Analysis

Review | Confusion in Tbilisi as thousands of Russians Try to Enter Georgia

After Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a partial military mobilization on September 21, reports of long queues of people trying to enter Georgia through the Russo-Georgian Larsi border checkpoint hit the national and international wires. Concern, mixed with confusion reigned in the capital, Tbilisi, about the numbers of the entrants and the policy to adopt towards them.

Russians can enter Georgia visa-free – a policy that was adopted by the previous administration, and deepened by the current one, which expanded the visa-free stay right from 90 days to one year. Citizens have been demanding answers from the government about the number of Russians arriving in the country, as well as about the policy they envisage to control the inflow. For parts of society, the issue of establishing stricter visa controls for Russian citizens, closing tourist entry altogether, limiting their economic activities, and imposing a moratorium on their ability to purchase real estate have become reasonable policy options to consider.

It is noteworthy, that the Minister of Finance, Lasha Khutsishvili – responsible for customs – was chosen to speak for the government for the first week of the new crisis. Earlier, the Revenue Service noted that the decision was made to switch to a more intensive mode of operation at the checkpoint due to the increased flow of cargo.

The Ministry of Interior, responsible for securing the borders, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, responsible for visas, remained silent, as the Revenue Service’s statements failed to assuage concerns over the situation at the Larsi checkpoint.

Reports from Larsi – and Some Data

In absence of tangible and credible information from government agencies, news space was filled with social media and, increasingly, journalists’ reports from the checkpoint. Drone footage showed thousands of vehicles, making a queue of 13-19 kilometers, gathered at the Russian side of the border. A North Ossetian official was first to estimate the traffic, announcing yesterday, on 26 September, that since the announcement of mobilization, some 115,000 people and more than 37,000 vehicles have transited the checkpoint in both directions.

MP Levan Karumidze of the ruling Georgian Dream party was the first to provide some data. He went on Twitter yesterday to denounce what he called the “fake news” of the massive influx. Based on the data he says to have solicited from the Ministry of Interior, MP Karumidze said 566,261 Russians used the Larsi checkpoint to enter Georgia between 15 February and 25 September, while 504,038 exited through it. MP Karumidze’s data says a further 100,060 entered and 94,224 exited the country through the Tbilisi Airport. Finally, the MP said that at the Sarpi checkpoint bordering Turkey, 78,754 Russian citizens entered Georgia while 94,342 exited the country. MP Karumidze tried to assuage the worries by saying “approximately 52,000 Russian citizens are currently in Georgia”, and added that “many of them are ethnic Georgians.”

Minister of Interior Responds

It wasn’t until this morning, on 27 September that the Interior Minister, Vakhtang Gomelauri, addressed the reports personally while speaking with journalists at a gathering dedicated to the end of the armed conflict in Abkhazia in 1992-1993.

The Minister said the reports about hundreds of thousands of entrants were “wrong and a lie.” He added that four-five days ago, only about 5,000-6,000 visitors were entering the country through the Larsi checkpoint, and admitted that this number has grown since. He maintained that yesterday, on 26 September, less than 10,000 people entered, with another 11,200 people entering the day before. Minister Gomelauri also stressed that the number of exits stood at about 60% of the entrants.

The Minister claimed, “during the summer it was the tourists who were coming in, not people for other reasons… Now, we believe that they are trying to avoid being called up for military service.”

Gomelauri deflected the question concerning the potential change of visa policy, saying the opposition should make up its mind on what they demand. “Some say that we should close [the border] and not let them in at all, while others say that on the contrary, we should let them in so that they don’t go to war to fight against the Ukrainians,” he said.

“Let them [the opposition] make up their mind first, which one they demand, that we let them in or that we do not?” the Minister of Interior quipped.

The Minister also brushed off the question about the morality of letting Russians flee conscription considering their country’s role in occupying Georgian territory. Pressed by journalists on visas, he responded “Russians have always entered Georgia and the previous government had no problem with that either.”

Rehashing the old line of pushing responsibility to the previous administration he said “why should this become problematic today all of a sudden? It was worse [before]. Mr. Saakashvili was greeting them with bottles of wine, saying ‘welcome, it [occupation of Georgian provinces] is not your fault, it is all Putin’s fault’. Why did not you criticize him then!”

When asked whether the influx may lead to a spike in criminality, Minister responded “there is of course a probability that it may grow, but maybe it won’t.”

Reports from Arriving Russians

Personal testimonies from the Russian side of the border give the impression of chaotic scenes. The Russians who have crossed the Larsi checkpoint have confirmed reports of the paralyzed crossing point where thousands of people have been waiting for days on end to cross the border.

One Russian citizen told journalists that he had been coming to Georgia by car before choosing to sell it and continue the journey on foot. Upon arriving at the border, he said that the Georgian border guards stamped his passport and waved him through without a question.

Notably, simultaneous reports have claimed that North Caucasians trying to escape partial mobilization have been denied entry to Georgia despite being allowed through by the Russian side. These reports have said that some of those who were turned away are now stranded in the neutral area of the checkpoint, unable to enter Georgia but unable to go back for fear of persecution.

Russia Moves to Control the Situation?

Concerns over the situation came to a head on 26 September when videos showed a Russian BTR armored personnel carrier transporting Russian soldiers to the Larsi checkpoint.

While Russia denied the reports initially, its Federal Security Service (FSB) ultimately admitted that the team of soldiers had been sent to the checkpoint to prevent the unsanctioned crossing of reservists trying to escape the partial mobilization.

To that point, Ria Novosti reported this morning that following a meeting between the North Ossetian Minister of Internal Affairs, the Head of the Traffic Police, and the heads of the border department of the FSB in the region and North Ossetian customs, a decision was made to set up a military mobilization point at the checkpoint.

Petition to Ban Russians

Against this backdrop, the opposition Strategy Aghmashenebeli party started a petition on 25 September calling for a ban on the entry of Russian citizens into Georgia “taking into account the examples of other countries like Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia.” Per the petition, the ban will not apply to Russian citizens of Georgian origin or to Georgian citizens.

The party cited the national interests of Georgia and Russia’s so-called policy of justifying the invasion of other countries under the pretext of protecting Russian citizens and Russian-language speakers as sufficient reasons for the ban.

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