I arrived in Tbilisi, Georgia, near Russia’s southern border, in late February — just a few days after Russian forces invaded Ukraine. I had been reporting on crypto and blockchain from St. Petersburg, but after the war started, staying there had become untenable.
During my first week in the city, I searched for an apartment to rent and for ways to set up a basic bank account.
XX February, Tbilisi
I went to a major branch of the Bank of Georgia, the second-largest private bank in the country, next to Liberty Square in the city center. The bank had only been open for an hour, but it was already full of people waiting to meet with a banker.
As I entered, a visibly frazzled teller at a help desk asked me point blank, “Russian?” I said no but that I wanted to open a bank account. She handed me an application form, a piece of receipt paper with a number on it, and told me to wait my turn.
While I waited, filling out the bank application, I noticed that no one who was holding a red passport — i.e., a Russian passport — had been handed application forms. I watched Russian clients approach the bank windows. Each was invariably handed a long list of required documents they must produce in order to open a standard bank account with a debit card. The list included six months’ worth of transaction records, translations of passports, and a copy of a work contract.
I began to worry because, as far as I was aware from my own research, none of this was previously required. As I approached the window, the banker reflexively reached for a copy of the list of required documents — until I showed my American passport. Within a half-hour, my application was processed, and the banker told me to stop by the next day to pick up my card.
Your papers, please
Money issues are further complicating the lives of Russians and Belarusians who have come to Georgia to escape draconian crackdowns at home. Telegram channels devoted to Russians relocated abroad are flooded with questions about how and when people were able to move their money.
Sanctions from major banks, payments firms and card issuers such as Mastercard and…