Aug 14, 2023

The Party Town Where Putin's Henchmen Blow Off Steam

The "jewel of the Georgian Riviera," the port city of Batumi has long been a favored playground of Georgian and foreign elites. In its myriad casinos, beach clubs and luxury hotels, powerful and wealthy visitors from the Caucasus, Central Asia, the Middle East and Russia blow off steam.

Russia's invasion of Ukraine has opened a new chapter in Batumi's history and in the collective tale of a Georgian population striving for admittance to the Euro-Atlantic family. Russia occupies some 20 percent of the nation's territory, and there is widespread support among Georgians for Ukraine.

"Las Vegas on the Black Sea" has become a haven for Russians fleeing Moscow's war on its neighbor. It is also one of the few places that President Vladimir Putin's henchmen can travel to enjoy the opulence they have grown accustomed to, without having to deal with Western sanctions.

Russian- and Belarusian-plated luxury cars are a common site in Batumi, where conversations in Russian are overheard almost as much as those in Georgian. Above the city's palm-tree-lined boulevards, Russian-language billboards soliciting investors for the latest high-rise luxury apartment buildings compete for attention with Ukrainian and European Union flags draped from apartment windows and shops.

"Russia is an OCCUPIER," read one homemade banner fluttering above a busy downtown interchange. "You are NOT WELCOME."

Last weekend, simmering anti-Moscow anger among Georgian social media users ignited when a convoy of black SUVs—with Russian number plates of a style often used by the security services and highly connected figures—was spotted in Batumi.

The vehicles were quickly linked to Aslambek Akhmetkhanov, a Chechen businessman with close ties to the Kremlin, and to Chechnya's warlord leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, who has emerged as one of the most hawkish voices on Ukraine. Other images soon emerged showing apparent members of the Chechen security forces with the luxury cars in Batumi.

Though Akhmetkhanov has been publicly rebuked by Kadyrov, the businessman is still believed to be close to the Chechen leader. His well-manned Georgian convoy of apparent security forces members suggested that Akhmetkhanov is still in Kadyrov's good books.

Kadyrov himself is one of Russia's most rabidly pro-war figures. He has suggested the use of nuclear weapons against Ukrainians and threatened to unleash his troops on NATO member states.

The Chechen leader's so-called "Kadyrovite" fighters have served across occupied Ukraine and been accused of a wide range of war crimes. Chechen units have reportedly been acting as law enforcement in occupied Ukrainian regions, as well as serving as "blocking detachments" to prevent Russian retreats or surrenders. There have been multiple reports of fighting between Kadyrovite and regular Russian units.

Kadyrov has cultivated a public image of zealous loyalty to Putin and is thought to have been behind the assassination of prominent Kremlin critic Boris Nemtsov within sight of the Kremlin in 2015.

"It's disgusting to see this kind of person traveling in Georgia," Giorgi Gabriadze, the head of digital communications for the pro-Western Droa party, told Newsweek. "The Georgian government is not controlling anything about who is traveling from Russia to Georgia," apart from well-known Kremlin critics, he added.

It looks like Georgia let in a gang of Kadyrovtsy; some of them are posting videos on their Instagram from Georgia ( Meanwhile, Putin critics and journalists, including our former journalist from Chechnya, are not allowed to come to Georgia.

Tamar Kakabadze, a member of Droa's political council, told Newsweek that Akhmetkhanov's suspected visit has caused outrage but is just part of a much larger puzzle. "Bloggers and journalists opposed to Putin have not been allowed in Georgia for the past few years," she said. "However, Georgia's border is open to people close to the Kremlin."

Kakabadze continued: "In a country occupied by Russia, which is vulnerable to external threats, we are watching the visit of Kadyrov's circle to the country with special interest and caution. Against the backdrop of doubts about the close ties between the Russian and Georgian governments, we naturally assume that this was not a tourist visit.... The border of the country cannot be opened to terrorists, to members of Ramzan Kadyrov's criminal group."

Dito Samkharadze, the regional secretary of the ruling Georgian Dream party and a member of parliament, confirmed Akhmetkhanov's visit. "None of them had violated the law," he said of the businessman and his entourage, according to the Georgian News website. "Nobody impeded them, they arrived as tourists, spent some money, and left. If they had any violations, no one would have let them in."

But new revelations suggest that Akhmetkhanov was not in Batumi solely for pleasure. Georgia's TV Formula station reported that the Chechen met with Tornike Rizhvadze, the chair of the government of the Adjara region—of which Batumi is the capital—and Batumi Mayor Archil Chikovani at the city's upscale Radisson Hotel on May 29.

Neither the Georgian Interior Ministry nor Batumi city authorities responded to Newsweek's emailed request for comment on Akhmetkhanov's visit.

Batumi came to prominence as a successful Black Sea trading center, weathering great power contests between the Ottoman and Russian empires, and emerged as a key oil port helping feed the tsars' navies. Later, the city became a center of leftist agitation, with Georgian-born future Soviet leader Josef Stalin leading industrial action against the Rothschild family's oil refinery.

In the chaos that followed World War I, control of the city changed hands from tsarist to revolutionary, then briefly to Turkish, independent Georgian and finally renewed Soviet control. After the Soviet Union's collapse and Georgian independence, the industrial port city underwent a real estate investment boom, emerging as a top luxury holiday destination.

