The first Russian plane operated by Azimuth Airlines landed at Tbilisi international airport amid loud protests against resuming direct flights with Russia. Adding to the commotion was the fact that among the passengers were well-known pro-Russian political figures with known Russian connections, who told the media on arrival that they had “lobbied” for the lifting of the visa ban and deserved the credit.
On May 10, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed the decrees lifting the visa regime with Georgia and the ban on direct flights from May 15. The ban was imposed four years ago, in 2019, after the anti-Russian ‘Gavrilov’s Night’ protests in Tbilisi.
The opposition reacted to the lifting of the ban with fierce criticism arguing it damages prospects of obtaining EU candidate’s status at the end of the year and saying the GD government was rewarded for its anti-Western, pro-Russian policy. Georgian CSOs also criticized the Georgian authorities for giving flight permits to Russian carriers, saying it was “a direct sabotage of the country’s status as a candidate for EU membership.”
President of Georgia Salome Zurabishvili had called the decision to open direct flights “a provocation,” tweeting that the flight that landed in Tbilisi “despite the opposition of the Georgian people” was “not welcome.”
Meanwhile, the Georgian government, while maintaining that it had nothing to do with the Kremlin’s decision, said it welcomed the lifting of the visa regime and the opening of direct flights to Moscow as a positive humanitarian measure and a step in the interests of the Georgian state and people.
The reaction of Georgia’s Western partners was one of dismay and disappointment as they reiterated their warnings that if direct flights resumed, companies at Georgian airports could face sanctions for servicing the aircraft, which are subject to import and export controls.
EU called the resumption of flights “very regrettable,” the U.S. State Department said companies at Georgian airports could be at risk for sanctions,” while the U.S. Ambassador to Georgia warned against “accepting a gift” from the aggressor Russia and called on the Georgians to ponder about the price for such a concession.
A planned move
The ruling party says Moscow took a unilateral decision. Still, the way in which the issuance of the flight permits was expedited and the actions taken in advance to service the flights suggest Tbilisi knew about the impending decision.
TAV Georgia, a daughter company of the Turkish TAV, which runs Tbilisi and Batumi international airports, said it won’t service the Russian aircraft – apparently for fear of sanctions. TAV Georgia told the media that a Georgian company will provide ground handling services.
This company – “Aero Handling Georgia” – was apparently set up on April 21, in anticipation of the Kremlin move. It has two founders: one of them, David Kvaratskhelia, owns 60% of the shares and is registered as the general director. Another, David Tsivtsivadze, holds the remaining 40% of the shares. Kvaratskhelia is the son of Valeri Kvaratskhelia, former MP, the head of the Russian-Georgian Friendship Centre, and leader of the marginal Neutral Georgia party. Tsivtsivadze, the media found, is registered at the same address as Tamaz Gaiashvili, owner of Georgian Airways, a national carrier that will also operate direct flights to Moscow.
Incidentally, Valeri Kvaratskehlia was on board the first flight and spoke to journalists on arrival, claiming credit. So was Dimitri Lordkipanidze, head of the Primakov Center for Russo-Georgian Relations, founded in 2019 by the Kremlin’s soft-power arm, the Gorchakov Fund, which is sanctioned by the EU.
Shifting the blame
The ruling party officials have pushed against the criticism, saying the restoration of flights is the reversal of the Russian sanction imposed in 2019. Whatever the motives of such decisions are, the party leadership argues, it benefits the Georgian citizens. The vice-speaker of the Georgian Parliament, Gia Volski, told the public broadcaster that even if Russia serves its own political interest in its confrontation with the West by resuming flights, “Georgia should get the maximum of dividends” from the process.
Prime Minister Garibashvili argued his cabinet’s policy is “pragmatic” and that “since there is a war in Ukraine, [it does not mean] we should stop everything, worsen the condition of our people and forget about [our] economy and trade.”
The officials say Georgia will comply with the international sanctions against the Russian carriers but will not impose restrictions. The Parliament Speaker, Shalva Papuashvili said this fits within the policy of “not imposing bilateral sanctions against Russia.”
The GD officials also tried to reverse the edge of the argument against the United States. PM Garibashvili said, “Western countries – after our  war [with Russia], when our Georgian boys died, we shed blood, and not only in Georgia, but in NATO missions, in Afghanistan, in Iraq – no one has changed their policy toward Russia,” and asked rhetorically, “if Ukraine’s war is war [for our allies], why wasn’t ours?!?”
The ruling party chair Irakli Kobkahidze argued that instead of criticizing Georgia for serving its own interests by allowing Russian flights, the U.S. should abolish the visas for Georgian citizens, and conclude a free trade agreement. The government-affiliated social media accounts have been amplifying the message that the U.S. discriminates against Georgians, granting fewer U.S. visas than to the citizens of the neighboring countries.
The ruling party also accused the opposition of hypocrisy, saying their criticism is invalidated by the fact that it was the administration of the United National Movement that granted visa-free travel to Russians in 2012 and promoted bilateral trade despite the 2008 war. Prime Minister Garibashvili said, “Today, these [same] people are deceiving and insulting our society… what was permissible [to them] before is now inadmissible. Where is the logic?” he asked rhetorically.
“Doing everything for de-occupation”
In a new twist to its usual party line, the Georgian Dream has vaguely dangled the possibility of progress on Georgia’s occupied provinces as a potential end-game of the detente with Russia.
The ruling party-affiliated social media accounts and TV have hinted at the possibility of unspecified ‘progress’ towards de-occupation as the news of Russia lifting the visa ban spread. The party leadership carefully picked this message: Tbilisi Mayor, Kakha Kaladze said, “Our government, with this policy, is doing everything to achieve de-occupation.”
The ruling party spokesperson, Mamuka Mdinaradze, refuting the opposition’s criticism about the flights, argued for pragmatism in policy and added, “Abkhazia and South Ossetia should return [to Georgia], and this can be done only through one means – pragmatic policy.”
Party chair, Irakli Kobakhidze, fielded a question from the Public Broadcaster on the possibility of “new steps” in relations with Russia after the Kremlin decided to lift the visa ban and allow direct flights to Tbilisi and claimed his party’s actions are about “strengthening the country’s sovereignty” and “at least keeping this perspective related to the restoration of territorial integrity.”
This message of hope for Russia’s further goodwill follows on the heels of the party’s scare campaign about the alleged plans of the “global party of war” to open a “second front” of war in Ukraine in Georgia, implicating unnamed Western states and political forces in a conspiracy to derail peace in Georgia.
What do we hear from Russia?
There have been signs that Moscow is just as willing to exploit the new rhetoric of rapprochement with Georgia. Just as the first direct flight landed in Tbilisi, Sergei Gavrilov, member of the Russian Duma and the leader of the Interparliamentary Assembly of Orthodoxy, whose appearance in the Georgian Parliament building triggered the 2019 protests, told Rossiyskaya Gazeta: “We believe that the next step in the development of Russian-Georgian relations will be the restoration of diplomatic relations and exchange of ambassadors.”
“The possibility of such a step is indicated by Georgia’s restrained position on the Ukrainian issue and its adherence to democratic principles. Close ties link our peoples, we have common spiritual and moral values and culture,” Gavrilov added.
Squeezed by sanctions, Moscow is apparently eyeing with interest the prospect of re-opening trade links through Georgia. Sergey Katyrin, president of the Russian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, spoke of the need to start rail transit through the territory of occupied Abkhazia, saying that “the railway transit on the Silk Road route” linking Russia with China and Iran was “of vital importance” given “the situation that we have with the transit of the Russian goods through Turkey.” He argued that such a possibility would allow concluding long-term contracts on the supply of Russian oil and gas “at stable and predictable prices.”
The Georgian government has denied that re-opening of the rail link is being discussed. Still, whatever the feasibility of Russia’s economic plans is, the machinery of rapprochement seems to be in motion: the website of the Gorchakov Fund proudly advertises a competitive selection process for participation in Georgian-Russian Dialogue-2023 for young experts and activists to be held in early July.