The Iranians who come to Georgia
- 15 April 2013
- From the section Europe
Increasing numbers of Iranians are settling in the former Soviet state of Georgia. Some say they are being forced to move because of Iran's poor economy, hit hard by Western sanctions. Others blame persecution by the authorities in Tehran.
The weekly magazine Aryana may be printed in Georgia but it is written in Farsi. That is because it is catering to the growing number of Iranians moving here - since its launch seven months ago, its circulation has quadrupled.
The magazine helps Iranians settle in Georgia by explaining the local culture and traditions.
Its editor and owner, Sara Ghazi, says that people in Iran are struggling to cope with rampant inflation. And she feels, as a journalist, restricted.
"I could never work there because I like to write what I think. And that's not free in Iran. They control what to write and how to think. That's not me."
Georgia is an attractive option for many: It is close to Iran, the economy is growing and Iranians do not need a visa.
Ms Ghazi's husband, Mustafa Sedighi, is a poet who moved to Georgia in the middle of March. His work is banned in Iran. But now he has been able to publish his latest poem, which is critical of the situation in Iran, in Aryana.
"I have the freedom to do what I want here," he explained. "I've never experienced this kind of liberty before, to write what I want to write."
The number of Iranians who travelled to Georgia increased by 60% last year, to around 100,000 per year. And more than 6,000 Iranians are now officially registered as residents in Georgia - a large number for a country unused to immigration.
For Iranian toy manufacturer Babak Amin, leaving Iran is an economic necessity.
I met him at a new consultancy in Tbilisi, called the Georgian-Iranian Business Centre, which gives advice to Iranians about how to open a business here. Consultants see up to 15 Iranians a day, who are looking to open a company or buy property in Georgia.
Mr Amin said it was getting impossible to sell his goods back home in Iran because, as a result of the sanctions, the currency there is constantly losing value.
"The rate of the US dollar changes every day so we cannot do business [in Iran]," he said." We buy something today and send it to Iran and on that day the US dollar goes up, and then we lose money."
The advantage of Georgia is that it is seen as the most pro-Western and business-friendly country in the region.
But there are also strong cultural and historical links between Georgia and Iran.
Georgia was once part of a large Iranian, or Persian, empire.
Those influences can still be seen today in the architecture of Tbilisi's Old Town.
One old bathhouse is built in the style of a mosque and is covered with decorated blue tiles. A lot of the old houses here have arched windows and carved wooden balconies, so typical of traditional Iranian architecture.
And many Iranians have told me that Georgian attitudes, such as strong family values or an emphasis on hospitality, remind them of Iran. So they quickly feel at home here.
Georgia, meanwhile, hopes the influx of Iranians will lead to an economic boost.
But the challenge is how to have a good relationship with nearby Iran while avoiding antagonising the US - Georgia's most important ally - and the EU, which Georgia wants to join.
"Georgia wants to belong to European and Euro-Atlantic structures but at the same time to have good relations with every neighbour," said Georgian political analyst Alexander Rondeli.
He argues that Georgia has to manage a delicate balancing act between nearby powers, who may have different political ideologies, and key allies, who are far away.
"In this region there are three regional superpowers - Russia, Turkey and Iran," he said.
"And we cannot ignore this situation because we have to deal with all three of them. They contribute to our stability, our security. So I think having normal good relations with Iran, especially in business, is not dangerous to Georgia, and not to international security either."
But for some Iranians, Georgia is providing a safe haven from persecution.
I met a group of Iranian evangelical Christians, who have all recently moved to Georgia, as they sang hymns in the street. They have set up a stall in the middle of Tbilisi, to hand out the Bible, in Farsi, to Iranian people passing by.
When the group's preacher, known as Babek, tried to do that in Iran, he told me how he was sentenced to 40 days in solitary confinement, and was beaten by police so badly that his legs were broken.
"If you are Muslim and you convert to Christianity, the government can cause you lots of problems in Iran: you can go to prison, you can lose your job," he said.
Other Iranians say that living in Georgia means they feel free from harassment by the authorities for certain political opinions or lifestyle choices, such as drinking alcohol. And some Iranian women say they enjoy not having to wear a headscarf.
Meanwhile back at the printing presses, Ms Ghazi was organising the distribution of this week's edition of her magazine.
The business opportunities in Georgia now remind her of Dubai 10 years ago.
"Here if you've got the ideas and creativity and some capital you can easily invest and grow, and help the country and the market also grow," she said.
Unemployment in Georgia, though, is high. So for Iranians who do not have the capital to start a business, it is difficult to find a job.
But at least, many of them say, they have found a country where they can feel free.