The Georgian government’s long and slow drift toward improved relations with Russia has borne some fruit. Last week, President Vladimir Putin canceled visa requirements for Georgian citizens visiting Russia and lifted a flight ban between the two countries. The Georgian government likely achieved these results after refusing to impose sanctions on Russia over the war in Ukraine and prohibiting Russian opposition figures and independent journalists from entering the country.
- The first reports that Moscow and Tbilisi were considering a restoration of direct flights appeared late last year, but no one expected such a quick decision from Moscow. On May 10, Putin signed two separate decrees that canceled visa requirements for Georgian citizens visiting Russia and lifted a ban on direct flights between the countries. This is arguably Russia’s first serious attempt to improve relations with Georgia during Putin’s time in power.
- There are different background stories for the two decrees. In 2000, Russia and Georgia introduced visas for each other’s citizens, but in 2012 then-president of Georgia Mikheil Saakashvili removed visa requirements for Russians. This put the citizens of the two countries on a very unequal footing. To visit Russia, Georgians were required to go through a long, complex visa process, while Russians could stay in Georgia for up to 365 days with no visa or registration requirements – the most open travel requirements for Russians anywhere in the world.
- The flight ban also has a complicated back story. After Saakashvili came to power in 2004, whenever Russia and Georgia found themselves in a dispute, Moscow suspended flights for at least a year. This happened after the 2006 spy scandal, after the Russo-Georgian war in 2008, and finally in 2019 following anti-Russian protests in Tbilisi, which were sparked after a member of a Russian State Duma delegation to Georgia sat in the speaker’s chair of Georgia’s parliament. Flight bans hurt Georgia considerably as the number of Russian tourists visiting the country fell.
- Putin’s decrees have sparked outrage among Georgia’s pro-Western youth. Likewise, President Salome Zurabishvili (Georgia is a parliamentary republic, where the president has a ceremonial rather than executive function) described the decision as a provocation “unacceptable as long as Russia continues its aggression on Ukraine and occupies our territory.” However, opposition protests were unimpressive and could hardly be compared to the size of spring demonstrations against a proposed law on “foreign agents.”
- Georgian Dream, the current ruling party, has long been suspected of secretly holding a pro-Russia stance (an openly pro-Moscow party would have little hope of electoral success in a country that was at war with Russia just 15 years ago). The party, associated with billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, who made his fortune in Russia, came to power in 2012. Before the war in Ukraine, there was little reason to suspect sympathy toward the Kremlin. However, since Feb. 2022 that has changed: Georgia did not join Western countries by imposing direct sanctions on Russia, Ukraine claims Tbilisi will not offer even symbolic support against the invasion, and in March the government tried to pass a law very similar to the Russian law on “foreign agents.” Moreover, the Georgian authorities have regularly denied entry into the country to Russian independent journalists and opposition activists.
- Any Georgian government has few options other than to try to rebuild relations with Russia – and not just because Russian forces occupying South Ossetia are positioned just 100 km from Tbilisi. Even without direct air links, Russians are the second largest group of tourists in Georgia – and tourism is worth 8% of the country’s GDP and 71% of revenue from service exports. In 2022, Russia accounted for 13.1% of Georgia’s international trade, second only to Turkey.
- However, sooner or later the Georgian authorities will face the same problem as their Ukrainian counterparts. Good relations with the current Russian regime are incompatible with any real steps towards the EU and NATO, and 81% of the population supports closer ties with the West. Plus, Georgia’s constitution explicitly tasks the authorities with integrating the country with the EU and NATO.
Why the world should care
Russia is desperately seeking allies among former Soviet republics. Were it not for the war, it’s hard to imagine the Georgian authorities negotiating such significant concessions. However, Tbilisi’s long-term strategy is not clear – even in the short term, Georgia is at risk of facing secondary sanctions for cooperation with Moscow.