Russia faces brain drain as thousands flee abroad

By Rayhan Demytrie
Tiblisi, Georgia

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Watch: Yevgeny says it is his responsibility as a Russian to help Ukrainians

Outside Georgia's parliament, Yevgeny Lyamin heaves boxes of clothes and food parcels on to a waiting truck bound for Ukraine.

He is one of more than 25,000 Russians to have arrived in Georgia since Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Russians have been struggling to find affordable accommodation in all the major cities. Many can be seen wandering around the capital, Tbilisi, with their suitcases and often even their pets.

A blue-and-yellow ribbon is attached to the lapel of Yevgeny's trench-coat - the colours of the Ukrainian flag. It was these ribbons that got him arrested at an anti-war protest in Russia, a day after it launched its war on Ukraine.

"I understood the best way to act against Putin's regime would be my emigration from Russia," says the 23-year old politics graduate. "It's my responsibility to do anything I can to help the Ukrainians."

The exodus does not stop at Georgia. The EU, US, UK and Canada have closed their airspace to Russian flights, so they are heading for countries where flights are still permitted and where visas are not required, such as Turkey, Central Asia and the South Caucasus. Many have fled to Armenia.

According to one estimate by a Russian economist, as many as 200,000 Russians have left their country since the start of the war.

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Belarusians are on the move too, fleeing repression and the Western sanctions imposed on authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko's government for collaborating with Russia's Vladimir Putin.

That has prompted prices to surge on last-minute flights and rental accommodation in the main host cities, such as Istanbul and Armenia's capital, Yerevan.

"A one-way flight to Istanbul cost me and my husband more than our combined monthly income," said Anya, who did not want to give her surname.

For her the moment of decision came with a new "state betrayal" law that has come into force in Russia. Anyone expressing support for Ukraine could face jail sentences of up to 20 years and Anya believed she could be a target.

"Fear of closed borders, political repression and forced military service is in our DNA. I remember my grandmother telling me stories about the state of fear they lived in during Stalin's time, and now we are experiencing it," she said.

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An estimated 25,000 Russians have left for Georgia

Many of the new emigres are tech industry professionals who can work remotely. A video games developer I met at a cafe in Tbilisi told me that he and most people he knew disagreed with Russian policy and they knew now that any protest would be violently suppressed.

"The only way we can protest is to leave the country, take our skills and money with us. Almost everyone in our circle has made a similar decision," said Igor (not his real name). He plans to leave the Georgian capital, because he does not feel welcome here.

There have been numerous reports of Airbnb hosts refusing to let their properties to Russian and Belarusian citizens.

"I do not accept Russian and Belarus people" one host told a Belarusian couple, who shared their exchange with the BBC. "You do not have time for vacations - revolt against your corrupt governments."

"They think we are running away from Russia because Apple Pay no longer works there," Igor complained. "We are not running for comfort, we've lost everything there, we are basically refugees. Putin's geopolitics has destroyed our lives."

At Tbilisi's public service hall, new arrivals are registering businesses or applying for residency.

Kristina and Nikita, who are both IT specialists from the Belarusian capital Minsk, have registered as sole entrepreneurs. That will allow them to open Georgian bank accounts.

"We don't support our governments, which is obvious because we ran away. We want to be safe here," said Kristina. "But we are being bullied just because of our nationality, I need to hide my country of origin, I don't feel comfortable when people ask me where I am from."

Since the start of the war Tbilisi has seen some of the largest rallies in support of Ukraine. A recent survey found that 87% of Georgians view the war in Ukraine as their own war with Russia.

But many Georgians are uneasy about this dramatic influx of Russians, as it is less than 14 years since Russia's leader invaded Georgia.

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Some 30,000 Georgians listened to Ukraine's President Zelensky during a mass protest

Some fear President Putin might claim Russian citizens abroad need protection, because that was his excuse to justify sending troops into the breakaway Georgian region of South Ossetia in 2008. To date, 20% of Georgian territory remains under Russian occupation.

However, tech entrepreneur Lev Kalashnikov thinks Georgia will benefit from what he asserts is the biggest brain drain in Russia's modern history. He opened a group for expats on the Telegram messaging app while standing in a queue.

"There were 50 people in front of me and 50 people behind me. They became my first subscribers and now we have nearly 4,000 members."

Members discuss where to find accommodation, how to open bank accounts, and whether or not it is safe to speak Russian in public.

Yevgeny Lyamin is already learning Georgian, practising Georgia's unique alphabet in an exercise book.

"I am against Putin, I am against war. I still can't withdraw money from my Russian bank account, but that's nothing like the problems that Ukrainians face."

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