Oto Berishvili

Opinion
Posted: 2 months ago

Georgian Business Owners and Citizens Protest Russian Aggression Amid Ukraine invasion

One of the Ukrainian expats in Georgia, Alina, reached CBW for sharing her opinions and emotions concerning issues of the Russian-Ukrainian war.

It’s been already 15 days since Russian occupiers attacked Ukrainian cities. The bombings and artillery gunfires of the Russian army continue to destroy houses, schools, hospitals and people’s lives in Ukraine.

We all support Ukraine - as the whole world does. The US, Canada, Europe, even Singapore and Japan have imposed sanctions against Russia. Plenty of global companies have stopped their operations in the country, Visa and Mastercard don't work there as well.  

The isolation of Russia has a particular purpose - to nudge Russian people to realise what’s going on for real and to go to the demonstrations and protest against the war in Ukraine. Instead of that, a growing number of Russians have decided to leave their country, fearing the economic and political consequences the move will have.

Both Georgian and Ukrainian people know what freedom and democracy are - we both used to change our governments through the revolution. We were not afraid to risk our lives and stand for our voice to be heard. We acted with no fear as we cared about the future of our children and our country.

Now, with all the sanctions and isolation, we expect Russian people to get to the point when they lose fear and go to the streets to protest. It’s only them who can remove Putin and his circle of hypocrites and war criminals.

“They say we all speak Russian in Georgia. What if they start demanding to make the Russian language a second official language? Are we getting back to the USSR? Is this what we fought for?” Georgian people all over the internet state. 

However, Russian citizens arriving in Georgia are still facing sanctions’ effects. We want to understand if there is anything else that could or should be done in order to prevent unexpected consequences for the country. 

Georgia Bankers Association declares that amid international sanctions imposed by the Western nations, the service of VISA and Mastercard credit cards of Russian banks in Georgia has been suspended. 

Taking into account the disconnection of Russian banks from SWIFT, Georgian banks will no longer be able to serve transfers with Russian banks.  

One of the largest banks in Georgia, the “Bank of Georgia” has introduced new regulations for Russian citizens. From now on only Russians who recognize the Russian Federation as an occupier can open an account in the “Bank of Georgia”.

We asked people from the banking sector about the feasibility of this step.

Shota Giorgobiani, CEO and a Co-founder, Optio.ai, said:

Regarding BOG's letter of consent: I think it's better than nothing, but in the reality not sure that it will work. Most probably everyone will just set the checkbox and that will be the end of the story. On the other hand, the fact itself is good and it would be great, if all other retail-oriented businesses will do the same, reminding every Russian citizen, what their country has done to the other countries, how much pain, death it has brought everywhere. So I'd be happy to see the same message spread by every business, not only by the banks, where Russian citizens will go.

Regarding serving the Russian citizens: What we see now, is that there's no single strategy for how financial institutions are dealing with this. While international sanctions are working (cards issued in Russia are not working in Georgian ATMs), banks individually have to decide should they serve or not Russian citizens, BOG put a consent, as far as I know, TBC either stopped or made it difficult to open the accounts* and other banks most probably will follow up too. The problem here is that banks have to make individual decisions, but as they are regulated entities, they have to comply with the regulations. I think, that it will be the right decision if NBG would issue rules and every bank would follow them. And I think there should be strict rules, either stopping to open accounts to newly arrived Russian citizens or making it so complicated and long process, that they just give up. And it's a standard procedure in lots of the countries and banks, so personally, I don't see any problem here.

On the other hand, as NBG is a governmental organization, not sure if it will happen and banks will have to continue setting up individual limitations.

In addition, I personally think that not only the financial sector, but each and every business should decide on which side they are and make it clear for their customers, remind everyone that it's a war, people are dying and we still have 20% of our country also occupied.”

After the international sanctions, Russian banks turned to China. Sberbank, for example,  said it’s looking at the possibility of issuing cards using the Russian payments system Mir and China’s UnionPay. However, the central bank of Russia advised its citizens to use cash abroad.

As a response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Several European countries have suspended visa issuance for Russian citizens. 

The United States, the European Union, other European countries and Canada have closed their airways to Russian flights, and several airlines have limited travel over Russia. 

Saba Kiknadze, director of Caucasus Travel, in the context of the Russia-Ukraine war, said that it is important to abolish the visa-free regime with the Russian Federation.

"At the moment of issuing the visa, it would be possible to see the origins and interests of the people who want to enter Georgia. I think it would be good if the country introduces a visa regime with the Russian Federation, however, Georgian citizens who have a Russian passport should also be considered. Besides, it is possible to be guided by the law of Georgia on occupation and not to allow a person to cross the border between Abkhazia and so-called South Ossetia without Georgian control," Saba Kiknadze said.

 “I hear reports of thousands of Russians arriving in Georgia, and that is creating a lot of stress for many Georgians because the Russian government is the occupier (we still have 20% of our territories occupied by Russia). So, I think the resentment is understandable,” Irma Gogiashvili, International Non-profit consultant, Activist, MA - International Conflict Resolution told CBW. 

“Georgian government should take all the above factors (and more) into account and make reasonable changes to the visa regime. The issue is that most Georgians also don't have the trust in the government that any sound and adequate decisions will be made in this extreme situation,” she added. 

“As they impose historic sanctions on Russia, the US and European governments have set new goals: devastate the Russian economy as punishment for the world to witness, and create domestic pressure on President Vladimir V. Putin to halt his war in Ukraine,” The New York Times writes. 

Evidence of shock and anger among Russians — mostly anecdotal in a country with restricted speech and little public opinion polling — has raised the spectre of mass political dissent, which, if strong enough, could threaten Putin’s grip on power.

Maria Snegovaya is a visiting scholar at George Washington University who has studied U.S. sanctions on Russia. “Everybody in Russia is horrified. They’re trying to think of the best way to preserve their money.”

Some Russians this week were driving to the border with bags of cash. But if the goal of sanctions is to compel Putin to halt his war, then the endpoint seems far-off. “The Russian political system doesn’t depend on the people’s approval. That matters, but it’s not the most important thing,” Ms Snegovaya said. “It might depend on the scale of the crisis — if we see lots of protests in the streets, it might make the Kremlin think twice.”

To summarise, we can see that most of the actions that should be done in order to double-check who is coming to Georgia and which ideas they support are on the government. But as an independent country with European values, as a country that has just applied to join the EU, all of us, each of us should remember the responsibility we carry for the democratic future of Georgia. We should not wait while the government acts but make our own decisions. Just remember that your freedom ends where another person’s freedom is violated, so act wisely.

*TBC has not actually refused to serve Russian citizens based on the absence of any official statement on their website and social media. But the idea was supported by citizens on social media. We will be glad to hear the official statement from TBC officials on the matter.