Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Moscow Officials Pursue Caucasian Residents

Georgians in Russia fear for their future as Moscow-Tbilisi dispute escalates.
By Vahe Avanesian
For a week now, Gia Paichadze has not left his apartment on Bagritsky Street in Moscow, which he’s been renting for two years, except for a quick dash to a nearby kiosk to buy food or a newspaper.



A week ago, Paichadze was still working as the manager of a chain of grocery shops outside Moscow. The shops, which all belonged to ethnic Georgians, have now all been shut down, and signs on the doors say they are “closed for technical reasons”.



Paichadeze said they had taken the decision to shut the shops themselves, after the daily visits by tax officials, health inspectors and others had become unbearable.



“The point is that we are Georgians, and that explains everything,” he told IWPR by telephone. “My documents are in perfect order, but showing my face on the street is still a risk. I stay at home and watch the news. I’ll wait for a couple of months, and if things don’t calm down, I’ll leave.”



Moscow has kept up the heat on Tbilisi following the latter’s arrest of four Russian officers on espionage charges on September 27, even though the four were later released and handed over to the Russian side.



Moscow cut off all air, land, sea and postal links with its southern neighbour. It has also imposed restrictions on bank transfers, directly hurting the hundreds of thousands of Georgians working in Russia.



Over the last few days, Moscow courts have handed down deportation sentences on 130 illegal migrants from Georgia and around 700 Georgian citizens have left the Russian capital.



On October 17, Georgian citizen Tengiz Togonidze, 58, died in Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport a few hours before he was about to be deported, raising a storm of protest in Georgia.



Georgia’s foreign ministry accused the Russian authorities of violating the rights of Georgian citizens. The ministry said Togonidze, who was asthmatic, did not receive proper medical aid – an allegation the Russians have denied.



Russia’s federal migration service says that deportation flights of Georgians continue. People are being detained on the street and taken to one of eight special stations set up in Moscow. A court ruling is needed for the deportation to go ahead, but this is basically a formality.



Mikhail Tyurkin, deputy director of the federal migration service, said, “An analysis of requests from regions and subjects of Russia has led us to conclude that we don’t need Georgian citizens at the moment. They will be given neither quotas for living, nor for temporary work.”



Georgian-owned businesses are also being targeted. The well-known Crystal and Golden Palace casinos in Moscow have been closed down. The official charge sheet says the casinos failed to produce licenses for some of their slot machines and, among other violations, paid employees’ salaries in envelopes. But it also noted that the owners are “natives of Georgia”.



The Russian police have even traced illegal migrants from Georgia through their children. They asked a number of schools in the capital to provide them with a list of pupils with Georgian surnames and then questioned the children about where their parents lived, whether they had visas and were registered.



Nato Merabishvili, who has lived in Moscow for 15 years, said her son Kakha had been interrogated. “It’s simply a disgrace, and it was done in such a humiliating manner!” she fumed.



Russian citizen Sveta Smirnova has a Georgian husband and their children go to a school in the centre of Moscow. “Every morning my parents take the kids to school and wait for them there till the end of the studies,” she told IWPR. “My children have a Georgian surname, and they won’t be safe so long as this anti-Georgian hysteria continues.”



The Russian-Georgian conflict has also affected migrants from other parts of the South Caucasus.



Teimuraz Huseinli, chairman of the Azerbaijani Society Yeni Sabakh (New Day) in Moscow, said police raids on food markets, where many Azerbaijanis work, had intensified lately. “Even after the terrorist acts in Moscow, the checking campaigns were not as pervasive as this one,” he told IWPR. “They’ve begun checking documents even in people’s apartments. Of course, you can always buy them off, but the prices have risen sharply. They used to take 100 to 200 rubles (four to seven US dollars) for an expired migration card, now the cost is at least 50 dollars.”



However, Georgians, who do not have the right documents, now prefer to pass themselves off as Armenians. Georgian citizens Kristina Sanikidze graduated from Moscow State University. Because she had problems getting a job, she applied for a Russian passport with her surname changed to Akopova. “After all these events, I’ve stopped hoping that anything good will come out of it,” she said. “My Georgian passport has expired, and I can’t even go back to Tbilisi to get a new one... I’m a captive in Moscow, I’m even afraid of going outside.”



A young Georgian named Anzori has been working on Moscow building sites for more than a year and his temporary registration, permission to work and visa have all expired. However, he has managed to get himself a paper saying that his documents are being processed – and that he has an Armenian surname.



“That means they treat me fairly OK,” Anzori told IWPR. “For instance, my friends and I - none of us has normal documents - were coming back from work, when policemen stopped us. What else could we do? As one of the policemen was reading my papers, we said we were against [Georgian president Mikheil] Saakashvili and swore at the president. They took pity on us and let us continue on our way. They even refused to take money.”



IWPR witnessed how Georgians are now being treated. A policeman stopped an Armenian passer-by, and asked him to present his documents. At that moment, a colleague approached him, escorting a young man. “Look, I’ve got a Georgian,” he said, whereupon the first policemen returned the documents to the Armenian, saying he was “free”, and they led the Georgian off together.



“I don’t know when all this is going to end,” said Malkhaz Janashia, a Georgian, who has lived in Moscow for 22 years. “Georgians can no longer walk Moscow streets free of charge, even if their documents are faultless. You have to pay bribes everywhere. Spending one week in the country, of which I am a citizen, has cost me 3,000 rubles (110 dollars).”



An informal poll among Muscovites shows that most support the official line. “I am fully supportive of our authorities’ actions, Georgians should know where their place is,” said Valentina Nikolayevna. “If they don’t agree with their president, they should speak out.”



“This is the right thing to do to all of them, especially to the Georgians, because they’ve proved to be the most ungrateful of all,” said businessman Mikhail Vorobyov.



Only two of more than ten people questioned were critical about the crackdown. “Georgians are toiling for the good of our country, and this is how we respond,” said one of them, Anna Ageyeva.



Russia shows no signs of wishing to lift its sanctions against Georgia in the near future. “The release of our [officers] does not mean a reversal of Georgia’s deliberate anti-Russian policy,” Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov told foreign journalists. “And there is not yet a good reason for us to reconsider our actions.”



Vahe Avanesian is director of the Moscow office of the Armenian TV-channel Shant. Lala Nuri works for the newspaper Azerros in Moscow. Sopho Bukia is IWPR’s Georgia Editor in Tbilisi.