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Georgian Jews in Russia Suffer Because of Diplomatic Dispute

October 6, 2006
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The Georgian community in Russia is suffering from the current diplomatic crisis between Russia and their home country. That includes thousands of Georgian-born Jews who immigrated to Russia after the fall of communism and a civil war that ravaged their small state in the Caucasus.

“We are all victims of this conflict, both Georgians and Georgian Jews,” said Jewish businessman Eduard Khazanishvili, a native of Georgia, a former Soviet republic, now living in Moscow.

He was speaking Tuesday at Moscow’s Choral Synagogue, where the Georgian Jewish community maintains its own, separate congregation.

Earlier that day, Moscow announced a halt to all air and train links and postal contacts with Georgia — and severed trade and cultural relations between the two countries. Last week, Russia stopped issuing visas to Georgian citizens, and recalled its ambassador and evacuated most of its diplomats from the Georgian capital of Tbilisi. Some people fear these moves may presage a Russian military operation against the country of 4.7 million residents.

Russia’s actions came despite Tbilisi’s release early this week of four Russian officers arrested on suspicion of espionage.

Relations between Moscow and Tbilisi have been on the skids since pro-Western Mikhail Saakashvili became Georgia’s president in early 2004. They deteriorated sharply after Georgia and NATO agreed to hold talks on closer relations, with a view toward Georgia joining the alliance. Russia strongly opposes such a move.

On Tuesday, law enforcement agents raided Georgian businesses in the city, closing a hotel and a casino owned by ethnic Georgians, and confiscating alcohol from a leading Moscow Georgian business.

Georgian Jews living in Moscow — the vast majority of them involved in various Georgian-owned businesses — have no doubt that the anti-Georgian campaign will affect them too.

“They will go after everyone whose last name ends with -shvili,” said one Georgian Jew in Moscow, referring to a typical Georgian surname ending shared by most Georgian-born Jews. “It won’t make any difference whether you are Jewish or not,” businessman Reuven Tzitziashvili said of the police raids targeting Georgians.

“They come to your home, office or stop you on the street, see your Georgian name and that’s enough.

“We’ll just pay more bribes,” Tzitziashvili continued, referring to widespread corruption among Russian police.

A Georgian Jewish vendor at a Moscow market said Wednesday night that he wasn’t sure his business would open the next morning.

“I might come tomorrow and see my store closed down,” said the man, who gave his name as Yakov. “And there is nothing I can do about it.”

There are an estimated 150,000 to 200,000 Georgians in Moscow and about 500,000 in all of Russia, according to the Moscow Times. Jews said that number includes at least 15,000 Georgian Jews in Moscow alone about the size of the entire Jewish community remaining in Georgia.

Georgian Jews who used to travel frequently to their native country and have their Georgian relatives visit them in Russia fear their family members will suffer.

“I have two brothers in Georgia. I don’t know how we can see each other now,” Khazanishvili said.

The conflict will also hurt the living standards of many Jews in Georgia, especially the elderly.

Almost every Georgian in Russia has family in Georgia. Nearly all send regular financial help to those relatives. The money is usually carried by people traveling to Georgia, rather than wired through the banks.

“Everyone who works here sends money back to Georgia,” said Tzitziashvili, adding that “$150 or $200 is a lot for Georgia. Now sending money may become very complicated.”

A Georgian Jewish leader in Tbilisi said Jewish organizations in Georgia will suffer from Russia’s curtailment of transportation links.

“There are various projects and conferences in Russia that we planned to participate in. Now we can’t go there,” said Maurice Krikheli, the head of the Hillel-Tbilisi Jewish Youth Foundation.

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