Russians Fleeing Putin's Draft Stir Fears in Worried Neighbors

  • In World
  • 2022-09-28 07:31:30Z
  • By Bloomberg

(Bloomberg) -- The growing exodus of Russians fleeing President Vladimir Putin's mobilization order is creating turmoil at the borders with neighboring states and stirring fears about potential instability.

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After driving with friends for more than 30 hours from Moscow to reach the Russian border with Kazakhstan in central Asia, 46-year-old Ilya, who asked not to disclose his last name, said they arrived to find about 150 cars ahead of them. With officials processing only about eight vehicles an hour, he eventually walked across the border, he said.

On a mountain highway at the border with Georgia, thousands of vehicles formed lines stretching for miles as Russian men eligible for the call-up flocked to escape to the Caucasus state that Putin's army invaded in 2008.

The situation is "apocalyptic, it's like in the movies," said Vladimir, a 30-year-old Muscovite who walked into Georgia's Larsi with his youngest child, fearing the border would be closed to potential draftees, as his wife and older child stayed with their car in the traffic jams.

After being largely shielded from the realities of the Kremlin's seven-month-long war in Ukraine, Putin's mobilization order last week has shocked millions of Russians. While Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said it would affect only 300,000 out of 25 million reservists, the call-up sparked a rush to leave the country as reports piled up of men being drafted who were officially exempt.

Pictures of large crowds of men at Moscow's major airports appeared on social media amid a spike in demand for flights to countries like Armenia, Azerbaijan, Turkey, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, where Russians can enter visa-free. The panic intensified as rumors swirled that the Kremlin may close the borders for conscription-age men after annexing four occupied regions of Ukraine following staged referendums that ended Tuesday.

Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev said Tuesday he planned talks with Moscow about the surge in migrants "to resolve this problem in the interests of our country." Most Russians entering Kazakhstan "are forced to leave because of the current hopeless situation," he said in comments posted by his press service. "We must take care of them and ensure their safety."

Opposition groups in Kazakhstan and Georgia railed against the influx of Russians, denouncing them as former colonizers who represented a potential security risk. In Georgia, many drew comparisons on social media between columns of Russian tanks that entered the country in the 2008 war, which resulted in Moscow's troops remaining in two breakaway territories, and the current rush of men seeking to avoid conscription into that army. Georgia, like Ukraine, aspires to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, a move Russia opposes.

The sudden increase in demand for accommodation is pushing up hotel and rental apartment prices, which have doubled in some places, adding to tensions with local people who find themselves priced out of the market. Still, many have offered a helping hand to those who felt compelled to leave Russia.

Putin's War Is Deepening a Tussle for Influence in Central Asia

In northern Kazakhstan, an area with a large Russian population that pro-Kremlin nationalists have long coveted, movie theater manager Dillara Mukhambetova said she saw hundreds of new arrivals wandering the streets in the rain in the city of Uralsk unable to find anywhere to stay late Saturday.

"I decided to open the movie theater so people would have somewhere safe to shelter," she said. "On the first night, more than 200 people slept in the theater."

Kazakhstan's Interior Ministry said 98,000 Russians had entered the country since Sept. 21, when Putin announced the mobilization. Some 64,000 had left for other destinations.

Finland, the main option to cross to the European Union by land after the Baltic States and Poland barred access for most Russians, said twice as many Russians crossed the land border on Tuesday compared to a week earlier. Nearly 6,500 entered the country and just under 3,000 left Finland, according to the Border Guard.

Georgian Interior Minister Vakhtang Gomelauri said the numbers crossing the border at Larsi more than doubled to 11,000 on Monday from the previous day, though he said he saw nothing "alarming" about this in televised comments on Mtavari TV. Opposition activists were less sanguine, with some planning to hold a protest at the checkpoint on Wednesday.

"This is nothing but annexation without the tanks," Giorgi Vashadze, an opposition member of Georgia's parliament, said of the Russians arriving in the country of 4 million. "This simply can't go on."

As many as 5,500 vehicles were lined up on the Russian side of the border, according to state-run Tass news service. On Monday, rules were temporarily eased to allow people to cross into Georgia on foot, amid claims from some in the line that they were offered scooters or bikes for hundreds of dollars to meet rules on exiting Russia by vehicle with their cars stuck in the line.

Russians eligible for conscription were being handed draft papers as they waited near the border, Tass reported Tuesday, citing local officials in Russia's neighboring North Ossetia. Russia will set up an enlistment office there shortly, Vedomosti reported, citing the regional Interior Ministry.

Victor, a 23-year-old IT worker from Moscow, said his mother urged him to walk into Georgia to avoid the risk of being drafted, while she remained in the car at the border. "I left Russia once when the war began" but later returned, he said. "I regret coming back and will never do it again."

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