The first flight landed at Tbilisi International Airport on May 19
In January 2023, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov expressed hope that flights between Russia and Georgia, which had been suspended in 2019, would soon resume. The idea was quickly backed by the ruling Georgian Dream Party, which is sympathetic to Russia. But while the ruling party may have shared Lavrov’s hopes, the possible move sparked a wave of criticism from both the public and Georgia’s President Salome Zurabishvili, who tweeted that the move was a provocation:
Despite the resistance of the Georgian people, Russia has landed its unwelcome flight in Tbilisi#No2Flights2Russia 🚫✈️
— Salome Zourabichvili (@Zourabichvili_S) May 19, 2023
Four months later, Lavrov’s wish was granted when the first flight from Russia arrived at Tbilisi International Airport on May 19, sparking mass public protests both at the airport and in front of the national parliament building. The flight restrictions were lifted on May 10, 2023 by order of Russian President Vladimir Putin, which included lifting and implementing 20-year-old entry restrictions a 90-day visa-free program for Georgian citizens visiting Russia.
Hundreds of protesters have gathered at Tbilisi airport to receive the first flight arriving from Russia since the flight ban between the two countries was lifted last week.
📸Mariam Nikuradze/OC Media pic.twitter.com/JCiHKpyLYU
— OC Media (@OCMediaorg) May 19, 2023
Demonstrators just burned photos of Putin and Lavrov in front of the Georgian parliament. You will now march to the Georgian Dream office. Today’s protest is smaller as nothing was planned until next week, but some people came anyway. The protests will resume next week. pic.twitter.com/YFAdWybx6X
— Mariam Nikuradze (@mari_nikuradze) May 21, 2023
The move put Georgia’s longstanding EU aspirations in the spotlight. Peter Stano, an EU spokesman, said: “The EU regrets Tbilisi’s decision to resume flights, which has raised ‘concerns’ about Georgia’s path to the EU and its commitment to stated foreign policy positions.”
Both Russian and Georgian airlines will now carry passengers between the two countries. According to a report by OC Media, “another Russian airline, Red Wings, will offer Sochi-Tbilisi-Sochi and Moscow-Kutaisi-Moscow flights three times a week.” After the first flight and the announcement that two Georgian airlines will discontinue their flights to Russia will resume, numerous demonstrators also gathered in front of the offices of Georgian Airways.
Flights between Georgia and Russia have been banned since 2019 by order of President Putin after Russian lawmaker Sergei Gavrilov visited the country in June 2019. A group of protesters stormed the parliament building in the capital, Tbilisi, just as Gavrilov was preparing to address lawmakers from Christian Orthodox countries from the lectern. As a result, there were clashes between demonstrators and the police. More than 200 people were injured.
Opposing points of view
Despite the criticism, the ruling Georgian Dream party is confident that the resumption of flights will be beneficial, especially for Georgians living in Russia, who will not have to look for alternative routes to travel home. According to United Nations estimates, about 450,000 Georgian citizens lived in Russia in 2020. “They know that flights are only possible in one direction. Georgia was sanctioned. If that decision is made on their part, I don’t see anything wrong with it. On the contrary, it can be good for our country. From the point of view that up to a million of our compatriots live in Russia, it should be good, and direct flights will even make it easier for them to travel,” Georgian Dream Secretary General Tbilisi Mayor Kakha Kaladze said in January 2023, loudly Report from Interpressnews.ge.
Meanwhile, protesters who gathered in front of the airport on May 19 told journalists that the move means the Georgian government is cooperating with the Kremlin. “This is a humiliation for Georgians who are on Ukraine’s side and we will not tolerate this situation,” 49-year-old Lana Gvinjilia told France 24.
Public desperation and anti-Russian sentiment were reflected in the reactions of opposition politicians. The opposition leader Droa, Elene Khoshtaria, accused the ruling government of “treason”. While the leader of the opposition United National Movement, Levan Khabeishvili said Georgia is on the way to becoming “a Russian province”.
For the ruling government, however, the criticism at home and abroad was unfounded. According to Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili, who gave a briefing on May 19, the resumption of flights was “only about economic and trade relations”. It added that only airlines not subject to Western sanctions would be allowed to serve the route.
Separate reports of the attendance of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s daughter, who is on an international sanctions list, at a wedding in eastern Georgia also drew criticism. According to reports from OC Media, at least 20 people – including leaders of opposition factions – have been arrested for protesting the visit of Lavrov’s daughter and relatives. “The activists in Kvareli [Lake Resort in Kakheti] “We protested the wedding of Mika (Moshe) Vinokurov, Lavrov’s daughter’s brother-in-law, according to social media posts published by the groom,” OC Media reported.
Georgia’s dangerous balancing act
Some analysts have questioned the decision, wondering if Russia has a stance on lifting visa requirements for Georgians and resuming flights. “The most obvious motive in this case would be to drive a wedge between Georgia – which wants to join both NATO and the EU – and the West,” wrote journalist Vladimir Solovyov in his overview for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Other reasons Solovyov cites include exploiting tensions between Georgia and its western allies, which are affecting Georgia’s relations with Ukraine, and Russia’s aspirations to keep the dominant “Georgian Dream” in power for as long as possible .
The latter point was also mentioned by Thomas de Waal, a leading expert on the region. In a recent interview with The New York Times, de Waal said, “The top priority of this administration right now is regime survival, and it is highly transactional in that regard.”
However, the risks of strengthening ties with Russia could jeopardize Georgian Dream’s aspirations to remain in power. According to Alexander Atasuntsev, an independent journalist specializing in post-Soviet affairs: “All in all, the gains of the Georgian Dream from the rapprochement with Moscow are quite vague, while the risks are very real.” Atasuntsev says the risks are mirrored reflected in a series of “illogical and unforced decisions” made by the Georgian Dream recently. Attempting to pass Georgia’s own “foreign agents” law in early March 2023 is one of them. After days of mass protests, the ruling Georgian Dream government announced it would withdraw the bill, in a major victory for civil society actors and protesters. Another questionable decision by the Georgian Dream was to quit the European Socialist Party after it criticized the ruling party’s decision to attend the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Hungary in early May.
Georgia will hold the next round of parliamentary elections in 2024. And according to Atasuntsev, the impact of these and other controversial decisions by the ruling government in Georgia, particularly regarding its courtship with Russia, could be reflected in the results of the vote. That, and the EU’s potential refusal to “grant Georgia candidate status because of its excessive flirtation with Moscow,” could come at a higher cost for the ruling party.