Moscow's war on Ukraine has again changed the character of the Black Sea city, with hundreds of thousands of Russians fleeing Putin's crackdown on anti-war dissent and later his partial mobilization order. As Western nations began closing their borders to most Russians, many gravitated to Georgia, attracted by a shared Soviet history, common use of the Russian language, the cheap cost of living and Tbilisi's refusal to mirror Western sanctions on Moscow.

Some 1.5 million Russians crossed the border with Georgia, a country of only 3.7 million. It is unclear how many stayed. President Salome Zourabichvili said last fall that around 100,000 have remained in the country, with most thought to be clustered in the capital city of Tbilisi and Batumi.

The registration of 15,000 new businesses during this time, plus thousands of apartment purchases by Russians, suggests that many intend to stay for the long term.

The glut of new arrivals is stoking fresh tensions in a country with little love for Putin's Russia. The immigrants bring much-needed money to the national economy, but their higher average wealth is also driving up prices and squeezing housing options for locals.

As graffiti and posters on countless street corners in Tbilisi, Batumi and nationwide are keen to remind the recent transplants, Russian troops still occupy around 20 percent of Georgia's internationally recognized territory. They were already deployed there before the 2008 Russo-Georgian War to safeguard Kremlin control—behind a thin veil of local secessionists—in Georgia's northwestern Abkhazia region and the northern South Ossetian region. Moscow's swift victory in that conflict cemented its control of the breakaway areas.

Georgia is still struggling to house some 286,000 people displaced in various conflicts with Moscow and its local proxies since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Some still live amid the ruins of that former empire, taking up residence in the abandoned and dilapidated sanatoriums of spa towns once teeming with Soviet elites.

The surge in Russian residents in Georgia's major cities is reopening old wounds, Kakabadze said. "It dates back to the Soviet period," she explained. "At that time, the Russians perceived Georgia as a servant country, where they should rest without any respect. Georgians should be their servants. This perception has not changed."

Such sentiment helped fire up May protests against the restarting of flights from Russia to Georgia and demonstrations that disrupted the visit of Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov's daughter Yekaterina to a mountain resort wedding party east of Tbilisi.

Many Georgians feel a strong connection to Russia's war in Ukraine, given its similarities with Moscow's 2008 invasion of their country and the subsequent frozen conflict maintained via Kremlin-puppet separatist governments in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Indeed, thousands of Georgians have joined Ukrainians in their resistance against Moscow's invasion.

Gabriadze said the growing Russian footprint in Georgia poses a clear security threat. "Do you think Russia has stopped sending agents to Georgia?" he asked. "Of course not."

He went on: "I understand that tourism is very good for the country, but in this situation, when international sanctions are in place and the war is ongoing, the sale and registration of real estate should be prohibited for Russian citizens in Georgia.

"Also, temporary residence permits should not be issued to Russian citizens. It must be prohibited to open bank accounts in Georgia. We really don't know about these people who already have entered Georgia or travel to Georgia. We don't know who is really a tourist or who is an agent. There's a major threat for Georgia security."

Most Georgians—particularly the young—are in favor of a Western trajectory for their nation, toward full European Union and NATO membership even at the cost of worse relations with Russia.

But the in-power Georgian Dream party and Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili appear to be turning back toward the Kremlin, arguing that the country's economic reliance on Russia means bilateral relations cannot be jeopardized.

Behind it all sits Georgia's wealthiest person: former Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, who made his fortune in the Russian metals and banking industries and is still considered the ultimate power behind Georgian Dream.

Ivanishvili has long pursued a policy of normalization with Russia, and the recent drift of the Georgian Dream government toward Russia's position—the prime minister was recently pilloried after publicly blaming NATO expansion for Moscow's invasion of Ukraine—has unsettled many pro-Western voters.

Kakabadze said the ballooning Russian population might be exacerbating this disconnect between the voters and the government. "Many Russians present here emphasize the state's policy towards Russia," she said. "For them, Georgia is Putin's friendly country, where they feel comfortable."

Recent fierce protests against the government's pivot toward Moscow speak to the scale of the problem. Protesters brought the country to a standstill in March when they demonstrated against a proposed foreign agent registration bill—inspired by similar Russian legislation—that would have required media and nongovernmental organizations receiving more than 20 percent of their funding from abroad to register as "agents of foreign influence."

Opponents feared that the law would be used to stifle opposition and that it would undermine Georgia's EU and NATO ambitions.

The government withdrew the bill, but now opposition activists and human rights organizations report a crackdown by the country's law enforcement agencies on those who railed against the proposed legislation and demonstrated against Russian influence.

"The legitimacy of the government is based not on the support of the people but on the power of the police," Kakabadze said. "The government constantly confronts the protest waves with force. The government is especially strict when the population goes to an anti-Kremlin rally."

She continued: "The population wants European integration, supports Ukraine, but the government maintains power by forceful methods. This is characteristic of authoritarian regimes."

But not all Georgians are so opposed to their new neighbors. "You can hate the government, but you can't hate all the people just because they are Russian," a Batumi taxi driver, who did not wish to give his name, told Newsweek,

He said the new arrivals bring lots of new business, adding, "It comes down to the individual person."

Georgia appears likely to remain both a haven for Russian migrants and a playground for elite visitors. As many Georgians fight to push their government back to a Western trajectory, Kadyrovites will continue frequenting upscale Batumi and Tbilisi hot spots, traversing the country's famed mountain ranges and gleefully posting it all on social media.