The war in Ukraine has caused millions of people from the country to flee to various states in Europe. Despite this, there are also many Russians who have attempted to leave their own country following the full-scale invasion. This phenomenon has been met with different responses in various states near Russia.
Since Russia launched its unprovoked attack on Ukraine there has been a wave of refugees from the country covering all of Europe. However, Ukrainians are not the only group who are migrating nowadays due to the war. Since the beginning of the war, hundreds of thousands of Russian citizens have left Russia for Europe or neighbouring Central Asian countries. As Russia is not giving any information, the exact number of Russian migrants is difficult to know. It is also difficult to define the primary motivation for Russians leaving Russia due to the lack of proper research on these groups in different countries. However, assumptions are being made based on small surveys and it seems that the motivating factor to leave the country is to avoid the effects of sanctions and mobilisation (this does not always translate into anti-war or anti-regime sentiment).
As air connections to Europe from Russia are no longer available due to the sanctions, Russians have been migrating to neighbouring countries that they can reach by land. In many cases, they also use these countries to reach other destinations. Some of the biggest host countries are Kazakhstan, Georgia and Armenia. Russians migrate to Europe too but the numbers are smaller. Russian migration has become a problem for the host countries on several levels, including political, social and even moral. Some of Russia’s neighbours, like Estonia and Finland, have introduced travel bans for Russian citizens. While others, like Georgia, have not made decisions despite societal demands.
Under the light of this new reality, what is the situation in different countries neighbouring Russia in terms of Russian migration and what challenges is this creating in the host societies?
Russian migration alongside the war in Ukraine
Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, hundreds of thousands of Russian citizens have headed for neighbouring states. The numbers have been so high that some call this process a “Russian exodus”. The process has been active since the beginning of the war, however, there have been some key events that have encouraged it even more. This includes the announcement of partial mobilisation by Putin in September 2022. According to some independent sources from Russia, in only a short period after the announcement on September 21st 2022, at least 700,000 Russians left the country. It comes as no surprise that Russia denies these numbers. The exact number of Russian citizens who have left since the war started still remains unclear.
The statistics show that the most popular destinations among Russians have been Kazakhstan, Turkey, Georgia and Armenia. For instance, in Georgia the number of Russian immigrants in 2022 was six times higher than in 2021.
The countries mentioned above are followed by the EU as a whole.
The biggest wave among the European Union member states has been experienced by the countries directly bordering Russia, such as Finland and Estonia. What is more, in times of restricted air connections to the rest of the continent, Russian citizens have been using these two countries to get into other countries in Europe. Data from October 5th 2022 shows that since the beginning of the Russian invasion more than one million people have crossed the border from Russia to the EU and the majority of them entered through Finland and Estonia.
Challenges in the host countries
Increased numbers of border crossings in Estonia and Finland by Russian citizens have been perceived as a security threat at the state level. Both countries have been taking precautionary measures. In Estonia and the Baltic states in general, governments have noted the security threats that could potentially accompany the border crossings by Russian citizens, such as potential intelligence activities by the aggressor state. Finland has been also carefully examining potential security threats and monitoring the actions of those who have crossed the border from Russia. For example, the government does not allow Russian citizens to buy property near strategically important locations in the country. Moreover, accepting Russian citizens into these countries while there is a war in Ukraine has been perceived as a moral challenge too. The question has been raised as to how morally right it is to allow Russian citizens to flee their country, avoid sanctions and in many cases use these countries to reach other destinations in Europe? These people also spend their vacations abroad while Moscow is waging a brutal war in Ukraine and killing civilians. As a result, in August and September 2022 both Estonia and Finland restricted the entry of Russian citizens into their territory. Lithuania and Latvia have been practicing the same policy too.
As the opportunities to leave the country for the EU have become fewer, Russians have been actively moving to non-EU neighbouring countries with no visa restrictions, causing different problems for host communities. Despite attempts to control tensions and portray Russian migration as more of an opportunity to attract qualified labour rather than a challenge, problems caused by this new reality are visible in countries like in Kazakhstan. Real estate prices have been increasing significantly, causing dissatisfaction among the population. The same economic issues have been seen in Armenia too, though societal tensions or dissatisfaction are less reported.
Georgia as a separate case
Georgia has been a significantly different case among these new host countries.
According to a study which compared the social portraits of Russian migrants in Georgia and Armenia, Georgia is a destination for more socially mobile classes, such as families, as they perceive the living standard to be higher there. At the same time, Armenia is popular among Russians with limited resources. In both countries migration is higher from the big cities of Russia. This specific study shows that the migration wave in both countries peaked in September and October 2022, which coincides with the period of the announcement of partial mobilisation in Russia.
According to the official statistics, in 2022 the average monthly number of visitors in Georgia was more than 75,000, which is five times more than in 2020 and 2021. As noted above, the number of those who can be described as immigrants and not just visitors (having spent half of the year in Georgia during the last 12 months) is also six times higher than in 2021. Russian migrants in Georgia often buy private property and register businesses, especially in cities like Tbilisi and Batumi.
