From 2012 to 2017, Georgia granted asylum to 1505 citizens of foreign states. There is no statistics available for public for later years. According to available data, the requests of citizens of Ukraine were satisfied most often. Thus, in the period 2012-2017 they received 511 positive decisions, then Iraq and Syria – 741 and 101 permits, respectively. On the territory of all these three countries, during the period covered by the statistics, revolutions and/or military operations took place at different times. This explains the relatively high number of positive decisions made in relation to citizens of these states. However, people fled to Georgia in search of safety not only from the war.
Georgia is believed to have made more progress in building and developing democracy, civil liberties and the protection of human rights in comparison with most post-Soviet countries. High positions in various ratings, positive reviews in international media, and the frequent change of power form a corresponding image of Georgia among the residents of a number of post-Soviet countries, in which the level of major freedoms remains much lower. And being true to these convictions, people in need of security are trying to find it in Georgia.
But just in this case, the ideas of people fleeing a particular regime often turn out to be illusory. The stories of specific people – Azerbaijani and Chechen journalists and bloggers, who faced Georgian bureaucracy and selectivity, show that political interests in Georgia often outweigh an interest in helping people who are trying to hide in this country and escape persecution in their homeland. Unwillingness to spoil or aggravate already damaged relations with neighboring states are often decisive factors for Tbilisi when making a decision on a particular case of this or that person.
Just a couple of years ago, journalists, civil activists, and representatives of various strata of Azerbaijani society, who opposed to the authorities of their country, considered Georgia a Caucasian “island of freedom”, where they could meet freely without fear of repressions from their state. Since 2014, many Azerbaijani activists have moved to Georgia without fear of arrest and repressions here. However, this did not last long …
The writer Gunel Movlud even compared Georgia to the Moroccan city of Casablanca, a city-model of the Second World War. However, Georgia did not become Casablanca for the citizens of Azerbaijan. Almost all critically tuned Azerbaijani citizens were forced to leave Georgia and move to safer Europe.
Gunel, along with her family, moved to Georgia in 2014, as serious problems awaited her in her homeland, including detention.
“In 2014, my husband, I and my one-year-old son returned from Berlin to Tbilisi. Our legal residence in Germany was coming to an end and since we could not continue it, we had to return to our homeland. And there was almost no homeland – there we had already been declared enemies of the people and the state. Then we simply decided to return to the Caucasus; A warm breeze was blowing from the window of democracy called Georgia.
Of course, we could have chosen another country where Azerbaijanis could easily get a residence permit, but we wanted to be in Tbilisi, since we both are fond of Georgia. In addition, it seemed very practical because colleagues and relatives could visit us. Also, we had (and still have) many friends in Georgia,” – recalls the writer.
However, the “idyll” did not last long: “In the very first year of our stay in Tbilisi, we began to live under pressure. Some strange people from Marneuli persecuted us through social networks (contacting the police took us nowhere, they just gave up: “Don’t take it seriously!” They said this despite the fact that those people expressed a desire to beat me, rape and cut me into pieces …). Then, by the loud echo of my voice on the phone, I felt that the phone was being tapped (by the way, the specialist later confirmed that the phone had been tapped).
We received a temporary residence permit for the first time and second time without any problems, on the basis of a contract with Human Rights House in Tbilisi; I was an editor in their special project. Our usual life in Tbilisi passed with excitement and anticipation. There were more and more people who fled from Azerbaijan, we have already formed our own “opposition circle”. Musicians, journalists, writers, activists – all lived for a moment – no one knew what would happen tomorrow. Everyone was just waiting for their fate – this is how the heroes of the famous classic “Casablanca” were waiting,” – says Gunel.
Ultimately, the Georgian authorities decided that the stay of a married couple from Azerbaijan on the territory of the country was undesirable and even caused “harm” to the interests of the state …
“Two years later, when we submitted the third application for a residence permit (this time it was done by my husband, a doctor by profession; He got a job in a pharmaceutical company in Tbilisi), we were turned down. The document indicated the reason for the refusal – the article stated that our presence in the country harmed the interests of Georgia. “What interests?” “In what way?” – employees of the House of Justice in Tbilisi refused to answer these questions. Perhaps at another time such a refusal would have simply upset us, but in this case this piece of paper was almost a death sentence for our family – our son, who was born in Germany, did not have a passport, we had no chance to apply for a visa. to any of the European countries (without a residence permit, we no longer had the opportunity to justify our presence in Georgia). There was only one way left for us – to return to Azerbaijan, where a criminal case was opened against me and my husband (the well-known case against Meydan.tv).
