Reward from Putin: Moscow cancels visas for Georgia and renews direct flights

Reward from Putin: Moscow cancels visas for Georgia and renews direct flights
Georgian protesters against the foreign agents law in March. / bne IntelliNews
By Tornike Mandaria in Tbilisi May 11, 2023

After 23 years, Russia has lifted visa requirements for Georgian citizens and restored direct flights between the two countries. 

This move is widely regarded as the Kremlin’s reward for the Georgian government’s restrained stance on the Ukraine war and its "anti-Western propaganda". In recent months, representatives of the Georgian government have often received praise from Moscow, including from Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

As of May 15, 2023, Georgian citizens can enter Russia without a visa for up to 90 days every 180 days. Georgia unilaterally lifted visa restrictions for Russian citizens in 2012.

Maria Zakharova, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, stated that this decision aligns with Russia's commitment to facilitating communication between Russian and Georgian citizens, despite the absence of diplomatic relations.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has also reversed the ban on direct air flights to Georgia. According to the Russian Ministry of Transport, Russian airlines will operate seven direct flights per week from Moscow to Tbilisi and back.

Kremlin propagandist Margarita Simonyan, editor-in-chief of broadcaster RT, praised the move, highlighting Georgia's refusal to vote for Western sanctions and its resistance to opening a "second front" against Russia.

Georgian Minister of Foreign Affairs Ilia Darchiashvili welcomed the decision to restore direct flights, emphasising the humanitarian aspect of the decision for Georgian citizens with family ties in Russia. 

Deputy Minister of Economy Mariam Kvrivishvili explained that Georgia would remain committed to international sanctions imposed on Russia and would not accept sanctioned airlines.

However, President Salome Zurabishvili, who has become a critic of the government, condemned the Kremlin's move as provocative and unacceptable as long as Russia continues its aggression against Ukraine and occupies Georgian territory. She called for the country’s Security Council to be convened, arguing that Moscow’s move goes against Georgia's interests and dignity.

“Another Russian provocation! Resuming direct flights and lifting visa ban with Georgia is unacceptable as long as Russia continues its aggression on Ukraine and occupies our territory!”  she wrote on Twitter.

Significant warming of relations

For years, Georgia had been seen as a leader in Western integration among the former Soviet bloc countries and as a country with one of the worst bilateral relations with its former overlord.

In 2000, Russia revoked visa-free travel for Georgian citizens, and diplomatic relations were severed after the 2008 August War over the breakaway region of South Ossetia. Russia still occupies 20% of Georgia’s internationally recognised territory. The European Court of Human Rights recently ordered Russia to pay €130mn to Georgia for crimes committed during the war.

In 2019, Putin banned direct flights after large-scale protests erupted in Tbilisi over the visit of Russian Duma deputy Sergei Gavrilov. His visit to the Georgian capital, which included his sitting in the parliamentary speaker’s chair, sparked public outrage and resulted in his expulsion from the country.

Georgian society remains predominantly anti-Russian due to historical tensions, including mass deportations of Georgians in 2006 and the 2008 war. An overwhelming majority of Georgians still support EU membership and view Russia as a significant political and economic threat. According to a public opinion poll conducted by the International Republican Institute (IRI), 89% of Georgian citizens support EU membership, while 87% consider Russia the greatest political threat and 76% view it as the most significant economic threat.

However, recently there has been a significant warming of relations between Moscow and Tbilisi despite its invasion of Ukraine, following overtures by Georgia's ruling party, Georgian Dream, which was founded by oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili, who made his fortune in Russia.

The current Georgian government has even promoted conspiracy theories suggesting that Western powers are attempting to draw Georgia into conflict with Russia. This rhetoric has strained relations with Western partners, particularly after US sanctions were imposed against high-profile Georgian judges for "significant corruption." 

Moreover, the government has tried to enact restrictive legislation resembling Russia's "foreign agents" law, aimed at civil society and media organisations that rely on foreign funding for more than 20% of their budgets.

Following Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Georgia has also expanded its trade relations with Russia. The market structure has dramatically changed, with Russia being the primary supplier of fuel imports, accounting for 67% of the total flow. The primary imports from Russia to Georgia are petroleum and petroleum oils, an increase of 273%, valued at $169mn, and natural gas, an increase of 114%, valued at $75mn.

Since the Ukraine invasion, over 100,000 Russian citizens have sought refuge in Georgia. The restoration of direct flights is expected to increase migration and commercial activity, leading to even greater economic dependence on Russia and giving Moscow potential leverage over Georgian affairs.

The Georgian government's recent actions have therefore raised questions about its commitment to its Western allies and its own citizens' EU aspirations. 

Georgia is anticipating an update regarding its EU candidacy status later this year, with the government claiming that the country is on course to meet the milestones set out by the EU. EU officials, however, have been less than fulsome in their praise for the government’s efforts.

There is a “real divergence” between the Georgian government’s statements and the concrete steps it has taken to meet the European Union’s milestones for candidate status, Katarina Mathernova, Deputy Director General for Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations, said in March.