Moscow decided to abolish the visa regime and lift the ban on direct travel to Georgia as of 15 May. Russian air company “Azimuth” and Georgian flag carrier “Georgian Airways” got cleared from both sides to launch the flights.
Why is that controversial?
- The Georgian Prime Minister and ruling GD officials hailed the development as good for the economy and tourism and benefiting ethnic Georgians and Georgian citizens living in Russia.
- Opposition and some civic groups criticized the initiative on the grounds of national security, passenger safety, and, crucially, said it would pose an additional obstacle to Georgia’s quest to join the EU.
Why is the EU reaction a concern?
In June 2022, Georgia got the long-awaited “membership perspective” in the EU, but not the candidacy. By the end of 2023, the EU has to decide whether the Georgian government met the 12 conditions set by Brussels.
In the meantime, the government has been rolling back democracy:
- Opposition TV channel leader remains in prison on what civil society and official watchdogs consider trumped-up charges;
- Treatment of the imprisoned former president, Mikheil Saakashvili, has raised concerns of politically-motivated vendetta.
- The attempt to pass the Russia-inspired “foreign agents law” targeting CSOs and media has irked pro-European Georgians and the country’s Western allies.
- Four Georgian justices have been placed on the U.S. visa sanctions list due to concerns over their involvement in significant corruption.
Tbilisi has been increasingly aggressive in its attacks against the representatives of EU institutions, especially the EU parliament, clashed with Ukrainian officials, and, finally, refused to align themselves with most sanctions against Russia.
What is the EU policy on Russian flights and carriers?
- The EU airspace is closed for all aircraft registered in Russia or owned, fully or partially, by Russian citizens, even if they hold a second EU passport.
- The Western-made Russian aircraft is no longer serviced, and the supply of replacement parts from the EU and U.S. to Russia is banned. Companies circumventing these sanctions risk losing their operating licenses in the EU.
- Georgia’s partners have warned against such a scenario, given the possible sanctions exposure for companies at Georgia’s airports if they were to service aircraft subject to additional import and export controls.
What does the Georgian government say?
- The prime minister and members of his cabinet and party also brushed aside concerns that Georgia would be violating the international sanctions regime against Russia if flights resumed. The Georgian aviation authority said that the sanctioned carriers won’t operate in Georgia, even though the EU sanctions the origin and ownership rather than the individual airlines.
- “In general, our decisions must be in line with ICAO requirements, and therefore, of course, aircraft that do not have access to technical information, qualified repair, and maintenance, service, maintenance, cannot fly in Georgia’s space,” said the Minister of Economy.
What do we know about Azimuth?
- Azimuth was registered in February 2017 in Rostov-on-Don, south Russia, to service the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia. It started international flights in September 2018 within Eurasian Economic Union, and in December 2019, outside of it – to Munich and Tel Aviv. In 2020, it began flights to occupied Crimea, Ukraine.
- Two of the company owners are sanctioned: Vitaly Vantsev – the co-owner and member of the Board of Directors, co-owner of Moscow’s Vnukovo airport and Chairman of the Board of Directors, is sanctioned by Ukraine; Pavel Udod – Chairman of the Board of Directors of Azimuth, is sanctioned by Ukraine as a top manager of the backbone Russian company “which is involved in material (transport, logistics and other) support of actions that undermine or threaten the territorial integrity, sovereignty and independence of Ukraine.”
- Azimuth flies 15 Sukhoi Superjet-100s. These aircraft are used exclusively by Russian airlines. SSJ-100 has had technical issues in service with Russian carriers, several of whom, including Azimuth, were considering substituting the unreliable craft with Airbus 320s. After the sanctions, these orders had to be suspended.
- SSJ-100 has been in two fatal crashes and two other serious incidents since entering service.
- The SSJ-100 was powered by the Franco-Russian PowerJet SaM145 engine, which can no longer be serviced due to sanctions and is being replaced by the Russian-made Aviadvigatel PD-8. Russian products will also replace all of the plane’s Western-made electronics. The European Union Aviation Safety Agency withdrew the certification of this and other Russian jets in March 2022.
- There are multiple reports of the ongoing so-called “cannibalization” processes, whereby the serviceable components from an aircraft are removed and installed on another. Moreover, reports surfaced recently that Russian air companies are relaxing safety protocols and asking employees to refrain from reports of defects on aircraft.
Will Georgia be sanctioned because of the flights?
Operating flights with Russian Federation is Georgia’s sovereign decision. Indeed, other countries with an ambition to join EU- like Serbia and Turkey- fly to Russia.
However, the admission of the Russian carrier – rather than the simple fact of opening the flight route – may be of more serious concern:
- Breaking ranks with the EU on banning Russian-owned aircraft from its airspace is hurting the alignment of Georgia with EU common foreign and security policy, as was noted by the spokesperson for the EU External Affairs Commissioner. The dismal rate of alignment (31%) will have some impact on the assessment of Georgia’s readiness for the candidacy.
- The upcoming 11th package of EU sanctions against Russia is widely expected to target sanctions evasion by Russia through third countries. EC President Ursula von der Leyen explicitly mentioned “advanced tech products or aircraft parts” that may reach Russia via third countries. It is possible that allowing the flight and servicing of Russian-owned aircraft may fall under these sanctions.
- All companies that will provide technical services to the Russian-owned aircraft and company risk losing their European Aviation Authority (EASA) licenses.
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