In those days, I lost 9 kilograms and shaved my head, I could no longer see my hair falling out due to stress and anxiety. I looked at my son and I felt sorry for him. Fortunately, by chance my case was sent to ICORN, a network of European “Free Cities” that invite artists to live. A few days after the refusal, I received a letter from the organization stating that the Norwegian city of Levanger is inviting me as a guest writer. I didn’t look at the map, didn’t even check the facts about the city of Levanger, but simply asked the question: “will they be able to take my son out without a passport?”. The answer was yes.
A month after this conversation, with the help of the UN, ICORN and UDI, we were already on board the Tbilisi-Amsterdam plane. When I got on the plane Amsterdam-Trondheim (the closest airport to Levanger), the stewardess gave my son a small present, it was a blue passport cover. I looked at the gift and I wanted to burst into tears: my son did not have a passport to put it in this cover …
We’ve been living in Norway for four years now, I’m not afraid to sleep at night, I’m not afraid to talk on the phone, and my son has already received his passport, he put it in this blue cover and now I don’t want to cry when I see it,” – said Gunel Movlud.
Nevertheless, having received European documents, the family was able to get to Georgia, but, as tourists.
“We were in Georgia last summer; I remember this warm summer breeze when I left the airport in Kutaisi. Stray dogs were lying on the asphalt, taxi drivers were shouting, pies could be smelled from somewhere (perhaps khachapuri), but it seemed to me that this was the warmest, calmest, most dear place in the world … As soon as the pandemic ends and Georgia opens the borders with Norway, we will definitely go there,” – promises Gunel.
The most painful blow to the citizens of Azerbaijan in Georgia was the abduction of opposition journalist Afgan Mukhtarli. On May 29 2017, he left his home in Tbilisi and never returned. The next day it turned out that he was forcibly transported to Baku and placed under arrest.
“My abduction was planned and carried out by the special services of Azerbaijan and Georgia. The Georgian criminal police kidnapped me from Tbilisi and handed me over to Azerbaijani border guards at the Azerbaijani-Georgian border in Lagodekhi. I was engaged in investigative journalism; I published a series of articles about the illegal business of the Aliyev family. At the same time, I was involved in political processes. My friends and I dealt with the problems of political prisoners in Azerbaijan. We organized several protests in front of the Azerbaijani embassy. And the Georgian government was dissatisfied with our activities as well. The Georgian government was particularly concerned about our monitoring of the parliamentary elections at that time and our coverage of the events in Marneuli. At that time, the Azerbaijani side bribed Georgian officials in connection with my case,” – says Mukhtarli.
After the abduction of the journalist, Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili offered to grant Georgian citizenship to Afgan Mukhtarli and his family members. However, Afghan’s wife, Leyla Mustafayeva, refused the offer, explaining that the Georgian authorities were “trying to put on a show.”
“The Georgian government wanted to suborn us and deceive international organizations by granting my wife citizenship. My family had to leave for Europe because it was already dangerous to stay in Georgia. My friends living in Georgia were also in real danger. Opposition activists and journalists residing there did not want to travel to other countries. We wanted to act on behalf of our homeland near the borders of Azerbaijan,” – says Mukhtarli.
Indeed, after the abduction of the journalist, most Azerbaijanis left Georgia. Nevertheless, Mukhtarli himself intends to enter the country and complete the investigation of his abduction: “I will definitely come to Georgia. The General Prosecutor’s Office of Georgia has repeatedly stated that it cannot get evidence from Afgan Mukhtarli. I will come to Tbilisi and give evidence to the General Prosecutor’s Office. My lawyer has already applied to the Prosecutor’s Office regarding this issue”.
An important area of activity of the Georgian NGO Center for Participation and Development (CPD) is ensuring the safety of human rights defenders from other countries. For 4 years now, the NGO has been implementing the Tbilisi Shelter City regional relocation program for human rights defenders and civic activists who are persecuted in their countries, providing them with the opportunity to rehabilitate in Georgia. However, initially the Tbilisi Shelter City project refused to work with the citizens of Azerbaijan.
