The ministers of foreign affairs of Georgia and Russia, David Zalkaliani and Sergei Lavrov, respectively, met on September 26, in New York, on the sidelines of the 74th Session of the United Nations General Assembly (Kommersant, September 27). This was the first ministerial-level meeting between the two countries since the Five Day War of 2008, when Russian troops occupied the former Georgian autonomies of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
The conversation at the UN headquarters did not bring any new results. But two days before sitting down with his Georgian counterpart, Foreign Minister Lavrov told the Moscow daily Kommersant that the Russian government could soon lift the ban on direct flights from Russia to Georgian resorts (Kommersant, September 25). The ban was introduced by decree of President Vladimir Putin in July, after mass protests in Georgia against the ruling Georgian Dream (GD) party’s policies, which the opposition considers “capitulatory” to Moscow (see EDM, June 24).
Since 2013, when the GD coalition, headed by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, came to power, Moscow had lifted the total economic and transport embargo that it imposed on the government of Georgia’s former president Mikheil Saakashvili. For the last six years, the Russian Federation consistently led the way in total imports of Georgian products: wine, mineral water, fruits and vegetables (Kommersant, August 19). The number of Russian tourists to Georgia also quickly grew year after year. Many Georgian hoteliers and other participants in the tourism business took loans from banks specifically to deal with the influx of Russian tourists. Georgia’s tourism sector is worth approximately $2.5–3 billion a year and creates tens of thousands of jobs in a country where unemployment is a major social problem.
The June ban on direct flights between the two countries has harmed Georgia’s tourism industry, though the hit was not mortal to the economy and social stability of the Caucasian country. The number of Russian tourists has certainly decreased significantly (Kommersant, August 5, October 6), but the total number of foreign visitors to Georgia continues to grow, albeit at a slower pace. Many travel agencies, with government support and thanks to significant financial assistance from the state budget, were able to attract tourists from Asian and European countries (1tv.ge October 4; Imedinews.ge October 6).
Expert Tengiz Ablotia said, in a September 26 interview with this author, that Moscow’s recent statements about the possible lifting of the direct flight ban are not surprising, because the “air embargo” failed in its main goals. So far, it has not forced Tbilisi to back away from its foreign policy objective, reiterated by the GD government, to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). And it did not lead to mass unrest or demands to reestablish diplomatic relations with Russia.
“In 2013, Russia restored all economic relations with Georgia, including encouraging tourism, in order to ‘tightly tie’ Georgia to itself and ensure the maximum dependence of the Georgian economy on Russia,” Ablotia explained. “Georgia is already dependent on Russian markets, but not so much that this dependence turns into a ‘killer weapon’ against the Georgian government,” he noted. According to the expert, in the near future, the Russian government will lift the ban on air travel and wait for the moment when a blow to the Georgian economy or the threat of such a blow will become a determining factor for the Georgian authorities—perhaps, just before the 2020 parliamentary elections (Author’s interview, September 26).
Georgia’s opposition leaders believe that the GD’s “capitulation policy” only strengthens Russian aggression. “Moscow is restoring flights to make the Georgian economy even more vulnerable; but at the same time, [Russia] is strengthening its military presence in the occupied territories,” Sergo Ratiani, a member of parliament from the opposition European Georgia (EG) party said (Author’s interview, October 7). He recalled the recent decision of the Russian Ministry of Defense to allocate new weapons to the Abkhazian army (see EDM, September 25).
Other pro-Western politicians in Georgia believe that Moscow’s attempts to pressure Tbilisi are already yielding results (see EDM, July 31). One of the leaders of the United National Movement (UNM) party, parliamentary deputy Roman Gotsiridze, told the author that the GD had “sent a signal of loyalty to Vladimir Putin” by appointing former minister of internal affairs Giorgi Gakharia the new prime minister of the country (see EDM, September 16). A significant part of his life, including Gakharia’s business, was connected with Russia (Author’s interview, October 9).
With the approach of the 2020 elections, Moscow can be expected to keep increasing the pressure on Georgia, taking advantage of its economic vulnerability as well as the myriad problems that the West itself faces: from the internal situations in the United States and the European Union, to the wars in Ukraine and Syria.
The West regularly demonstrates political support for Georgia, using, among other things, military tools. In the South Caucasus country, military exercises Agile Spirit and Noble Partner are regularly held with the participation of thousands of military personnel of the US and other members of NATO (Agenda.ge, July 26, 2018 and July 27, 2019). Next year, Georgia is invited to take part in the North Atlantic Alliance’s largest European maneuvers in a quarter century. Moreover, a part of these maneuvers will take place on Georgian territory, as well as in Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and other countries neighboring Russia (Kommersant, October 8).
A few days ago, a North Atlantic Council (NAC) delegation headed by NATO Deputy Secretary General Rose Gottemoeller visited Georgia. In Tbilisi, Gottemoeller chaired the NATO-Georgia Commission. In her opening remarks, she declared that the NAC’s visit “is a clear demonstration of NATO’s ongoing commitment to Georgia.” She also underscored that the Alliance “provides both practical and political support to Georgia’s ongoing domestic and defense-sector reforms” (Civil.ge, October 3, 4).
But is this rhetoric enough, and can it actually help Tbilisi in its political-military-economic standoff with Moscow? According to Georgian defense expert, David Avalishvili, “[E]verything is relative, and it is important to take into account the real risks faced by Russia’s neighbors, including Georgia.” He explained, “[P]olitical support from the West, including the rhetoric of NATO leaders, will not help Georgia solve the problem of occupation and withdrawal of Russian forces from Abkhazia and South Ossetia. But it provides equilibrium on the ‘occupation line,’ where, despite numerous provocations, the ceasefire is maintained and the occupation forces do not dare to cross the ‘red line’ of seizing additional territories that would sever the ‘South Caucasian corridor’ ” (Author’s interview, October 10).
Regarding economic risks, the West provides huge assistance to Georgia: the EU opened its markets for Georgian goods by signing an agreement on a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA) (Agenda.ge, February 1). Negotiations are also ongoing on a free trade deal with the United States (Newsgeorgia.ge, April 5, 2017). However, the responsibility to exploit these opportunities and reduce Georgia’s economic dependence on the Russian Federation lies entirely with the sitting GD government.