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Georgia risks EU candidacy by restoring Russia flights

May 19, 2023

Russia's Vladimir Putin has lifted the ban on direct flights with Georgia and introduced a visa-free regime for Georgian nationals. Georgian authorities welcome the initiative; critics see it as "provocation" by Moscow.

Boarding pass and passport for an Azimuth flight to Tbilisi, Georgia
Russia has lifted a ban on direct air flights with Georgia and introduced a visa-free regime for Georgian nationalsImage: picture alliance/dpa/TASS

When the first flight from Moscow landed at Tbilisi International Airport on Friday after a four-year hiatus, protesters gathered holding banners reading "you are not welcome" and tried to break through a police cordon. Georgian media reported that some demonstrators and opposition figures were detained.

Tensions escalated when Lavrov's daughter Ekaterina Vinokurova, who is under US sanctions, reportedly arrived in Georgia for the wedding of one of her relatives. Georgian media reported that protestors tried to encircle the hotel where she is thought to be staying.

The resumption of the controversial flights came after Russian President Vladimir Putin signed decrees last week on the introduction of a visa-free regime for Georgian nationals and the restoration of direct flights with Georgia.

Direct air travel between the two countries was suspended in 2019 when Moscow unilaterally introduced a ban on the flights amid massive anti-Kremlin protests in the Georgian capital, sparked by the visit of Russian legislator Sergei Gavrilov to the Georgian parliament.

The ruling party Georgian Dream has welcomed the Russian president's initiative and granted permission to two Russian airlines and one Georgian to operate the flights.

"Everything that will make life, movement, and doing business easier for our citizens is, of course, positive and welcome," said Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili on May 11.

Discontent with the government's decision

Georgian pro-Western president, Salome Zourabichvili, who plays a ceremonial role in the parliamentary Republic of Georgia, had a different take on the restoration of direct flights. "Resuming direct flights and lifting the visa ban with Georgia is unacceptable as long as Russia continues its aggression on Ukraine and occupies our territory!" Zourabichvili wrote on Twitter.

Zourabichvili: Sense of solidarity with Ukraine

The discontent with the Georgian government's decision was shared by hundreds of protesters, who gathered at the airport and Friday and earlier this week at the parliament and at the office of Georgian Airways, the carrier that received authorization for flights with Russia.

Some of the protestors held banners reading, "Russian aircraft won't land us in the EU," signaling the fear that Georgia's long-awaited EU candidacy was at risk.

Why did Moscow decide to restore the flights?

Georgia is not just an attractive destination for Russian tourists, it's also currently a country of refuge for those who have fled Russia, particularly after the partial mobilization announced by Putin last September.

While Moscow has explained its decision as "a humanitarian solution" for its citizens, experts doubt this was solely down to easing logistics for Russians — but rather a strategic step driven by Russian national interests.

Russian deserters in Georgia

"Amid setbacks in Ukraine, the Kremlin has to demonstrate victory, especially when we talk about Georgia, a former Soviet bloc country that has already been a victim of Russia's aggression," Ghia Khukhashvili, a political expert and former adviser to the Georgian prime minister, told DW.

Khukhashvili added that while Russia was the initiator of the flight restoration, a "hidden loyalty that Georgian authorities demonstrate to the Kremlin allows Russia to accelerate and foster the rapprochement with Georgia."

Georgia's 'balanced approach' to Russia

While the Georgian government has condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine, it has not joined international sanctions over fears of negative economic consequences for Georgia. Russia is one of the country's major trading partners.

As Bidzina Lebanidze, a senior analyst at the Georgian Institute of Politics, explained, the country's deepening economic ties may manifest themselves in politics as well.

"Georgia does not have the luxury to focus only on the economic side and disregard the political risks associated with economic rapprochement with Russia. It is a well-known fact that Russia always instrumentalizes the economic dependency of small countries to gain political benefits from it," said Lebanidze.

Former prime minister of Georgia Bidzina Ivanishvili gesticulating while talking into a mic
Georgian Dream founder and former Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili is seen to be behind Georgia's neutral stance toward the war in UkraineImage: VANO SHLAMOV/AFP

The Georgian government has attracted criticism with its neutral stance toward the war in Ukraine, rising anti-Western rhetoric by the government and deepening relationship with Russia.

For that shift in foreign policy, critics point to the founder of the ruling party Georgian Dream and former Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, a billionaire who made his fortune in Russia in the 1990s. Ivanishvili has formally retired from politics, but is still believed to be pulling the strings.

While the ruling party has denied it is pursuing Moscow-oriented policies, its leaders say it has been been possible to discuss "various issues with Russia" beyond resuming flights. Experts explain such a balanced approach by the lack of security guarantees, but warn that it may have strategic consequences.

"It is important to remember that Georgia lacks any security umbrella from NATO, making it highly vulnerable to Russian military threats. However, there is a fine line between a prudent approach to Russia to minimize security risks on the one hand and alienating your major allies in the West on the other hand," added Lebanidze.

Russia connection 'raises concerns about Georgia's EU path'

The restoration of direct flights with Russia has sparked concerns about Georgia's prospects for receiving EU candidate status. Georgia applied for EU membership in March 2022, shortly after Russia launched the full-scale invasion of neighboring Ukraine.

"The EU regrets the decision by Georgia to resume flights to and from Russia," Peter Stano, an EU foreign affairs and security spokesperson, said at Tuesday's press briefing in Brussels, adding that it "raises concerns about Georgia's EU path."

MEP Marina Kaljurand addresses the European parliament from behind a lectern
'When deciding on candidacy status, we see the Georgian government and Georgian people as one': MEP Marina KaljurandImage: Dwi Anoraganingrum/Geisler-Fotopress/picture alliance

"Brussels looks at legal and statistical information, but EU candidacy status is a political decision above all. It is also based on what impression a country makes," said Marina Kaljurand, an Estonian MEP and head of the delegation on relations with the South Caucasus. She told DW that Ukraine and Moldova were not ready for candidate status but "war opened a window of opportunity for them, and their governments showed a strong political commitment to the EU path."

As indicated in National Democratic Institute polls from February, 81% of Georgians view EU and NATO membership as their top priority given the country's complicated history with Russia, which occupied 20% of its territory in the 2008 war.

In March, the Georgian Parliament tried to adopt a "foreign agent law," emulating a similar Russian law that has allowed the Kremlin to crack down on dissent. Brussels said the draft law was incompatible with EU membership. Pro-EU protests in Tbilisi showed the discord between the government's actions and the will of the Georgian people.

"In Brussels, it is not a dilemma; when deciding on candidacy status, we see the Georgian government and Georgian people as one; we cannot take only Georgian people without its government to the EU. Georgia is a democracy; it is not North Korea or Russia; they have freedom of political election," said Kaljurand.

Edited by: Lucy James

Correction, May 19, 2023: This article has been amended to reflect that Marina Kaljurand is an Estonian MEP.