From IT workers to engineers, many skilled Russians have fled to ex-Soviet Georgia and to Turkey since the Ukraine war began – some dodging sanctions fallout, others fearing a crackdown on the opposition
A few days after Russia invaded Ukraine, Dimitry, an IT worker from St. Petersburg, was confronted with a stark choice: move to Tbilisi or lose his job.
With Western nations imposing sanctions on Russia, the multinational he worked for told staff it would be closing its Russian operations and moving to the Georgian capital.
“They told us that they would support us with relocation, or we could quit,” said the 23-year-old, who asked not to be identified by his real name.
Within a week, Dimitry was on a plane to Tbilisi, joining other Russians who have packed their bags for various reasons – from dodging the impact of sanctions to anger over the war and fear of a crackdown on opposition supporters.
An estimated 300,000 Russians have left since Moscow launched what it calls a “special operation” to demilitarise Ukraine on Feb. 24, according to OK Russians, a nonprofit helping Russians who oppose the invasion to flee abroad.
The Thomson Reuters Foundation was unable to independently verify the group’s estimate.
An online poll conducted by the group in mid-March found a majority of those leaving were young, skilled professionals, with IT specialists accounting for about a third of the total.
Russia has passed a series of measures to support IT companies and ruled out possible restrictions on international travel for IT workers, Russian news agency Interfax has reported.
Many of the Russians leaving home have headed for Georgia, Turkey and Armenia, drawn by visa-free regimes and pre-existing Russian communities, but not all have been welcomed with open arms.
In Georgia, a former Soviet republic that lost a brief war with Russia in 2008 and currently has no control over about a fifth of its territory, with Russian troops garrisoned there, some people view the influx with suspicion.
Some Russian motorists arriving in the country have covered the red, white and blue flag on their car licence plates – sometimes with stickers bearing the blue and yellow colours of Ukraine.
SUPPORT FOR UKRAINE
Georgia has not imposed sanctions on Russia over the invasion, but an overwhelming majority of Georgians voice support for Ukraine, according to opinion polls.
Nodar Rukhadze, a civil rights activist with the Tbilisi-based Shame Movement, an anti-Kremlin group, said he was concerned that supporters of Russian President Vladimir Putin might be arriving along with people escaping repression at home.
Their presence posed potential security issues, he said, adding that his movement was calling for the introduction of a visa regime and background checks on new arrivals.
“Sadly, we cannot differentiate between who is pro-Putin’s regime and who isn’t,” said Rukhadze, who was detained at a Tbilisi pro-Ukraine rally in March.
Early last month, one of Georgia’s main banks started asking Russians opening accounts to sign a statement condemning “Russia’s aggression in Georgia and Ukraine”, though the requirement was later scrapped.
On the streets of Tbilisi, activists put up posters bearing a QR code that purported to offer tips on restaurants and other activities. Instead, readers were directed to web pages showing the effects of Russian shelling in Ukraine.
And while rents in the city have almost doubled over the past month due to a spike in demand from the newcomers, many landlords are refusing to let to Russians, said Nutsa Nemsadze of real estate agency DazHomes.
“I don’t understand why they do that,” she said. “(Russians) are not Putin.”
Olga Kustova, a 35-year-old engineer and supporter of jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny, said that while she understood the ambivalence towards Russians, she also found it slightly “insulting”.
“On one hand it’s quite clear. We are Russians and Russians are the aggressors,” she said, speaking from the Tbilisi flat she rented in late February upon fleeing St. Petersburg with her husband, mother and two children.
“But personally, of course, it’s a little bit unfair for us because we have been trying to fight this regime for a long time.”
For its part, the Georgian government has been trying to lock in a long-term advantage from the outflow of talent and companies from Russia, while also trying to avoid irking Moscow.
Besides ruling out sanctions, it has tried to prevent some volunteers from going to fight in Ukraine, and has threatened to take the country’s president to court for embarking on a pro-Ukraine diplomatic tour without government approval.
“Intensive efforts are being made to persuade many international companies that operated in Ukraine or Russia … to relocate their operations to Georgia,” Economy Minister Levan Davitashvili was quoted as saying last week.
Russian nationals have registered more than 1,000 companies in Georgia over the past month, according to data from news outlet Ifact, and co-working spaces in Tbilisi are packed.
Requests for desks increased three-fold from February to March, said Ruska Chakvetadze, the area manager for office space provider IWG, in the city.
Yet, many Russians face uncertain prospects abroad.
More than a month since landing in Tbilisi, Kustova said she had not been able to find a school that would take in her son.
In Istanbul, where many Russians have also fled, some reported difficulties opening bank accounts without a proper residence permit – the visa-free entry allows a stay of up to 90 days.
Some have struggled to find accommodation because their credit cards had stopped working, despite the fact that Turkey has said it opposes the sanctions against Russia and is not enforcing them.
New arrivals are finding help through online anti-war support groups, such as OK Russians and The Ark, which provide housing, tips and funds to those in need.
Others are looking to move on.
“I will probably stay here for another two weeks and then I will go to a country in the EU,” said Maxim Polyakov, a 37-year-old journalist for Russian regional online outlet 7×7.
“Our team decided to relocate some people (to Europe) for three or four months. We cannot plan … as we did before because nobody knows what is going to happen.”
Irina, a 38-year-old opposition-leaning teacher from St. Petersburg, fled Russia for Istanbul in fear for her safety in early March, leaving behind her husband and three children. The family hope to reunite and find work in a third country.
“We believed that even if not everything was perfect in our country, we could still change a lot … by engaging in politics, civil society, civic education,” said Irina, who asked to use only her first name.
“Now, life demonstrates that we were wrong. Uncertainty and difficult challenges lie ahead.”
(Reporting by Umberto Bacchi @UmbertoBacchi in Tbilisi and Angelina Davydova in Istanbul. Editing by Helen Popper. Credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation)