Cases 11:18 17 May 2024

Between the Caucasus and Kyiv: How Georgians support Ukraine on the front line and in the heart of the diaspora

Throughout their shared history, Georgia and Ukraine have supported each other in times of hardship. Rubryka spoke with Georgian volunteers and activists about helping Ukraine during the war and the biggest challenges in Georgian-Ukrainian relations right now.

The Georgian diaspora was growing in Ukraine even before Russia started its full-scale war in February 2022. Its members opened businesses, formed community organizations, and made art in Ukraine. For instance, the "Iberieli" cultural center promoted Georgian culture in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, teaching locals folk dances. Preserving their culture and traditions outside their homeland has always been important to Georgians.

Most Georgian emigrants lived in the eastern regions of Ukraine, which have been torn by war since 2014. Besik Shamugia, head of the Georgian Association of Ukraine, says the Donetsk and Luhansk regions were the most populated areas, as refugees from Abkhazia and South Ossetia fled there after Russia occupied their homes in 1993 and 2008. A smaller number of Georgian natives lived in the major Ukrainian cities of Kyiv, Zaporizhzhia, Odesa, and Kharkiv, which have also been devastated by Russia's full-scale war.

When Russia launched its large-scale invasion, the Georgian diaspora united to help Ukrainians: they evacuated women and children to Georgia, offered their homes there, provided humanitarian aid, and organized rehabilitation trips to their home country for Ukrainian children. Sadly, the diaspora's official pages now mainly post messages of loss instead of announcements about new events: "Our compatriot died fighting Russian occupiers." Many Georgians — diaspora members and those who hadn't lived in Ukraine before — joined the ranks of the Ukrainian Armed Forces after the invasion.

Georgians also assist Ukraine both within and beyond its borders, translating news articles, offering legal advice to the Ukrainian diaspora, and providing free language lessons, among other things.

Despite all the support, news of pro-Russian statements from the Georgian government raises doubts and grounds for manipulation. Fake news like "Tbilisi helps repair Russian planes," "Georgians support Russia," "Georgia accused Ukraine of involvement in protests in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi," and many others successfully spread through Russian propaganda (and what's worse—they work).

"After February 24, I decided to join the information war"

"What happened is that I've always been interested in Ukraine," says Giorgi Inalishvili, whose interest was fueled by his job as an international relations expert. Five years ago, his position required him to learn Ukrainian politics, write reports, and analyze events. That's when he decided that the best way to study Ukraine was through its language and Ukrainian sources of information — Giorgi's language-learning journey began.

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Giorgi Inalishvili

Giorgi started by watching Ukrainian shows, presidential debates (between Volodymyr Zelensky and Petro Poroshenko), and various YouTube videos. He tuned in daily to hear Ukrainian, memorizing its words. "I knew Russian well and thought it would help me learn Ukrainian. But I was very wrong," says Giorgi about his learning.

One of the first TV series Giorgi watched was "Shkola," which was about schoolchildren and was trending on YouTube at the time. He says it was an ideal product for language learning because of its simple and everyday language. The more videos Giorgi watched, the more he understood the peculiarities of Ukraine, even at the language level. "I watched the president's addresses and speeches of Ukrainian politicians. Now, they communicate in Ukrainian, but it was harder to understand them back then due to Surzhyk [a mixture of Ukrainian and Russian languages, ed.]. If I heard Russian words in the speech, I understood it was Surzhyk," says Giorgi.

He learned the language by listening since, unfortunately, he couldn't practice it in Georgia. The opportunity came up only when Ukrainians began arriving in Tbilisi with the start of the full-scale war against Ukraine. "I communicated with them exclusively in Ukrainian," Giorgi adds.

He remembers February 24, 2022, vividly. The day before, as usual, he turned on Ukrainian television. The broadcast featured live reports from various cities in Ukraine: Mariupol, Kharkiv, and Odesa. At 3 a.m., Giorgi went to bed, only to wake up to the news that a full-scale war had started in Ukraine.

"It was a shock for me. The first thing my friends and I did was gather for a big rally in the main square of Tbilisi. Many people came out to support Ukraine. From the first day, there were many Ukrainian flags, and Georgians actively supported Ukraine," Giorgi recalls.

