about asking Russians to express their opposition to Putin.
Anton Mikhalchuk, a Tbilisi-based activist and manager for the Free Russia Foundation, placed a photo of the bar last month, arguing that the alleged presence of significant “Russophobia” in Georgia was simply Russian “propaganda”.
And Lapauri said that, as long as Russian drinkers declare their opposition to Putin, they will be treated just like Georgians or guests from any other country.
“We have a lot of Russian speakers and a lot of them are also citizens of Russia and they don’t mind filling out the form,” he said.
“We have positive feedback from them, they like our music and atmosphere.”