Since Russia announced military mobilisation, hundreds of thousands of Russian citizens have fled the country. As thousands queued at the border with neighbouring Georgia, a pattern of discrimination from the Georgian authorities emerged against those from the North Caucasus.
Dozens of people, mostly men of military age, lie on cardboard boxes on the floor under bright fluorescent lights just beyond passport control. Some lie curled up on stairs, as all available floor space is already occupied.
In the caption to a video published on Telegram on 27 September, Chechen opposition blogger Tumso Abdurakhmanov chided that people from the North Caucasus were ‘still not being let through’.
These people were in the ‘neutral zone’ between borders — having been allowed to leave Russia but not able to enter Georgia, at least not until they were interrogated by Georgian border police in ‘Room 222’.
This was later corroborated by the Social Justice Centre, which appealed to the state and parliament to investigate the border police’s filtering of North Caucasians based on their ‘physical, religious, and cultural attributes’.
Similar videos were published by Chechen public movement 1ADAT, which suggested that citizens of other regions of Russia were allowed to cross the border, but those from the North Caucasus republics were refused entry.
‘This trip was the hardest of my life’, says Bulat Khalilov, a 35-year-old Circassian ethnographer and musician.
The trip from Kabardino-Balkaria to Georgia usually takes six hours, Khalilov says, but after leaving his hometown of Nalchik on 24 September, he only reached Georgia four days later.
Having reached Lower Lars, a settlement six kilometres from the border, Khalilov and his friend found themselves stuck in traffic for two days, as their car slowly inched forwards in a procession of hundreds of others attempting to flee the country. They eventually decided to go on foot, a trek that took them another 30 hours because of the crowds moving towards the border.
Khalilov noted that plenty of taxi drivers offered to take people to the border via backroads for exorbitant fees.
They eventually managed to cross the Russian side of the border hassle-free, but progress once again stalled once they reached Georgian passport control.
A Georgian border police officer saw their passports and residence permits and told them to go to Room 222.
‘[That’s] where all Caucasians or those who have Caucasian residence permits go’, Khalilov says.
In the waiting hall outside Room 222, Khalilov was met with dozens of people from the North Caucasian republics.
‘The people there, children, women, men, and the elderly, were lying on cardboard boxes on the floor or on their things, jackets and blankets they had brought with them’, he says. ‘[It] was like something between a refugee camp and a concentration camp’.
According to Khalilov, people in the room had no access to food, and only had access to water from the bathroom basins.
‘It was quite a humiliating experience, and now, when faced with such an inexplicable attitude and distrust, it is a little scary.’
According to Ibragim Umarkhadzhiev, a Chechen businessman who was travelling with his son and nephews to Georgia, Room 222 was a mainstay of the border checkpoint, and was always dedicated to questioning visiting residents of the North Caucasus.
‘I observed this attitude towards the North Caucasians on my previous trips to Georgia after the opening of free entry after the pandemic’, he told OC Media.
At the time, Umarkhadzhiev recalled, it was a relatively easier process, involving a standard background check that lasted a few minutes.
He said that all North Caucasus natives were divided into groups and lists awaiting questioning in Room 222; he and his relatives were on the 92nd list.
An appeal to the people of the Caucasus
As many North Caucasian spent days stuck in the Neutral Zone, Vayfond, a Chechen human rights organisation, launched a campaign to provide food and water for those stranded.
‘A person has the right to ask for asylum and must be heard’, the organisation told OC Media.
They accused Georgia of turning away refugees, not giving entry to people claiming that they were at risk because they opposed the current government in Chechnya.
‘A civilised country should provide asylum if it is acting in the spirit of the universal declaration of human rights.’
A protest also took place in Tbilisi, organised by a group of young activists from Georgia’s Pankisi Valley
The protest, primarily attended by Kist (a Chechen subethnos living in Pankisi) and Circassian activists, took place in front of the parliament building.
Shmagi Sakharadze, one of the organisers of the protests, said that Georgia should, in fact, treat residents of the North Caucasus more favourably than Russians from other parts of the country, not less so.
‘I believe that Caucasians should not be impeded from arriving in Georgia. Look at today’s rally, there are [slogans saying] “no to mobilisation” and “no to discrimination”’.
‘I believe that Caucasians should not go to Putin’s war in Ukraine as cannon fodder and also, they should not face problems when crossing the Georgian border. I think that the entire Caucasus [region] — be it Tskhinvali or Sokhumi, or the North Caucasus — is occupied,’ says Samkharadze.
On 29 September, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky issued a video address similarly suggesting North Caucasian unity against the Russian invasion of Ukraine, urging people of the North Caucasus to do what they could to avoid participating in Russia’s ‘disgraceful war’.
‘Daghestanis don’t have to die in Ukraine. [Neither do] Chechens, Ingush, Ossetians, Circassians, or any other people who came under the Russian flag’.
Stuck outside Room 222, Umarkhadzhiev also did not sit idly. He instructed one of his nephews, Timur, who holds Belgian citizenship, to contact the Belgian consulate in Tbilisi for help. Then, he instructed his son to find other people with dual citizenship in the hall, whom he helped write appeals to several embassies.
Umarkhadzhiev and Timur also wrote a petition to the European Parliament, the UN, and several other international organisations.
‘[Then], everything started to stir’, the businessman says, as people finally were being allowed entry into Georgia.