TBILISI, Georgia – “The world should stop Russian aggression,” reads a poster on the wall of a bar in the South Caucasus nation that has been home to tens of thousands of Russian emigrants since the invasion of Ukraine.
“Russians who come to Georgia should never forget that they are coming to a place that is under attack by their country,” said Data Lapauri, the owner of the Dedaena bar.
For many Georgians, the Kremlin’s invasion of neighboring Ukraine has brought back painful memories of the 2008 Russo-Georgian war and the support Moscow offers to breakaway regions of Georgia. At the same time, a stream of anti-war Russians fearing conscription, economic crisis and political repression at home has become a notable presence on the streets of Georgia’s capital Tbilisi.
While most Georgians have no problem with the new Russian community, some tensions continue to mount as Ukraine’s six-month war shows no signs of ending.
In a sign of friction, a few Georgian business owners have begun requiring Russian customers to confirm that they do not support President Vladimir Putin, verbally or in writing.
Dedaena is one of the establishments to have implemented what they call a “visa policy”.
Russian citizens wishing to enter the bar must complete 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 in 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 to have someone supporting the war in Ukraine who voted for Putin in 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 night.
Other cases of Georgian companies making special demands on Russians include Bank of Georgia, which briefly asked The Russians are due to sign a form in March saying they ‘condemn Russia’s aggression in Georgia and Ukraine’.
Georgia’s most famous nightclub, Bassiani, has would have prevented Russians from entering because of their nationality.
Dedaena, named after a famous 19th century book for children learning Georgian, decided to implement the ‘visa policy’ due to ‘a growing number of cases of misbehavior by Russian tourists’ , Lapauri said, adding that it was “a way to protect the bar and keep it friendly and enjoyable.
“It’s very common that Russians don’t even ask – they demand service and menus in Russian or pay in rubles. Sometimes aggressively. As if it was something that belonged to them. I would certainly prefer not to introduce the visa policy because it doesn’t look good to me – it looks terrible. But we had to do it,” the bar owner said.
However, many Russians living in Georgia claim that such measures violate their rights.
“I think such measures are unacceptable, they contradict international laws – any discrimination based on nationality or political opinions 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 cyberattacks last month in which the bar’s online pages were flooded with negative reviews. The attacks were apparently orchestra by Male State, a Russian group with extreme nationalist and radical chauvinistic views.
While some residents are unhappy with what they see as the colonial attitudes of incoming Russians, others have pointed out that a large Russian community could also pose a threat to security and political stability in Georgia, a country of just 3.7 million inhabitants.
There are no precise data on the number of Russians who have settled in Georgia since the Ukrainian war, but the figure is believed to be in the tens of thousands.
Around 6,400 companies have been registered by Russian citizens in Georgia between March and June this year, according to Transparency International, three times more than 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 claims 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 that he moved to Georgia.
“I’m afraid there is some sort of provocation from Moscow due to 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 came here to ‘protect’ its people like it does in Ukrainian?” she told the Moscow Times in Tbilisi.
While the Georgian capital is famous for its hospitality, restaurants and nightlife, some politicians have called for the introduction of visas for Russian tourists since the war.
Ukrainian flags are commonplace on the streets of Tbilisi, and a street banner on display during a recent visit referred to the famous Georgian cuisine: “Putin kills people in Ukraine while Russians eat khachapuri in Georgia.
There is also evidence that Georgian border guards are increasingly denying entry to prominent Russian journalists and activists when they attempt to enter the country.
Those who oppose restrictions on Russian citizens say targeting Russians will only increase tensions with locals.
“Most of the people who moved to Georgia don’t support Putin’s politics and the war – it’s the people who go to protests and speak loudly about their political views,” said a Russian expat of Georgian descent.
“These [restrictions] could backfire and push people back to Putin,” she added.
At the same time, a number of Russian opposition activists believe there is nothing wrong with asking Russians to voice their opposition to Putin.
Anton Mikhalchuk, a Tbilisi-based activist and director of the Free Russia Foundation, job a photo of the bar last month, arguing that the alleged presence of significant “Russophobia” in Georgia was merely Russian “propaganda”.
And Lapauri said that as long as Russian drinkers declare their opposition to Putin, they will be treated like Georgians or guests from any other country.
“We have a lot of Russian speakers and a lot of them are also Russian citizens and they don’t mind filling out the form,” he said.
“We have positive feedback from them, they like our music and our atmosphere.”