Georgia Rapidly Cozying Up to Russia and Moving Away From the West
Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 20 Issue: 85
On May 19, the first flight of a Russian airline landed in Tbilisi officially marking the resumption of air traffic between Georgia and Russia. Yet, this development has produced mixed reactions in Georgia, with Georgian society voicing their displeasure through protests (YouTube, May 19) and the ruling elite feeling rather satisfied with the results. Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili argued that the resumption of air travel will serve to strengthen the country’s economy and will bring benefits to the Georgian people (Facebook.com/GaribashviliOfficial, May 19). Georgian President Salome Zourabichvili, who, in contrast to the Georgian Dream government, takes a more principled position on Russia, lamented on Twitter: “Despite the opposition of the Georgian people, Russia has landed its unwelcome flight in Tbilisi” (Twitter.com/Zourabichvili, May 19). With this, Georgian society fears that the country’s pro-Russian authorities have already entered a dangerous phase of accelerated rapprochement with Moscow.
Russia has confirmed that it wants Georgia to become a hub for the regular travel of Russians to Europe. The vice president of the Russian Union of Travel Industry, Dmitry Gorin, stated that flights by Russian airline Red Wings from Moscow to Kutaisi will allow Russians to use this airport for transfers to third countries, including those in Europe (RIA Novosti, May 19). Such a development means that Georgia will be among those countries helping Russia bypass Western sanctions. Thus, at a press briefing on May 22, United States Department of State spokesperson Matthew Miller stated that the US is concerned about the resumption of direct flights between Russia and Georgia, adding that “it could mean companies in Georgian airports could be at risk for sanctions. Now is not the time to increase engagement with Russia” (State.gov, May 22). On May 24, alluding to Georgia, among others, North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg stated: “We also expect non-NATO Allies to adhere to the sanctions and to not make it easier for Russia to finance and to organise the war of aggression against Ukraine” (Nato.int, May 24).
Along with Russian airlines, Georgian Airways also resumed flights to Russia. However, according to the head of the airline, Tamaz Gaiashvili, the high expectations for the resumption of air travel between Russia and Georgia have yet to come true, as flights have not even been half full. Gaiashvili also practically announced that, this summer, his airline will start transporting Russians through Georgia onward to Europe (Radiotavisupleba.ge, May 25). Overall, this reveals that the rhetoric of the Georgian authorities arguing that the resumption of air travel with Russia is in the interests of the Georgian people amounts to little more than a bluff.
The Georgian authorities have also denied reports, which were allegedly leaked to the Armenian media on May 22 (Armenpress, May 22), that regular cargo transfers have already resumed between the Georgian Port of Batumi and the Russian Port of Novorossiysk, which is under sanctions.
Furthermore, government officials deny that they knew in advance about the presence of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s daughter, who is under Western sanctions. In response, at the location where she was celebrating the wedding of a close relative, a protest was thrown into action (Mtavari.tv, May 20), as Georgians were angry that the daughter of one of the authors of the occupation of Georgia was spending time in their country. That same day, Zourabichvili made an appeal to the nation and congratulated the population on the fact that Lavrov’s daughter left the country prematurely (Facebook.com/SalomeZourabichvili, May 20).
The Georgian authorities have remained silent on how she even entered the country and why the Russian elite decided to celebrate this wedding in Georgia, with which they are officially in a state of war. Much to the surprise of Georgian society, special units of the Georgian police were tasked with guarding the wedding and Lavrov’s relatives (Tvpirveli.ge, May 19).
For its part, the Russian media has largely ignored the protests against the resumption of air travel and against the presence of Lavrov’s daughter in the country. This breaks from tradition, as, generally, Russian propagandists react painfully and openly to anti-Russian protests in Georgia, In truth, it was after similar protests that air traffic between the two countries was terminated in 2019. This time, Kremlin propaganda has done everything possible to portray to the domestic Russian audience that every Georgian citizen has been anxiously awaiting the resumption of air traffic as well as the arrival of more Russian citizens to the country. In this, Moscow has co-opted pro-Russian Georgians, who, on May 19 at Tbilisi International Airport, ostentatiously thanked Putin in front of Russian media cameras (YouTube, May 19).
Dangerous behind-the-scenes ties between the Georgian authorities and the Kremlin are creating a critical situation for Georgia. Russian State Duma Deputy Sergei Gavrilov suggests that, after the resumption of direct flights between Moscow and Tbilisi, diplomatic relations will be restored (which were interrupted after the Russian invasion in 2008) and ambassador credentials will be exchanged once again (Rossiyskaya gazeta, May 18). Yet, in Georgia, it has been unacceptable in conditions where Russia already has two “embassies” in occupied Abkhazia and so-called “South Ossetia” to open a third embassy in Tbilisi.
Nevertheless, Russia has long-term plans for Georgia and, relying on the loyalty of the Georgian authorities, Moscow can go further in pursuing its interests in the South Caucasus. Since resuming flights, both Russian and Georgian government officials have already begun considering the resumption of railway traffic through Abkhazia. Such a development could, on the one hand, mean the recognition of Abkhazia’s sovereignty by Tbilisi, and, on the other, the deepening of Georgia’s confrontation with the West, as such a step would represent clear complicity in helping Russia bypass Western sanctions. In this, the Russians do not hide their true goals. Sergey Katyrin, president of the Russian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, has already stated: “It is necessary to organize rail transit through the territory of Abkhazia to Russia” (Rossiyskaya gazeta, May 12). Thus, Moscow’s goal is organize a transit route from Russia via Georgia to Iran.
It is highly probable that the Georgian authorities will support the implementation of these plans against the will of the Georgian people. The most likely scenario (and the prerequisites for this are already being outlined) is that the Georgian Dream government will offer the people the new “dream” of supposedly initiating the process of restoring Georgia’s territorial integrity and, under this pretext, will justify any steps toward Russia, including the restoration of diplomatic relations and the resumption of railway transit through Abkhazia. Assuredly, these measures will not only be unpopular to broad swaths of the Georgian population, but they will also hurt Georgia’s prospects for greater integration with the West and membership in the European Union.