KAZBEGI, Georgia (AFP) — Nikita spent two days in traffic before he made it to Georgia, one of the thousands of Russian men seeking to evade the Ukraine war draft.
The latest wave of Russian exiles since the war began in February has seen military-aged men pour into the Caucasus country — by cars in a column stretching for some 20 kilometers (12.4 miles), by bicycles and some walking kilometers by foot to the border crossing.
“I have no choice but to flee Russia,” Nikita told AFP standing outside the Georgian side of the Kazbegi border crossing in a narrow rocky ravine.
“Why on earth would I need to go to that crazy war?” the 23-year-old added “I am no cannon fodder. I am not a murderer,” he said as a vulture circled overhead, high in the clear sky.
Like the majority of men who talked to AFP, he declined to give his last name fearing retribution.
Denis, 38, said: “Our president wants to drag all of us in the fratricidal war, which he declared on totally illegitimate grounds.”
“I want to escape,” he said with a sad smile. “To me, this is not a nice Georgia holiday, this is an emigration.”
Alexander Sudakov, a 32-year-old production manager, said, “The mobilization was the final straw” for him after twenty years of living under Russian President Vladimir Putin’s increasingly authoritarian rule.
“Ukrainians are our brothers, I don’t understand, how could I go there to kill them, or to be killed.”
He said Georgia was the top choice for those fleeing the draft because Russians can enter and stay up to a year without a visa.
He said he would mull seeking asylum in a European Union country once his wife and baby son, whom he left behind in his native Saint Petersburg, join him.
The influx of Russian immigrants has sparked mixed feelings in a country where painful memories of Russia’s 2008 invasion are still fresh.
The five-day war left Georgia partitioned, with Russian troops stationed in its two separatist regions which the Kremlin recognized as independent after the EU brokered a ceasefire.
Nearly 50,000 Russians have fled to Georgia over the first four months of the war, the tiny Black Sea nation’s statistics office said in June.
Some 40,000 more fled over the same period to Armenia, another top destination that also has no visa requirement for Russians.
On Saturday, Russian authorities acknowledged for the first time that there was a significant outflow of travelers from the country.
The local interior ministry in a Russian region that borders Georgia said there was a congestion of around 2,300 cars waiting to reach the border.
The ministry urged people “to refrain from traveling” in the direction of Georgia, saying the movement towards the checkpoint was “difficult” and that additional traffic officers had been deployed.
But Nikita said “wild corruption” was to blame for the traffic jam.
He said police periodically closed traffic and artificially created congestion “to extort money from desperate people.”
“It takes currently up to three days to drive 20 kilometers to the Georgian border, but if you pay the police a bribe, then it’s a matter of just several hours, they would escort you to the border,” he said, adding that he knew cases where people paid hundreds of dollars.
Alexander said he paid police $1,200 and it still took him some 30 hours to reach the Georgian border.
‘I’ll live until March’
Nikita said the wave of Russian emigration seen so far was just a beginning of a mass exodus.
“Millions will follow, nobody wants to go to this war — even those Russians who are poisoned by government propaganda and like the idea of Russia again becoming the dominatrix on the post-Soviet space.”
Igor, 32, is one such person.
“I am a patriot, I support Putin and the special military operation in Ukraine,” the 32-year-old IT specialist said.
“But personally, I can’t go to the war because I am the sole breadwinner in the family and I’ve got that bloody mortgage.”
He said he plans to work remotely for a Russian IT company from Georgia, but will be forced to return to Russia when his passport expires in six months.
“I’ll be alive for another six months, until March, that’s all I know for sure.”