Russian flights lifted, visa restrictions exacerbate Georgia’s geopolitical dilemma

Russia’s surprising move to restore visa-free access for Georgian citizens and direct flights between the two countries suggests that relations between Tbilisi and Moscow will continue to deteriorate, at the expense of Georgia’s integration with the West. It’s possible, analysts and a Russian government official told The Moscow Times. .

Some observers described the decision as a “gift” from the Kremlin to the bigoted Georgian government, especially after Tbilisi had tried to remain neutral in the Ukraine war over the past year. ing.

“This includes the sensitivity of official statements to the Kremlin, non-compliance with anti-Russian sanctions, refusal to supply weapons to Kiev and many other things,” said a person close to the Russian government, who asked not to be identified. told The Times. .

“This seems like a pat on the back from our side. It’s like, ‘Well done, go for it,'” another Russian official said.

Georgia, a tiny Black Sea nation wedged between Turkey and Russia, has not joined the West in sanctions against Russia over its invasion of Ukraine, and Tbilisi officials have warned of the devastating economic impact of such measures. ing.

At the same time, Georgia applied to join the European Union days after the invasion, making the country a haven for tens of thousands of anti-war Russians.

Tbilisi-based political analyst Alkyl Siharulidze sees the decision to lift visa requirements as a strategic move for Russia.

“Visa-free travel and direct flights are not in the interests of the Georgian people, [they are] It is in the interest of the Russian government,” Siharulidze said, arguing that the decision should have been made years ago given the economic interests of both countries.

Azimut Airlines will launch direct flights between Russia and Georgia this week. Anna Zvereva (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Azimut Airlines will launch direct flights between Russia and Georgia this week.
Anna Zvereva (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Vizina Lebanidze, senior policy analyst at the Georgia Institute of Political Studies, said Russia may now be driving a further wedge between Georgia and the West, testing the delicate balance in Tbilisi. said that

“This is a dilemma for Georgia. Russia is a big neighbor and market and shares many social ties with Georgia. is always economically beneficial,” he said. Russia. However, there are security risks involved. ”

In 2000, Russia canceled visa-free travel for Georgian citizens, and diplomatic ties between the two countries were severed after the Russo-Georgian War of 2008.

Following anti-government and anti-Kremlin protests in Tbilisi in 2019, President Vladimir Putin has banned all flights to Georgia.

Since coming to power in 2012, the ruling Georgian Dream Party has sought to balance relations with both Russia and the West, as well as de-escalate tensions with Russia. The strategy has drawn criticism from Georgia’s beleaguered domestic opposition and, increasingly, from the West.

Tbilisi, along with Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili, responded positively to Moscow’s decision announced last week. saying “Any decision that facilitates people’s livelihoods, mobility and business is, of course, positive and welcome.”

But Georgia’s pro-EU President Salome Zurabishvili, whose powers are mostly ceremonial, condemned Referring to the independent states of Abkhazia and South Ossetia where Russia maintains a military presence, he said the move was “unacceptable” as long as Russia “continues to invade Ukraine and occupy Georgian territory.” rice field.

On Mondays, a small group of protesters People gathered outside the Georgian parliament rallied against the lifting of the flight ban, but otherwise there was little visible opposition to the move from the general public.

By Tuesday, Georgian aviation authorities had already granted two airlines, Georgian Airways and Russian Airlines, permission to operate flights between Russia and Georgia from later this week.

EU Spokesperson explained It added that the decision was “very disappointing” and “causes Georgia’s commitment to follow the EU path and EU decisions.”

Ukraine’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs defendant At a time when “the world is trying to isolate Russia and stop the war,” Georgia is “welcoming” Russian airlines.

Washington and Brussels have issued warnings to Georgia about complying with international sanctions against Russia, and Tbilisi claims to comply.

They also want Tbilisi to distance itself from Moscow and build stronger ties with the West, as Georgia has sought integration with the EU and NATO over the past two decades. poll The majority of Georgians say they support it.

South Caucasus officials say they are pursuing a pragmatic diplomatic strategy of maintaining friendly relations with both countries given their lack of security from both Russia and the West. ing.

But the current Georgian government has become increasingly anti-Western rhetoric over the past year, claiming that Ukraine and its Western allies are trying to draw Georgia into a conflict with Russia. Then, in March, Georgian Dream tried unsuccessfully to pass the controversial “Foreign Agents” bill. Critics say the bill resembles Russian laws used to crack down on political opposition and shoot down independent media.

Meanwhile, Georgia has become a prime destination for Russians fleeing the effects of war and political repression, especially since the Kremlin announced partial mobilization in September.

Over 1.2 million Russian citizens entered About a third of Georgia’s population of 3.7 million between March and November last year, according to government data. However, the percentage of people who have long-term settled in the country is unknown.

Street art in Tbilisi depicts the flags of Ukraine, Europe and Georgia side by side.Antoine Bouleau / Hans Lucas from Reuters Connect

Street art in Tbilisi depicts the flags of Ukraine, Europe and Georgia side by side.
Antoine Bouleau / Hans Lucas from Reuters Connect

Following Moscow’s announcement to resume air travel with Georgia, President Zuravishvili: Revived Initially, he called for the restoration of the visa system with Russia, citing “domestic challenges” caused by the entry of tens of thousands of Russians. But Georgian Dream officials see such a move as unnecessary and harmful, so her proposal is unlikely to go through.

So did U.S. Ambassador to Georgia Kelly Degnan. was suggested He argued that the Kremlin could use the restoration of flights to interfere in Georgia’s internal affairs, thus posing a security risk.

“We have seen President Putin sometimes interfere in a country by taking advantage of the presence of Russians in that country,” Degnan said at a press conference. I drew a line with claimed to Georgia said it welcomes Russians fleeing repression at home.

However, some believe these claims are exaggerated.

“The prediction that tomorrow there will be a mass influx of Russians to Georgia and Georgians to Russia is completely misleading,” said political analyst Siharulidze. “From Russia to Georgia and vice versa.” Everyone who wanted it probably already does.” ”

Still, Siharulidze believes the lifting of travel restrictions is not enough to show Russia that it is serious about normalizing relations.

“I don’t think it’s possible to fly direct and without a visa.” [travel] is a serious problem. We all know this should have been done a long time ago,” he said.

“Russian elites still think they can impose and punish Georgia, and this is the biggest mistake Russia makes all the time.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Skip to content