On Monday, May 15, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decree on a visa-free regime for Georgian citizens entered into force. The ban on direct flights between countries, introduced in 2019, has also been lifted.
Putin’s decision provoked a mixed reaction in Georgia. The ruling party Georgian Dream reacted positively to this decision by the Kremlin. Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili said in his comment that “all decisions that make life, travel and business easier for Georgian citizens are positive and welcome”.
Representatives of the pro-Western opposition find a visa-free regime with the Russian Federation acceptable, but oppose the restoration of air links with Russia. Opponents of the authorities call the “gifts from Putin” a “reward” for the ruling party’s withdrawal from the pro-Western course. The opposition also claims that Georgian Dream will isolate Georgia, jeopardizing the country’s European and Euro-Atlantic future.
President Salome Zurabishvili said any positive dynamics in relations with the Russian Federation during the “carnage” in Ukraine is “unacceptable” and that the restoration of air traffic at this stage is “totally unacceptable, inappropriate and untimely”.
Opponents of restoring air communications with Russia are planning a protest action in central Tbilisi on the evening of May 15. According to the organizers – civil activists, Georgia has long made a choice in favor of Europe, where the law prevails and human rights are protected, respectively, Georgian citizens should not “reconcile with the policy of rapprochement with Russia”, which, as they claim, is being pursued by the ruling party Georgian Dream”.
The EU urged Georgia to join the EU air sanctions against Russia and recalled that as a country awaiting EU candidate status, Georgia should “be vigilant “against any possible attempt by Russia to circumvent the sanctions imposed after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
A similar statement was made to the US State Department, noting that “now is not the time to intensify interaction with Russia.”
The Georgian authorities respond that a number of Western allies, including Israel and Turkey, have not stopped air traffic with Russia, while respecting international sanctions. As Georgian Economy Minister Levan Davitashvili said on May 15, the Georgian side is studying existing international practice. According to him, Tbilisi will not allow planes and companies under sanctions in Georgian airports.
Davitashvili added that flight requests had been received from Georgian airlines and several Russian airlines. The head of Georgia’s Ministry of Economy said the Georgian side is still studying the documents and will make a decision in the coming days.
“Russia remains an occupier… in the political part, we are decisive, intransigent… because the occupation is a problem for our relations. As for the business part, we are also consistent here,” Davitashvili told reporters.
In turn, the head of the Georgian Foreign Ministry, Ilya Darchiashvili, again stressed on May 15 that there was “not a single case” confirming that with the help of Georgia, “anyone who has been able to circumvent the sanctions”.
“We are in close coordination with our international partners and cooperate with them in the utmost transparency on the issue of sanctions,” said the Georgian Foreign Minister.
However, in Ukraine they perceived the latest events negatively and said that Russia offered Georgia “political compensation” for Tbilisi’s position on Ukraine and the slowdown in the country’s European integration.
“The Kremlin obtains concessions without taking responsibility for the grief it has caused the Georgian people… The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry is considering Vladimir Putin’s decision to cancel visas for Georgian citizens and restore air transport as compensation policy for the refusal of the current Georgian authorities to impose sanctions on Russia and for their slowing down of European integration,” said Oleg Nikolenko, spokesman for the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry.
Relations between Kiev and Tbilisi deteriorated after Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili announced on February 25, 2022 that he would not impose individual sanctions against Russia. This caused a negative reaction in Kiev, and President Volodymyr Zelenskyy recalled the Ukrainian ambassador from Georgia in protest.
Georgian authorities say they participate in all international financial sanctions against Russia and have also signed all international resolutions in support of Ukraine. At the same time, representatives of the Georgian leadership insist that the introduction of individual sanctions against the Russian Federation by Georgia will not affect the Russian economy, although at the same time it will cause significant harm to the Georgian economy.
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