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Russia vs. Georgia: The "Human" Cost

by Neli Esipova and Rajesh Srinivasan


PRINCETON, NJ -- On Sep. 27, four Russian army officers were arrested in Georgia on charges of espionage. The officers were released five days later, but not before the incident had inflamed longstanding tensions between the two countries -- tensions that have been heightened by Georgian president Mikhail Saakashvili's efforts to align his country with the West, particularly the United States. The Financial Times called the resulting conflict "the most serious rift with Georgia since the break-up of the Soviet Union, and one of the most serious between Russia and any former Soviet republic."

The rift has taken a significant toll on the Georgian population, which is not only heavily reliant on trade with Russia, but has hundreds of thousands of its own residents working in Russia in order to support their families back home. When given a choice last March between three commonly discussed approaches to relations with Russia, 53% of Georgians said the two countries must be on friendly terms "no matter what," while only about a third (32%) said Georgia must stand its ground with regard to Russia and not yield under any circumstances. Three percent said Georgia should cease any relationship with Russia, while 12% did not offer a response.

In terms of domestic issues, the proportion of Georgians saying that their country was "headed in the wrong direction" had doubled within an 18-month period, from 24% in October 2004 to 51% in April 2006. More specific responses regarding economic conditions help explain why most Georgians would prefer to foster good relations with Russia than take a more resistant stance. Only 16% of Georgians say they are satisfied with their current standard of living, and over half (52%) say there have been times in the past year when they have not had enough money to buy food for themselves or their families. These figures are the lowest that Gallup has observed across the Commonwealth of Independent States (i.e., former Soviet republics). Unemployment has been the number one issue on Georgians' minds since Saakashvili came to power, and its importance has only increased in recent months.

Estimates regarding the number of Georgians working illegally in Russia range from 300,000 to 1 million. About 1 in 12 Georgians (8%) tell Gallup someone in their household works abroad temporarily -- and of those, 41% say that person works in Russia. Already, Moscow has deported several hundred Georgians and shut down a number of businesses run by Georgians in Russia. There are also reports suggesting Russia may adopt a tougher stance against illegal workers from Georgia, which would result in many more deportations and exacerbate Georgia's unemployment problem.

Russia has also established a transport and postal blockade that is obstructing untold remittances to Georgian families. Of those Georgians who say a family member sends remittances from abroad, 41% say the money is sent back outside of the banking system -- i.e., through the mail or in person. Many more Georgians will be affected if the Russian Duma moves forward on a proposed law to stop all bank transfers to Georgia; almost half of Georgians who receive remittances from abroad (48%) say the money is sent back that way.

But the financial strain on Georgian households only tells part of the story. The emotional stress placed on so many Georgians cut off from family members and friends in Russia is another cost. Leaders of both countries -- as well as the international community at large -- should be acutely aware that through all the political and ideological posturing that has shaped the crisis, a severe humanitarian toll on is being paid by the Georgian population. Given that consequence, Saakashvili in particular should take heed of the fact that most Georgians desire friendly relations with Russia "no matter what."

Survey Methods

Results are based on face-to-face interviews with a representative sample of 1,000 residents of Georgia, aged 15 and older, conducted February-March 2006. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum error attributable to sampling, weighting and other random effects is ±5 percentage points. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.


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