At first glance, the high migration rate seems similar to those other countries where Russians have been moving to. However, the Georgian context is significantly different from those countries because of the ongoing occupation of territories – Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region (South Ossetia). This reality puts Georgia in a special place among the host countries of Russian citizens. By no surprise, the attitudes of the Georgian population when it comes to accepting Russians and allowing them to engage in economic activity is strictly negative (79 per cent against). There have been demands that the Georgian government restrict the visa regime with Russia or even close the border. However, a political decision has not been made due to the Georgian government’s approach that allowing Russian civilians in cannot be a threat to Georgia and that the situation is under control.
The fact that the Georgian public is not welcoming to Russian migrants is felt by the newcomers too. According to surveys in Georgia and Armenia, Armenians are said to be “more friendly” than Georgians. This can be easily explained by interstate relations. In Georgia negative attitudes are based on negative inter-ethnic experiences and also the suspicion that the migrants can be used against the security of the country, such as through intelligence activities by Russia or gaining influence in the country’s internal affairs. This has been a practice in Ukraine too, namely before the full scale invasion. This concern has legitimacy, as Russia has been using ethnic Russian groups to interfere in other countries’ affairs in the name of “protecting compatriots”. Estonia, where Russians constitute a minority group, has been a good example of this. Russia has been accusing the country of violating the rights of Russian speakers and trying to increase pressure by using the group for its own political gain.
Societal tension is another challenge that is associated with the situation, as attitudes towards the Russian migrants are often negative. What is also noteworthy is that Russians have the tendency to create separate or autonomous groups within society. They have expressed the need to create a “Russian community”. For this reason, they create their own services that allow them to connect on a higher level. It is also a problem economically for Georgians, as the competition only increases. This tendency of creating autonomous groups further deepens the likelihood of social tensions when attitudes in the host community are negative.
Governmental behaviours towards the challenge of Russian migration correlate with how the states have positioned themselves in relation to the war in Ukraine. For example, the Finnish and Estonian governments have been expressing clear support for Ukraine and underline the need for sanctions to be as heavy as possible when it comes to the Russian economy. Their positions concerning accepting Russian citizens are straightforward too. The governments in these countries believe that Russian citizens have to be the major force in changing the regime in their country. Thus, it is important for them to see and feel the results of the actions of their government. In this regard, accepting Russian citizens is considered indirect support for attempts to avoid the results of the sanctions.
In contrast, Armenia has not been expressing a clear stance on the process due to a desire to avoid any deterioration in relations with Moscow. Russia is still considered a partner for Armenia. Accepting Russian citizens without hesitance both on the political and social level can be seen as a part of these relations.
Kazakhstan has tried to take a balanced approach without damaging relations with Russia. As noted, there has been social dissatisfaction in Kazakhstan due to the worsening economic situation. Thus, ignoring the issue that could potentially raise tensions among the population is not a wise decision. It is noteworthy that Kazakhstan has recently made changes to its visa free regime rules. These no longer enable foreigners to leave the country and renew their visa free stay by entering the second time. It is possible to assume that this decision has been made to restrict Russian citizens from extending their stay in the country.
Georgia has been a different case in this sense too. As noted above, despite public dissatisfaction, the authorities have made no decision to control migration from Russia. This can be explained by the position of the Georgian government, or more specifically by its “non-irritation policy” towards Russia. During the war in Ukraine this has been embodied in the fact that the Georgian government has no clear position towards support for Ukraine and avoids commenting on it. This has strongly affected relations with its western partners too, as this confusing approach can be perceived as a sign that Georgia might be changing its long established western foreign policy preferences. As social attitudes in Georgia towards Russian migration are overwhelmingly negative due to the ongoing Russian occupation and negative inter-ethnic experiences, the Georgian authorities have a special responsibility to monitor the situation closely. They must identify the risks for both national and societal security and ultimately eliminate them. This might include restricting visa policy and adopting the practice of Estonia and Finland to monitor the activities of those who have crossed the border in order to ensure peace and security.
The war in Ukraine has caused a migration wave from Russia that has been described as an “exodus” because of its numbers. The key host states have been those in Russia’s neighbourhood, including Kazakhstan, Georgia and Armenia. However, EU countries have experienced increased numbers of border crossings from Russia too. This process has caused challenges in the host societies. The answers to these challenges have been increasingly associated with the general foreign policy of these countries and also their governments’ positions on the war in Ukraine. For example, Estonia and Finland have restricted migration from Russia, believing that this would only help Russia and its citizens avoid sanctions and reduce the harm felt by the regime. It is believed that Russian citizens should see the results of these actions and ultimately push the government to change. On the other hand, even though Russian migration has caused political and socio-economic challenges in Georgia, the government has not been addressing the issue properly due to its “non-irritation policy”. This allows social tensions to potentially rise in the future, especially as migrants have the tendency to create a “Russian community” in Georgia. This is opposed by the Georgian public. Armenia and Kazakhstan have been trying to deal with the issue in a relaxed way due to their relations with Russia. In Armenia, public opinion concerning Russian migration is not harsh. In Kazakhstan, the government has been portraying the process as more of an opportunity and not a challenge. However, the need to place restrictions on the visa free regime at a certain level has still arisen. Since migration is a challenging process and results in changes in the host communities, it is important that governments monitor the situation and evaluate the security challenges at both national and societal levels. They must respond adequately with different practices that will reduce risks in order to promote peace and security.
Nino Chanadiri is a Georgian analyst focusing on developments in Eastern Europe and beyond. She has conducted analysis for the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies.