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Georgia's Diplomatic Balancing Act Is Getting Harder To Pull Off

People protest the resumption of air links with Russia during the arrival of the first direct flight from Moscow to Tbilisi on May 19.
People protest the resumption of air links with Russia during the arrival of the first direct flight from Moscow to Tbilisi on May 19.

TBILISI -- Since the launch of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year, Georgia's government has tried to walk a thin line: to maintain its strong ties to the West while at the same time avoiding the wrath of a Russia on the warpath.

Now, the balancing act is facing its greatest challenge yet.

On May 10, Russia unexpectedly announced that it would restore direct flights to Georgia -- after suspending them in 2019 -- and cancel visa requirements for Georgians visiting Russia. Over a week later, on May 19, the first flight arrived from Moscow to Tbilisi's airport on Russia's Azimuth Airlines. Passengers on the inaugural flight, including some prominent Georgian pro-Russian activists as well as ordinary tourists, were greeted by a media scrum and hundreds of protesters.

The government of the ruling Georgian Dream party, which has faced accusations of appeasing Russia and failing to sufficiently support Ukraine, has argued the resumption of direct flights will boost tourism revenues and make life easier for Georgians who need to travel to Russia. It has sought to allay Western concerns by emphasizing that economic ties with Russia don't contradict the spirit of its relationship to the West and that they shouldn't affect the country's bid to join the European Union.

But it hasn't convinced Brussels.

"We regret Georgia's decisions to restart flights to and from Russia," EU spokesman Peter Stano said in a May 16 press briefing. The move "raises concerns about Georgia's EU path and Georgia's commitment to align with the EU decisions in foreign policy" that it had already undertaken when it signed an Association Agreement with the body in 2014, Stano added.

Passengers on the inaugural flight were greeted by a media scrum and hundreds of protesters.
Passengers on the inaugural flight were greeted by a media scrum and hundreds of protesters.

Georgian officials have complained that they are facing a double standard compared to other Western-friendly countries that still have direct flights to and from Russia, including Armenia, Azerbaijan, Turkey, and Israel. Moscow unilaterally canceled direct flights to Georgia in 2019 in retaliation against anti-Russian protests that year. At the time, the EU and U.S. criticized Russia for the move.

Now, criticism of Georgia for accepting the flights amounts to a "demand that Russia sanction Georgia again," in the words of parliamentary speaker Shalva Papuashvili.

Georgian officials have argued they are only allowing unsanctioned airlines to carry out the flights and so they are not violating Western sanctions. But EU officials say that misses the point, and that the situation has changed since 2019: the EU banned all flights to and from Russia in response to the war in Ukraine and expects its partner countries to do the same.

"Each country in the EU accession process, or aspiring to become part of it, is expected to progressively align with our foreign policy decisions and actions," Stano told RFE/RL in e-mailed comments. "In the case of countries with a clear [EU] perspective, we expect real concrete actions."

WATCH: Hundreds gathered at the main airport in Tbilisi on May 19 to protest the return of direct flights from Russia.

Georgians Dismayed At Renewed Direct Flights From Russia
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Georgia applied for EU candidate status shortly after the start of the Ukraine war in February 2022, along with Ukraine and Moldova. While those two latter countries were awarded candidate status in June 2022, Georgia was instead given an EU "perspective" and a list of reforms it should implement. This fall, the EU will decide, based on its perception of the progress Georgia has made on those reforms, whether to award it candidate status.

Asked about the perception of double standards, Stano said Georgia itself had asked for higher standards. "Armenia is not aspiring for EU membership, but Georgia is and wants to get candidate status from the EU -- well, for that they have to show how they stand up for EU values and principles," he said.

Taken alone, accepting Russia's offer on flights and visas might not have been seen as alarming, but it comes as the Georgian government is already under heavy scrutiny for other anti-Western moves, said one Western diplomat in Tbilisi who requested anonymity so as to be able to speak more frankly. Most significantly, the government recently proposed a bill that would designate media and organizations taking funding from abroad as "foreign agents," against the strong objections from Washington and Brussels. It backed down only after large protests against the bills.

