Russia and Georgia are working to improve bilateral relations

The recent decree by Russian President Vladimir Putin to review the visa regime for Georgian citizens and to resume Tbilisi-Moscow flights between the two capitals from May 15 has caused resentment among European Union members. Putin signed the decree waiving visa requirements for Georgian citizens. In another decree, the president lifted the ban on Russian airlines from operating flights to Georgia and selling tours to the country.

According to the document, “from May 15, 2023, citizens of Georgia can enter and leave the Russian Federation on the basis of valid identity documents without a visa.” In addition, a decree was issued to lift the restrictions on flights to Georgia that have been in place since July 2019 .

Georgian President Salome Zurabichvili called the decisions provocative, while Georgian Foreign Minister Ilia Darchiashvili said he welcomed visa-free travel and direct flights. Russia introduced visas for Georgians in 2000. Georgia waived visa requirements for Russians in 2012.

According to several media reports, the United States and the European Union have warned Tbilisi about the risks of sanctions if flights with Russia are resumed. Both Russia and Georgia have had conflicted relations over the years. Diplomatic relations between the two countries were severed from Tbilisi in 2008 after Russia recognized the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Like all other former Soviet republics, Georgia has certain reservations about its political relations with Russia. In a number of post-Soviet republics, they prefer dealings with the United States and the European Union. The Russian authorities are aware of these facts and trends, while the policy is still considered or is considered to be harsh and dominating.

Speaking at the Valdai Discussion Club’s third Central Asia conference on May 16, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Galusin said some Central Asian countries and the former Soviet republics showed little risk-taking and there were also signs they might impose sanctions on Russia.

However, he warned that any artificial severing of relations with Russia could do more harm than the cost of any secondary sanctions. The senior Russian diplomat stressed that Russia is striving to consistently intensify its strategic partnership with these countries across the region. As most of them go through economic transition, more and more foreign investments are pouring in from the United States and Europe.

Nevertheless, Prime Minister of Georgia Irakli Garibashvili expressed the hope that the European partners would understand the importance of the decision to continue trade with Russia, since trade is one of the common interests and proximity factor for Georgia.

Georgian Airways will start its Tbilisi-Moscow flights on May 20th. The Civil Aviation Authority has already approved Georgian Airways for seven weekly flights to Russia.

The Russian Ministry of Transport said that after the restrictions are lifted, Russian airlines will also fly between Moscow and Tbilisi seven times a week on domestic aircraft. Red Wings, whose fleet consists mostly of Russian SSJ100s, was quick to announce that they were ready to begin flights to Georgia if they could get the necessary permits. Three Russian airlines have requested direct scheduled flights to three Georgian airports, including Tbilisi, Kutaisi and Batumi.

Resuming flights between Georgia and Russia in 2023 could bring additional revenue of US$300-400 million to Georgia’s tourism sector, Georgian Deputy Prime Minister and Economy Minister Levan Davitashvili said at a briefing after a government meeting on May 15.

Noting the achievements in the tourism sector in the post-pandemic period, Davitashvili expressed hope that the influx of travelers from Russia, as well as from other countries, especially neighboring Azerbaijan, will increase even more this year.

The deputy prime minister stressed that refusing direct flights between Russia and Georgia was not “pragmatic”. That the country’s population would positively assess the authorities’ efforts to improve the country’s economy. At the same time, Davitashvili stressed that the country’s course towards joining the European Union remains unchanged.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia’s relations with the former Soviet republics face notable difficulties due to several factors. Georgia, like all former Soviet republics, has its own political feelings, stances and approaches towards Russia, which has been conducting a “special military operation” in Ukraine since February 2022 and is currently subject to a string of tough sanctions.