Russians who fled from the conscription are in no hurry to return from Georgia

TBILISI, Nov 28 (Reuters) – A month after Russia announced it had ended a recruitment drive for its war in Ukraine, men who fled to neighboring Georgia to avoid conscription said they had not in a hurry to return home.

Russia announced the conscription on Sept. 21 after suffering setbacks on the battlefield — a move that prompted hundreds of thousands of draft-age men to flee to Georgia, Armenia and Kazakhstan to avoid being sent to the front lines.

More than 110,000 Russians have fled to Georgia this year, Georgia government statistics show — an influx that has fueled both an economic boost and resentment in a country where anti-Russian sentiments are rife.

Although Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced the end of conscription a month ago, many say they won’t be returning home any time soon.

“First of all, the conflict must end,” said Emil, a 26-year-old game developer who spent two days queuing at the border to leave Russia.

“It’s gotten to a point where everyone is at risk – especially men… I put my safety first. Of course I don’t want to go back to a country where the police can arrest me for just walking past them. I want freedom, to feel safe,” he said in an interview in Tbilisi.

The Kremlin’s refusal to lift an official mobilization order has fueled fears that further conscriptions could be announced without warning.

“I have a very vague idea of ​​what should happen in Russia for me to want to go back there. But at the moment I rented an apartment in Tbilisi for six months and registered a company. I’ll be here for next six months,” said Slava, a 28-year-old who also works in the mobile games industry.

“I’ll see what happens in Russia. Of course I’d like to go back because – apart from certain aspects – I liked it there and I love Russia.”

But the arrival of so many relatively wealthy Russians in a comparatively poor country of just 3.7 million people has created tensions.

“There is an impression in society that the situation is out of control,” said opposition MP Salome Samadashvili in front of a Ukrainian flag in her office.

Russian-backed separatists control two breakaway regions of Georgia – Abkhazia and South Ossetia. In 2008 Moscow said they were being threatened by the Georgian government and briefly invaded other parts of Georgia.

Samadashvili said she feared Putin might use the pretext of “protecting” the Russians in Georgia as a reason for another invasion, as he did in Ukraine.

In a now widespread chant of protest, many Georgians say they consider a fifth of their country occupied by Russia.

Many of the Russian newcomers — who are at home against both the war and Putin’s oppression — understand this message, and some are taking root.

“We made the decision to move… so that we could feel more free,” said Denis Shabenkov, an entrepreneur who moved to Tbilisi in March.

In June he opened a coffee shop in Tbilisi and last month he closed his original cafe in St. Petersburg.

“If I remember how the police behave in St. Petersburg or what the city council and the government are doing – I don’t want to go back there at all,” he said.

Reporting by David Chkhikvishvili in Tbilisi; Writing by Jake Cordell in Tbilisi; Edited by Kevin Liffey and Philippa Fletcher

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