February 4, 2023

Flights between Russia and Georgia have not taken off for more than three years, but have still managed to cause turbulence in Tbilisi.

Anti-Russian protests erupted in Tbilisi in 2019 in response to the controversial appearance of a Russian MP in the Georgian parliament, Moscow unilaterally banned direct flights between the two countries, citing concerns about the safety of Russian citizens.

Since then, Russia has repeatedly promised to resume air travel, angering Georgians see it as a manipulative attempt by Moscow to arouse emotions and influence their country.

But real controversy only arose a few days ago, when provocative statements by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met a soft reaction from Georgia’s ruling party leaders, adding to an already flaring sensitivity in Georgia.

“I am pleased that our contacts with Georgia are actively developing. Georgia’s GDP grew by 10% in 2022, mainly thanks to tourism and trade relations with the Russian Federation,” Lavrov said on Jan. 18 press conference in response to a question from the far-right, pro-Russian TV channel Alt-Info in Georgia. “I hope that we will soon be able to start direct flight connections again.”

Indeed, Georgia’s economy and its economic ties with Russia are growing in part as a result of Russia’s war against Ukraine. This is related to the massive influx of Russians fleeing mobilization or the effects of sanctions and repressive government measures, and Georgian buyers take advantage of tanking prices for Russian raw materials.

Lavrov went on to commend Tbilisi for not yielding to Western “pressure”. impose sanctions on Russia. “The fact that a small country and its government have the courage to say that they are guided by their own interests, by the interests of their own economy – that inspires respect,” he added.

Lavrov’s praise did not sit well with Georgians, who have already criticized the government’s cautious stance on Russia. And the reaction of Irakli Kobachidze, leader of the ruling Georgian Dream party, added fuel to the fire.

“When flights resume, it is important for our fellow citizens and of course to be welcomed,” Kobachidze said said in an interview with Imedi TV on January 19, citing the interests of “millions” of Georgian nationals living in Russia.

The comments sparked a backlash, with critics seeing the party leader’s stance as flirting with Moscow amid Russia’s ongoing murderous war in Ukraine.

Among the harshest critics has been the President, Salome Surabichvili, who is largely a poster child who, while generally agreeing with Tbilisi’s cautious approach to Russia, has done so occasionally criticized the rhetoric of the ruling party.

“I do not welcome the resumption of flights with Russia! If all our partner countries show maximum solidarity in word and deed with Ukraine in its self-sacrificing struggle, for me and, I am sure, for most of the public, the position of the government and the ruling party is, to put it mildly, incomprehensible,” said Zurabichvili in a January 20 statement.

The President also dismissed Kobakhidze’s concerns about Georgians living in Russia. Zourabichvili said that she had been trying unsuccessfully for months to ease the process of obtaining Georgian citizenship, which she says is a bigger problem for Georgian expats.

She said the issue of resuming flights was a question of Russia resorting to its “old tricks” to “drive a wedge between us and our western partners”.

The leaders of the Georgian Dream have repeatedly cited the welfare of Georgian migrants and ethnic Georgians living in Russia to defend their accommodating positions towards Russia.

These included her refusal to impose economic sanctions on Russia and opposing stricter travel rules for Russian citizens amid the Ukraine war. The government has also claimed that ethnic Georgians make up a large proportion of Russian citizens who have recently settled in the country.

Russia is known to host the largest population of Georgian migrants with the United Nations estimate their number is around 450,000 as of 2020. The total number of ethnic Georgians and Georgian citizens currently residing in Russia is estimated to be higher, but this remains controversial.

When the flight ban was imposed in 2019, the main concern was not the interests of Georgians in Russia, but the shock that would be inflicted on Georgia’s tourism-dependent economy.

However, with the land border remaining open and indirect flights through other countries still possible, the drop was not dramatic in the months that followed – until the pandemic struck a blow to all international travel.

And even in the last year, the lack of direct flights has done nothing to stem this tide Escape from mobilizationnor the apparently growing number of vacationers Choosing Georgia in the absence of alternatives caused the number of visits by Russian citizens to skyrocket in the third quarter of the year, even surpassing 2019 figures.

Two of the more prominent foreign diplomats accredited to Georgia have spoken out on the matter.

US Ambassador Kelly Degnan said she hadn’t thought that this is a priority for Georgians and was unaware of the problems faced by Georgians living in Russia due to the ban.

And Andrii Kasianov, Ukraine’s chargé d’affaires, said a further influx of Russians would pose risks for Ukrainians living in Georgia.

“In the event of the resumption of direct air connections and an increase in real security risks, I would like to say that today the Embassy does not exclude the possibility of contacting international organizations and our international partners to consider providing assistance in the mass evacuation of Ukrainians Citizens from the territory of Georgia,” said Kasianov in an interview with Ukraine’s Evropeyskaya Pravda on January 24th.

This article was originally published by Eurasianet.org.

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