“Georgia is one of the safest countries not only in the post-Soviet space, but also in Europe. However, of course, the abduction of Afgan Mukhtarli was a big blow to Georgian democracy and it affected the country’s image in the European Community. When we launched the Tbilisi Shelter City project, it was decided that the project would not deal with human rights defenders, journalists and activists from Azerbaijan, as we realized that the geographical proximity of Azerbaijan to Georgia could carry threats and risks for these people,” – explains the executive director of the CPD center and administrator of the Tbilisi Shelter City program Giorgi Marjanishvili.
In recent years, residents of Chechnya and Ingushetia have often complained about difficulties crossing the border with Georgia. The mark in the Russian passport, from which it follows that the person was born in Chechnya or Ingushetia, together with a surname, is already a reason for closer attention from the Georgian border guards. Why this is happening is unknown to the visitors from Chechnya and Ingushetia. The border guards do not explain anything. At the same time, there is no such close attention to Russian passports issued in other regions of the Federation. There are no public official instructions on the need to study the personalities of Chechens and Ingush more thoroughly than the personalities of other foreigners in Georgia. But even a thorough check at the checkpoint is not a guarantee that a person will be allowed into the country. There is no statistics on refusals that would reflect the number in relation to residents of a particular region of Russia, as such. But Chechens and Ingush people claim they are often denied entry. At the same time, sometimes they refuse even those who, for one reason or another, are forced to leave their homeland and are trying to find refuge in Georgia, albeit a temporary one. By the way, it is not so easy for people from Chechnya and Ingushetia to get asylum in Georgia, to put it mildly.
Aslanbek Dadaev is a former correspondent for the Chechen service of Radio Liberty. About two years ago in Chechnya, he began to receive warnings that he would not be allowed to engage in professional activities, since he was working for foreign media. The journalist himself did not hide this fact. And this “will not be allowed to work,” according to Aslanbek, was the easiest way out of a difficult situation. The journalist decided to move to Georgia, where he had already lived for some time before, was familiar with the situation and had friends. Aslanbek rented an apartment in Tbilisi, and in addition to his main journalistic work, he even planned to do a small business in Georgia – to open a cafe with Vainakh (Chechen and Ingush) national cuisine. Occasionally he went to Chechnya to visit his family. These trips were short, Aslanbek tried not to attract too much attention to himself in the republic. In November 2018, he again left for Chechnya and a couple of days later he had to come back in order to have time to sign an agreement on the lease of a commercial space for his future cafe in Tbilisi.
“But it didn’t work out. They didn’t let me in,” – Aslanbek says, “at the border, when I was trying to get through for the second, third time, in general, every day, the Georgian authorities gave me an official document for the third time that I was prohibited from entering the country. The paper contained a list of items with possible reasons for the refusal, including “security threat”, something else, but in my case, there was a tick on the item: “Other reasons.” Thus, for some incomprehensible “other reason” I was denied entry. I was deeply offended, insulted, because there are many Georgian friends who do not understand the situation; Even the owner of the apartment that I rented (by the way, all my belongings remained there) was surprised. He reprimanded me for not telling him that I had some problems with the authorities, otherwise he would not have risked renting out the apartment to me. I could not explain anything to this person.”
Aslanbek could not return to Chechnya, so the editorial office evacuated him to Kyrgyzstan, where he spent three months. Then the journalist was able to leave for one of the European countries. He contacted Georgian human rights activists, journalists wrote articles about him and tried to get clarifications from the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the State Security Service of Georgia, but to no avail. The security officials do not comment on their decisions.
“If the special services had a real reason not to let me in, I think they would have given it long ago. And I still believe that if the Georgian authorities had allowed me to live in Georgia, I would have moved my family there and would now be in the Caucasus, and not several thousand kilometers away. At least I would be with my family. To justify my name, I stated that I agree to any checks, including taking a lie detector test. But I think that the main reason that they didn’t let me in was that the Georgian authorities knew that I left because of some problems at home. Perhaps they thought that I would be in Georgia and from there conduct some kind of information warfare against the Chechen and Russian authorities, but I did not have such goals. This is such a preemptive attack, like, we don’t need your problems, you should get even with Russia not from the territory of our country,” – Aslanbek says.
