Russians fleeing Putin’s war face long border queues, overpriced flights, fear, and uncertainty

Screenshot from PBS Newshour video coverage showing long car lines formed at the entry point into Georgia.

On September 21, President Vladimir Putin announced in a nationwide address a partial mobilization of troops, which, according to Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, targets some 300,000 reservists. Russia's unlawful invasion of Ukraine is now in its seventh month. The announcement for mobilization was the first since 1941, and has triggered a wave of protests across Russia and driven thousands of Russian men to leave the country — no matter the cost. Since Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Russians can no longer travel to Europe from Russia (with the exception of Finland, which until September 30, accepted Russians who had valid visas), prompting many to flee to Russia's neighboring states that allow visa-free travel for citizens of Russia (36 countries).

While countries in Central Asia have been overwhelmed by incoming Russians since the announcement, smaller republics in the Southern Caucasus, as well as Turkey, have also seen waves of fleeing Russians, mostly young men.

In the week after the announcement, thousands of Russian men reportedly fled the country, leading to a price surge for flights out of Moscow. At the time of writing this story, the cheapest flight out of Moscow to Istanbul cost around USD 2,000, dropping below USD 1,ooo in the coming days. The cheapest flight below USD 200 is available only starting October 20, according to the flight scanner website aviasales.

Similarly, flights to Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, start at USD 2,700, while flights to Tbilisi — not even a direct flight — are tipping over USD 3,000 one way. The cheapest flight out of Moscow to Dubai was close to USD 4,000. Flights to Belgrade were the highest — close to USD 7,000. Some wealthy Russians have been buying seats on private jets, according to The Guardian, with demand increasing as much as 50 times to destinations including Azerbaijan, Turkey, Armenia, Kazakhstan, and Dubai. Not surprisingly, Russians unable to afford these tickets have resorted to crossing the border on foot or by car, which has led to miles-long queues at the border with Georgia.

Reuters reports that on September 29, the governor of North Ossetia (a region in Russia's North Caucasus), Sergei Menyailo said new restrictions were being rolled out on vehicles trying to cross into Georgia as of September 29, “after 20,000 people crossed the border in two days, with far more remaining in line.” The North Ossetian authorities said on September 27 that a temporary draft office set up at the border crossing “would issue draft papers to reservists barred from leaving Russia under the mobilization order.” Meanwhile, Ossetian volunteers continued helping those stranded on the border with basic essentials.

Zemo Larsi “is the only route for people and cargo moving between Russia and Georgia,” wrote Georgian journalist Giorgi Lomzadze. He added that it has now “descended into chaos. Unknown thousands of Russians have thronged toward the Georgian border to avoid the prospect of getting summoned to serve, and the queue appears to only be growing exponentially.”

Others have called to close the border entirely to prevent Russians from entering.

Kazakhstan readies for vast numbers

Out of the estimated 700,000 people that left Russia within the few days following the announcement of “partial” mobilization, more than 200,000 Russian citizens had entered Kazakhstan by October 4. The ongoing exodus of Russians into Kazakhstan has resulted in queues that take several days to pass — with some reportedly reaching 30 kilometers long. In total, an impressive 1.7 million Russians entered the country in the first nine months of 2022, though the majority left it shortly after to progress to other destinations.

The unexpected influx of Russians, predominantly young men, has drastically transformed life in Kazakhstan, affecting everywhere from the small cities adjacent to the border crossing posts and big cities like Almaty and Astana. A report from Kostanay, a northern Kazakh city three hours from the Russian city of Troisk by car, shows that local rents near the border have risen threefold in some cases, and intercity transportation is near collapse. According to the local taxi drivers, who made a fortune picking up Russians crossing the border on foot, most of them came from the biggest Russian cities such as Moscow, Saint Petersburg, and Yekaterinburg. In the meantime, rents increased by up to 30 percent nationwide, in some cases raising threefold.

This unforeseen emergency triggered a mixed response from the population; nevertheless, many Kazakhs rushed to provide humanitarian aid to newcomers, who had spent days waiting in their cars. The local population in northern Kazakhstan provided food and shelter, while in the town of Oral, a local cinema opened its doors to host more than 200 Russians who could not find shelter. Commenting on the situation, Kazakh president Kassym-Jomart Tokayev pledged assistance and security for Russian newcomers, who “had to leave due to the current hopeless situation,” but said he could not offer them preferential treatment, and hinted about negotiations with Russia to mitigate the influx of people.

The Kazakh Minister of the Interior declared that Kazakhstan will not extradite enlisted conscripts unless there is a warrant issued in relation to a criminal investigation. The country, however, did not hesitate to deport two Russian citizens involved in a drunken brawl in Oral. Previously, the Speaker of the Senate of the Parliament of Kazakhstan, Maulen Ashimbayev, assured that Kazakhstan would not in any way prevent Russian citizens from entering Kazakhstan, but they would need the permission of the sending country to apply for a residence permit. In any case, Russian citizens can stay in Kazakhstan without a visa or residence permit for up to 90 days.

