By Astghik Bedevian
Dozens of Georgians forced to leave Russia in the latest bout of confrontation between Moscow and Tbilisi continued to arrive Armenia en route to Georgia on Thursday.
The influx began last week following Russia’s controversial decision to impose sanctions on its pro-Western southern neighbor in retaliation for the arrest by the Georgian authorities of four Russian officers accused of spying. The Armenian national airline Armavia and other carriers operating flights between Moscow and Yerevan have since reported a major increase in the number of their passengers.
The Russian retaliatory measures include the suspension of transport and postal links with Georgia as well as a crackdown on allegedly illegal Georgian immigrants living in Russia. A planeload of 136 such immigrants were deported to Tbilisi on board a Russian cargo plane last week.
At least one tenth of 154 passengers that arrived in Yerevan Wednesday on an Armavia flight from Moscow were Georgian nationals. Most of them said that although they were not rounded up and officially deported by the police, they had no choice but leave the country due to what they called an “anti-Georgia hysteria” whipped up by the Russian authorities.
“We couldn’t leave our homes,” said one man, who claimed to own several shops in Moscow. “Even if you have a visa, residency permit or other documents, they do what they want.”
“They are now forcing us to leave,” said another man, a construction worker. “Some Georgians are staying on, but they are all hiding.”
Up to one million Georgians are believed to live Russia and send home hundreds of millions of dollars in cash remittances that are a key source of income for a considerable part of Georgia’s population. The Russian authorities have threatened to block those transfers as well. They have also raided Georgian-owned businesses in Moscow and other parts of the country.
Georgia’s leadership has denounced this policy as a soft form of "ethnic cleansing." But Russian President Vladimir Putin has brushed aside the criticism, saying that the sanctions will stand until Tbilisi changes its "irresponsible" policies.
The resulting exodus of Georgians appears to be the reason why the Moscow-Yerevan flights are fully booked these days. Russia’s two largest airlines, for example, are now using larger passenger jets for their daily flight services with the Armenian capital in order to cope with the increased demand. For its part, Armavia, which flies to Moscow three times a week, is considering launching a fourth flight.
Also cashing in on the situation are Armenian taxi drivers that are offering the arriving Georgians a six-hour ride to Tbilisi for between $70 and $100.
(Photolur photo: Yerevan's Zvartnots airport.)