Unlike Aslanbek, the Chechen video blogger Tumso Abdurakhmanov, being in Georgia, managed to submit an official application for asylum. Former deputy head of the Chechen state-owned company “Electrosvyaz” Tumso left Chechnya at the end of 2015. Shortly before that, in November in Grozny, Abdurakhmanov’s car was stopped by a cortege of a high-ranking official Islam Kadyrov, who at that time was the head of the Chechen government administration. A relative of Ramzan Kadyrov did not like Abdurakhmanov’s beard, it turned out to be “the wrong length”, as well as the contents of his mobile phone – video clips and pictures ridiculing the Chechen leadership. Tumso did not waste time and left for Georgia with his family. He was allowed into the country, but the Georgian authorities refused to grant him asylum.
“I still have this refusal (from the Georgian side) in its original form, in paper, as it was sent to me at the Ministry of Refugees. And in this paper, it is directly written that I fall under this article of the Refugee Convention and that I need asylum. Nevertheless, at the same time, it is said that they (the Georgian authorities) believe that my presence in the country contradicts interests of the state. And it does not indicate that they consider me dangerous, or that I may have any connections with someone or with something, nothing like that is said there. It is simply written that “contradicts interests.” And in the form of an attachment to the refusal there is also a certain letter, a secret letter from the Georgian special services. Then we filed a lawsuit, asked to declassify this letter, to indicate what they were referring to, so that we could somehow defend ourselves, but they refused us,” – Tumso says.
Neither Tumso, nor his lawyers, nor the journalists who covered this case found out the real reason for the refusal.
“I had one contact with the Georgian special services. They called me one day, it was in Rustavi. There were two people who talked to me. To be honest, our conversation didn’t work out, because it was more like a conversation with some people generally offended by the Chechens and not like a conversation with some professionals in their field, people who are exclusively concerned with the security of their state. One of the interlocutors pressed me with some things for Abkhazia, for the participation of Chechens in the Georgian-Abkhaz war, for the participation of battalions manned by Chechens in the Russian-Georgian war. And in general, our conversation did not go well, we parted with negative impressions about each other. And after that, this mysterious secret letter appeared in my file,” – recalls the blogger.
A Georgian court upheld the decision to refuse to grant asylum, and Tumso decided to leave Georgia with his family. The choice fell on Poland. However, Tumso had to leave this country for security reasons as well.
Now Tumso is one of the most popular and well-known Chechen video bloggers. In his speeches, he harshly criticizes and ridicules the Chechen and Russian leadership. The Chechen authorities openly threaten him with savage punishment. The chairman of the Chechen parliament, Magomed Daudov, even announced blood feud to Tumso during a live broadcast on his Instagram. Therefore, in the event of deportation or return to Russia, Abdurakhmanov will, at best, face imprisonment – the Chechen authorities have put him on the terrorist lists and on the federal wanted list. But as human rights practice shows, torture and extrajudicial reprisals await anyone who is engaged in a confrontation with the Chechen leadership. Now Tumso is in one of the European countries and hopes to finally get asylum.
Despite different circumstances and storylines, the stories of Aslanbek and Tumso have a lot in common. Both tried to find a safe asylum in Georgia, both were eventually forced to leave for third countries, both have negative experience of relations with the Georgian state system, including “special attention” from the special services. Moreover, this “attention” is felt by many Chechens and Ingush people who come to and leave Georgia.
Most of the Georgian human rights activists claim that today it is almost impossible to get a safe asylum in the country.
“Georgia has ceased to be a safe country for the persecuted in the countries – its neighbors,” says the former ombudsman of the country, head of the Institute for Research on Democracy Ucha Nanuashvili..
Nanuashvili calls the Mukhtarli case a failure of Georgian democracy: “Most likely, the Georgian law enforcement officers are involved in the abduction of Afgan, as he himself has repeatedly stated. The investigation is not over, there are no results, no one has been punished. Neither Mukhtarli nor his members have been granted the status of victims. In 2015-2016, when Georgia was working on the issue of visa liberalization with the EU, the situation was relatively normal, but then everything changed. Unfortunately, Russian influence in the country has increased and the authorities are trying not to “offend” their neighbors, even if they are represented by authoritarian regimes. Human rights defenders and activists from these countries have practically no opportunity to work and live in Georgia in peace. Georgia has ceased to be a safe country for them,” – concludes the human rights activist.
However, as the example of the last decades since gaining independence shows, in Georgia everything can change – quickly, unexpectedly, and significantly, including the attitude towards people in need of asylum, even if their stay in Georgia is politically unfavourable for the country.
Irakli Chikhladze, Zviad Mchedlishvili, for newcaucasus.com
Translated by Ekaterine Jinoridze