In Georgia, according to the Ministry of Internal Affairs numbers announced on September 27, the total arrivals from Russia over the country's borders reached 78,000. Long car queues have been reported at the border, with some reporting the border crossing can take up to 18 hours.

The situation at the border has only worsened, according to further reports. On September 28, according to volunteers, the sight of those still waiting to cross into Georgia was desperate.

Trouble in the Caucasus and Turkey

In Georgia, civil society groups are concerned that anti-Russian sentiments might be reignited amid the flood of newly arriving Russian citizens. According to Reuters, all across Tbilisi, one can see Ukraine flags and pro-Kyiv messages. Meanwhile, the influx has had a negative economic impact too, as rents have soared in the last six months, with some existing tenants forced to pay double their to stay in their apartments, according to some reports. Russians are settling into the economy as well, opening over 45,000 commercial bank accounts since the beginning of the war. In August, more than 20,000 signatures were collected in an online petition calling to introduce visas for citizens of Russia and Belarus arriving in Georgia. The petition, introduced on August 3, was the latest in anti-Russia sentiments in the nation.

Another popular destination for Russians in the South Caucasus is Armenia. However, there is no exact data on recent arrivals. The only available information so far lists at least 40,000 Russians having arrived in Yerevan since the start of the invasion in February 2022. As in Georgia and Azerbaijan, citizens are feeling the economic burden, as real estate prices have risen significantly.

On September 26, Turkish Airlines announced it was suspending all of its flights to and from Rostov, Yekaterinburg, and Sochi in Russia until December 31, 2022. However, according to Daily Sabah, for flights that still operate, the carrier switched to wide-body Boeing 777s due to high demand. Meanwhile, on September 29, a third state bank canceled the Russian Mir payment system — two private banks already suspended it last week. However, that has not stopped the soaring demand for real estate in Turkey. According to CNN Turk (not affiliated with CNN International), the demand has increased forty times.

Antalya, a province in Turkey that is a popular tourism destination for vacationing Russians under normal circumstances, is feeling the strain, as are residences on the Mediterranean and Aegean coasts. According to data from the Turkish Statistical Institute, citizens of the Russian Federation were the number one investors in real estate in the month of August 2022. Turkey also allows a “citizenship by real estate” scheme. If the total value of purchased real estate exceeds USD 400,000, the client automatically qualifies for citizenship on the condition that the property cannot be sold in the next three years.

Demand for rental housing also grew. According to one real estate consultant from Alanya [let's locate here], although rental fees dropped in previous months, following Putin's announcement, the situation has changed dramatically. In some parts of Alanya province, there are whole neighborhoods that are rented out, noted Ümit Becer, a real estate consultant, in an interview with CNN Turk.

According to a report by France24, since February, the total number of Russian citizens who have applied for residency permits in Turkey has reached 50,000.

The Azerbaijan State Border Service puts the number of visitors from Russia between December 2021 and August 2022 at 263,000, 70 percent higher than the same period last year. On September 26, Azerbaijan Airlines said they were increasing the price of flights due to the high demand for incoming flights from Russia to the capital Baku. On September 29, the cheapest flight from Moscow to Baku (one way, and not direct) was around USD 3,200, according to Aviasales.com. All flights to Baku from Moscow were sold out with Azerbaijan Airlines, according to the airline website. The earliest flight available was showing up only on October 8, with a price tag of over USD 1,000 — two and a half times the price announced on September 26.

Azerbaijan has kept its land borders shut following the pandemic, so air transit is the only available route into the country. The influx of Russians has led to spikes in the real estate market, similar to what is happening elsewhere. Some experts expect an estimated 1015 percent hike in the market in the coming months as demand from new arrivals continues to rise. However, unlike Georgia, where Russian citizens have set up over seven thousand companies just in the last six months, local experts do not expect a significant increase in local businesses. In an interview with Toplum TV, Azerbaijani economist Rashad Hasanov said due to the country's unfavorable business environment, those Russian citizens arriving in Azerbaijan were likely to use it as a transit country. Citizens of Russia can stay in Azerbaijan for up to three months.

Among Russians fleeing the draft are also citizens of Azerbaijan who moved to Russia and acquired Russian citizenship over time. They, too, are granted a three-month stay; however, it is up to the discretion of the local migration services to decide whether or not to extend the permit to stay once the three-month period expires. According to Azerbaijani lawyer, Asabali Mustafayev, this may prove tricky, especially since Russia has told its immediate neighbors not to grant asylum to its citizens. In the case of dual citizenships, it is possible to avoid returning to Russia, explained Mustafayev in an interview with Musavat newspaper. “He/she must notify the Russian state and renounce the citizenship. This application could then be sufficient for Azerbaijan to accept the person as its citizen and provide protection.”

In interviews with BBC Azerbaijan service, some Azerbaijanis who left Russia in recent weeks said they were unwilling to fight and uninterested in fighting in Ukraine.

On September 28, the EU proposed a new package of sanctions against Russia as the country is set to annex swaths of Ukraine following a sham referendum. Two days later, the US too announced a new set of sanctions targeting Russian officials. As such, it is also possible to assume further emigration will come.

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