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At the Ukrainian House in Tbilisi

In March, Giorgi joined a friend's initiative to create the website dopomoga.ge — an information platform to support Ukrainians who arrived in Georgia after the large-scale invasion began. Volunteers gathered all the necessary information and answers to questions about education, accommodation, and other concerns newcomers had. They even created guides on registering marriages, starting businesses, and more on the website, which the Ukrainian House in Tbilisi currently oversees. Giorgi also connected with Ukrainian initiatives in Tbilisi, particularly the  "Svitanok" youth organization, which he helped organize demonstrations to support Ukrainian prisoners of war, including soldiers from the Azov Regiment.

Giorgi says, "After February 24, I decided to personally join the information war." Every day, he wrote about events happening in Ukraine in the Georgian language, finding information in Ukrainian media. Giorgi is also a media literacy trainer, so he needed to tell the truth to people in his surroundings because, unfortunately, Russian propaganda spread among Georgians. "Propaganda spreads not only in Russian but also in Georgian, but with the support (sponsorship) of Russian sources," he stresses. 

Russia has never skimped on propaganda. Giorgi explains that Russia finances numerous information agencies in Georgia, including the propagandistic media "Sputnik."

Although most Georgian youth who know foreign languages and get information from foreign sources, primarily English-language ones, do not consume such content, pro-Russian channels are still popular among the older generation. 

"They were young in Soviet times and lost everything after the collapse of the union. So now they long for that period and believe that Russia and the Soviet Union are the same," says Georgi. "The fact that they only know Russian also influences their judgment, as they get additional information from Russian channels. They believe everything said there and spread this misinformation further." He is confident that Russia has always used the Russian language and culture as weapons.

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Giorgi's story of supporting Ukraine is both personal and collective. He comes from Abkhazia — a part of Georgia currently occupied by Russia. "When I was two years old, the war started in Abkhazia, and my family left our land. Now it's been over 30 years, and I have no opportunity to return home," Giorgi recounts. He witnessed the occupation firsthand and knows well that wherever Russia comes, it always brings hell.

The people of Georgia are now fighting for the right to European integration and their independence from Russia and Russian influence, a movement supported by most Georgians. Giorgi says:

"The war in Georgia continues. Yes, tanks aren't firing, but the war goes on every day; the occupation line shifts daily. Russia fought against us for over 300 years, and I know how it happens. You can't just make deals with Russia — it never keeps its agreements. Georgia supports Ukraine because it knows that Russia is the enemy."

"For me, Ukraine is a second homeland"

In 2017, a mixed martial arts (MMA) fighter from the Georgian national team traveled to the Ukrainian city of Dnipro for a competition. Since then, Miro Vanadze has come to love Ukraine and decided to stay. Miro says that Ukrainians treat Georgians with respect, so he managed to find common ground with people and settle in his new place. He continued his training in Ukraine and became the world champion, according to the World Warriors Fighting Championship (WGFC) — a sports organization that holds professional MMA fights.

Miro, who is from the city of Batumi, speaks proudly of his homeland: "Georgia is a unique country. Our people know how to help — our nation will always respond if someone is in trouble. This is what sets us apart — natural kindness and hospitality. I am proud to have been born in Georgia and represent my Motherland everywhere."

Міро Ванадзе

Miro Vanadze 

He adds, "For me, Ukraine is a second homeland. I feel absolutely comfortable here as if I were at home." In 2022, Miro decided not to return to Georgia but to join the Armed Forces of Ukraine.

"Before February 24, we dreamed, lived, and developed our businesses and careers. Honestly, I didn't believe there would be war. But on February 24, a friend woke me up and said it had begun," Miro recalls. "We didn't know what to do; there was complete chaos, panic. The only thing I knew for sure was that I should not leave Ukraine." The first thing that came to his mind was to save people. Together with friends, they evacuated people in their car as far away from Kyiv as possible: the western cities of Lviv, Uzhhorod, and so on. Miro says that at that time, many Georgian organizations directed Ukrainians to his home country, providing them with safety and necessary conditions.

When Russian forces approached Bucha and Hostomel, towns near Kyiv scarred by Russian atrocities, Miro joined the Carpathian Sich volunteer battalion." "I am not a professional soldier; I didn't even serve in the army. The battles I participated in, on Bucha, Irpin, and Kyiv fronts, became my first experience with weapons in military actions," Miro recalls the events of 2022. 

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According to him, the experience of fighting gave him the most important things: physical training, strong morale, and love for what he did. Despite this, "war is another world," which changed Miro. He honestly says, "Each of us, soldiers, became different people. You want to go back to what it was before, but it's impossible — so many concussions, so many wounds, so many losses and pain. I lost a friend, a brother; he died in Kherson. After his death, the world became stale for me. I believe there is another life; someday, we will meet again and dream together. Although it's difficult, we chose this path and won't turn back — we will go to the end."

