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Georgia: Ethnic Russians Feel Insulated From Tensions

By Jimsher Rekhviashvili Russians in Tbilisi leaving for Moscow on October 6 (epa) TBILISI, October 11, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- In 1989, before the breakup of the Soviet Union, there were an estimated 340,000 ethnic Russians living in Georgia. In the early 1990s, however, many ethnic minorities left Georgia due to the country's economic troubles and civil strife. Tens of thousands of Russians, however, decided to stay. A 2002 census found 68,000 ethnic Russians still living in Georgia. Amid the current crisis with Russia, RFE/RL spoke with ethnic Russians in Tbilisi about their lives and the continuing tensions.

Forty-three-year-old Ilya serves as an acolyte at the Russian Orthodox Church named after Aleksandr Nevsky in Tbilisi. He arrived in Georgia from his native Volgograd seven years ago.

Ilya says he's praying the confrontation between Russia and Georgia does not end up affecting ordinary people like himself living in Georgia. Already, hundreds of Georgians have been expelled from Russia for alleged illegal immigration. Russia has imposed a series of measures against Georgians living in Russia, despite Tbilisi's release of four Russian soldiers accused of spying.

Ilya says the deterioration in relations between Georgia and Russia has not yet been reflected in his life. "I am from a simple, working, peasant family," he says. "I got married in 1991. Fate brought me here in 1998 together with my child, and I stayed. For me, personally, nothing has changed. Nothing at all. I continue to receive warmth and love, the lack of which I have never experienced from the Georgian people."

Family Quarrel

In the church where Ilya serves, all services are performed in the Russian language. The parish is comprised predominantly of ethnic Russians.

Sixty-one-year-old Sergei Davidov goes to the church almost every day. Davidov is unemployed. The church serves more than just his spiritual needs. Davidov always carries a bowl to church to collect soup, which the church provides for the poor, free of charge.

Davidov finds it difficult to speak about the strained relations between Georgia and Russia. "The Soviet Union is long gone, but we still consider ourselves as members of the same family," he says. "Seeing the family members quarrel naturally makes me worried. I am not experiencing any physical pressure, of course. But morally, I am very down, for we have a very bad, confrontational situation."

Deep Roots

Some 119 Georgians accused of illegal immigration were deported from Russia on October 10, the second group of Georgians to be expelled in less than a week.

Despite these tensions, School No. 72 in the capital, which provides instruction in Russian, has also remained insulated from the dispute.

Ludmila Likonzeva is the school's vice principal. Born in St. Petersburg, Likonzeva has been living in Georgia since 1968. She says the Russian government's policies bear no resemblance to the attitudes shared by the Russian people.

"We are very hurt to see all this," she says. "We keep receiving phone calls from our native towns. People call and ask us not to believe what we're hearing. We are by your side, they say. We love Georgia and Georgians. They are worried. We married Russians. This is our motherland. Our children and grandchildren are here, and we are not going anywhere. We praise our state and provide the youngsters with strength and love, so that out friendship is strong and eternal."

Rejecting Xenophobia

Anatoly, a pupil at School No. 72, says his parents are not planning to leave Georgia. "The school is very nice. I like it here a lot," he says. "I have nice classmates -- Georgians, Russians, Armenians. My sister used to also study here. Now she is a student at an institute."

Anatoly's parents, who are both ethnic Russians, run a shop in Tbilisi. Georgia's tax police, in contrast to Russia, have not started inspecting shops and restaurants on account of the owners' ethnicity.

Education Minister Kakha Lomaia says the Georgian government has no plans to follow the Russian leadership's example. "Our response is [from] a democratic, tolerant, open, pluralistic society," he says. "Our response is [based on] the values we share. First and foremost, it is to defend human rights. Georgia has always been far from xenophobia and discrimination, and this will surely remain unchanged."

No Politics In The Kitchen

Despite Russia's ban on Georgian wine and mineral water, Russian alcohol and food appear to have retained their popularity among Georgians. Matrioshka, a Russian restaurant in the center of Tbilisi, offers fine Russian cuisine.

Nikolai, who works at the restaurant, says that, despite the worsening political situation, the number of Russian food aficionados has not dwindled in Tbilisi.

Natia sips a cold Russian beer while she waits for her delivery of hot pilmenis. Is she considering a change in her culinary preferences because of the political tensions between Russia and Georgia? "No, there is absolutely no chance politics can interfere with the kitchen," she says.

Moscow And Tbilisi

Moscow And Tbilisi

Russian military hardware being withdrawn from a Russian base in Batumi, Georgia, in August 2005 (TASS)

WHAT COMES NEXT? Although Russia is unlikely to push an aggressive military response to the current tensions with Georgia, it has a number of economic, political, and diplomatic options at its disposal. Already on October 1, Russian President Vladimir Putin summoned his inner circle to weigh Moscow's options... (more)


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MORE: Coverage of the situation in Georgian from RFE/RL's Georgian Service and in Russian from RFE/RL's Russian Service.


RFE/RL's English-language coverage of Georgia and Russia.

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