Moscow's Georgians Tell of Harassment

MTPro-Kremlin youth groups denouncing Tbilisi during a rally outside the Georgian Embassy in Moscow last week.
Boris Bondo says he fled to Moscow from his native Georgia 15 years ago to escape violence. Now the conflict has caught up with him.

Fighting between Georgian and Russian troops over the breakaway South Ossetia region has left the 54-year-old worried for his safety as images of the war set Muscovites on edge. Police stop Bondo and other Georgians almost daily to make identity checks, he said.

"I used to feel easy," said Bondo, who sells grilled chicken from a stall in Moscow, where about one in 200 people is ethnically Georgian. "Now I feel like anyone can strike."

Moscow is home to about 54,000 Georgians, with many drawn to the metropolis to escape the last battles in the Caucasus in the 1990s. A 55-year-old Georgian man was beaten and robbed here last week by six youths who had questioned his ethnicity, said a spokesman for the Georgian Embassy. He declined to identify the victim or be named himself, citing embassy policy.

A 37-year-old attendant at a gasoline station was spat on the day Georgia entered South Ossetia, Nana, the woman's 56-year-old mother, said in an interview. She asked that her full name not be disclosed for fear of reprisals.

They were not isolated incidents.

Four unidentified men walked into a grocery shop run by a Georgian last week, and it has been closed ever since, said Marina, another Caucasus native who lives in Moscow. She also declined to give her last name.

President Dmitry Medvedev met with Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliyev on Aug. 13 and told him to ensure that law enforcement officials "don't touch law-abiding Georgians,'' ministry spokeswoman Anzhela Kastuyeva said. "We haven't recorded incidents specifically in connection with the conflict," she said.

Russia is home to half a million ethnic Georgians, or roughly 0.4 percent of the population, according to the Georgian Embassy and the Russian census of 2002. Georgian cuisine such as kebabs and cheese-stuffed breads is as common in Moscow as is pizza in New York.

"Russian and Georgia have been together and need to be together," said Goba Morokhiya, who helps run Tiflis, one of 150 restaurants serving Georgian food in Moscow. "It's hard to hear the news all the time. It's unpleasant when you talk to relatives in Georgia." The fighting between Russia and Georgia has not led Morokhiya to reconsider living in Moscow -- where he is married and has a child -- "for now," he said.

Pro-Kremlin youth groups have protested outside the Georgian Embassy for about a week, calling for Saakashvili to cease military action as they alleged ethnic killings in South Ossetia, where most residents hold Russian passports.

At the 250-year-old St. George the Conqueror Cathedral, the city's oldest church patronized by Georgians, a crowd gathered for the afternoon's service last Thursday. The church is located on Bolshaya Gruzinskaya Ulitsa, or Big Georgian Street in English. The street and suburb are referred to by Muscovites as the Gruzini, where Georgia's king settled in the 18th century after fleeing the Ottoman Empire.

In the church, two women dressed in black stood by the priest asking questions and crying. One shook her head and sought explanations for the violence.

For Bondo, like many other members of the congregation, moving is not an option. Their lives are tied to Moscow. "My son came to me yesterday and said, 'Why don't we move?' I don't know. How can I?" said Bondo, now a Russian citizen. "If my only sin is that I love Russia, I love Tolstoy, I love Pushkin, I love its art, then hang me."