The soldier remembers the war in Georgia in 2008. He says that the feelings and pain are no different — he saw everything here that he had seen there. "Russians shot at children's homes, destroyed cities. Their actions are no different; their handwriting is the same in Chechnya, Sukhumi, Ukraine — killings, violence, and destruction of peaceful cities. The whole world knows that where Russians are, there is war, blood, murder."

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Now, Miro serves in the 28th Brigade, the special unit "Black Eagle." His comrades always teach or help him if he doesn't understand something. Miro adds, "To win this war, we need more shells and Patriot systems to defend our sky. Sukhumi, Sochi, Luhansk, Donbas, Crimea, and others — we will definitely liberate our historical borders of both Ukraine and Georgia."

"If you say here that you're from Ukraine, everyone will gladly help you"

"In the next room, I have the largest Ukrainian flag we carried in honor of Flag Day. The whole street was covered with it. Later, we unfolded it at this year's rally on February 24," says Lasha Diarovi. Lasha is a Georgian political party member, a young activist leader, and a former assistant to an opposition deputy in parliament.

Лаша Діарові

Lasha Diarovi

For a month now, Lasha's workday doesn't end at five; it only begins: every evening, thousands of Georgians gather in the main square of Tbilisi to protest against the adoption of the "foreign agents law," which obstructs Georgia's European integration. Rubryka discussed the law in our previous report from Tbilisi.

Peaceful rallies near the parliament building escalated into violence by law enforcement against protesters: beatings, tear gas use, and arrests. Despite protests, the government pushed the bill to finally adopt the "foreign agents law" on May 14.

Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili comments: "This law is Russian, our government's methods are Russian, and even today's speech by our Prime Minister is Russian." Georgia is a parliamentary republic where the ruling party has the most power. The "Georgian Dream," led by Bidzina Ivanishvili, a pro-Russian oligarch who still conducts business in Russia, is in control.

"Despite all the promises, he ignores the people's desires and the demands of foreign partners. He constantly criticizes the Ukrainian government and president," says Lasha. Georgians joke that the "Georgian Dream" is actually a Russian dream, and the situation is similar to what was in Ukraine during the rule of pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych, who fled the country during the 2013-2014 mass protests, now dubbed the Revolution of Dignity, against him and his politics. That's what Georgians call Prime Minister Ivanishvili — Georgian Yanukovych.

However, individual government representatives do not represent all Georgians. The protesters strive to prove this daily, fighting for Georgia's right to join the EU.

Lasha says that Russians are not liked in Georgia: "In Georgia, we had two wars against Russia (during independence). My dad fought against Russia, my dad's friends fought, and now I fight too. You can ask anyone on the street — they hate Russians."

In February 2022, Lasha found himself in Ukraine, specifically in Brovary, a small town in Kyiv's suburbs. After that, with friends, he came to the aid of Ukrainians, arranging shelters and humanitarian assistance. Like many Georgians, Lasha gave his apartments in Tbilisi to Ukrainian families to live in and joined the volunteer fighter ranks.

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"I know many Georgians who fight for Ukraine. Many of them are soldiers who fought in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. They are fighting against their enemy," Lasha says. "Although some pro-Russian officials here say that our soldiers fight for money, it's not true. Many educated people who had high-paying jobs and businesses left everything and went to fight against Russia." He believes that for many Georgians, helping Ukraine means paying back the debt and expressing gratitude for the time when the only group that helped Georgia in the war was the UNA-UNSO (Ukrainian National Assembly — Ukrainian People's Self-Defense). At that time, Ukrainians arrived in Abkhazia and helped evacuate people from Sukhumi.

Lasha returned to Georgia when the Kyiv region was liberated from the Russian occupation. Now, he is a good friend of the Ukrainian House. "If you say here that you're from Ukraine, everyone will gladly help you," Lasha says. "I am friends with the Ukrainian House: whenever they need any help with transportation, protests, or legal assistance, they can call me, and I'll do everything."

Before the full-scale invasion, Lasha traveled almost the entire Ukraine. He enthusiastically tells us that he especially liked dumplings in the city of Poltava. He also loves to sing songs of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, of which he knows many, and dreams of living in Lviv. He tells us, "My heart is in Ukraine."


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