"The international community sees this as not an isolated case but within the overall context," the diplomat said. "There are legitimate concerns about Georgia's foreign policy orientation, and when you are looking for signs about that orientation, this is a bad sign."

Georgian officials have publicly downplayed the foreign policy implications of the move and instead focused on the economic benefits, claiming the resumption of flights could bring in up to $400 million a year to the country's tourism-reliant economy.

Passengers line up to board the inaugural flight to Tbilisi at Vnukovo International Airport in Moscow.
Passengers line up to board the inaugural flight to Tbilisi at Vnukovo International Airport in Moscow.

Officials from the Georgian Dream party appear to be motivated by mainly domestic political concerns, said Vano Abramashvili, an analyst and head of the Peace Program at the Tbilisi-based NGO Caucasian House. "Economically, Georgian Dream is happy to accept all kinds of money and whatever benefits they can get. Economic growth is part of their narrative, and [their] argument is that 'we prosper because we're at peace,'" Abramashvili told RFE/RL.

The government is also hedging its bets geopolitically because it thinks that "if Russia is not winning in Ukraine, at least it is not losing. They genuinely believe this," he said.

Georgians have mixed views on the resumption of the flights. A poll by the U.S.-based International Republican Institute conducted in March, when the possibility of restoring flights had already been mooted publicly, found 48 percent in favor and 46 percent opposed.

When Georgian Airways, the country's flag carrier, announced on May 16 that it would start operating flights to Russia, it was met with anger on social media and protests outside its Tbilisi offices. The company hit back with a combative Facebook post defending the company's patriotic bona fides and accusing its critics of taking "foreign grants."

If other countries "have the right to fly to Russia and are not included in the list of sanctioned countries, then I ask, what did little Georgia and its small airline do?" asked Tamaz Gaiashvili, the chairman of Georgian Airways, in a separate statement to the press.

Participants carry EU and Georgian flags at a rally in support of European integration in Tbilisi on July 3, 2022.
Participants carry EU and Georgian flags at a rally in support of European integration in Tbilisi on July 3, 2022.

Russia's motivations for its gesture remain murky. After the initial announcement was made on May 10, there was no official comment by any senior officials for several days. Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova was asked at a May 17 press briefing about its implications for Georgia-Russia relations and she demurred: "Our principled approach is to consistently ease the conditions for communication and contacts between residents of Russia and Georgia, in spite of the lack of diplomatic relations," she said. The decision to restore flights "is consistent with this logic," she added.

Russian state media, though, ran enthusiastic stories touting the move as a step toward rapprochement between the two countries, which have not had diplomatic relations since the 2008 war over Georgia's breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

The Russian government has been seeking to bolster support for the war in the face of waning public support, and one important narrative is that Western attempts to isolate Russia have failed.

"I don't like that Georgia has stepped forward to give [Russian President Vladimir] Putin this lifeline," the Western diplomat noted.

Georgian officials themselves have given mixed assessments of Russia's possible motivations. Georgian Dream head Irakli Kobakhidze said Russia's move amounts to a reward for what he called a "pragmatic" policy vis-a-vis Russia and the Ukraine war. Other officials have complained that the timing appeared to be aimed at spoiling Georgia's EU aspirations.

"With this step, Russia is attempting to harm Georgia's European integration path by projecting the image that Georgia is closely cooperating with Russia," Nikoloz Samkharadze, chairman of the Georgian parliament's foreign affairs committee, told local media.

The resumption of visa-free travel and direct flights was made in recognition of the fact that "Georgia's course toward Russia is as rational and as constructive as possible, taking into account Georgia's close ties with the West," Nikolai Silaev, a foreign policy analyst at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, told RFE/RL. It is "a strong signal that Russia intends to normalize relations with Tbilisi."

To Georgia's Western partners, the prospect of improved ties with Russia is alarming.

Tbilisi "should be very careful about welcoming what looks to be attempts by Russia to normalize relations with Georgia," U.S. Ambassador to Georgia Kelly Degnan said at a security conference in the country's capital on May 18.

"I think an important question is, why now? Why is Putin now making these concessions and these offers to Georgia? What is the price that Georgia is going to have to pay for direct flights?" Degnan said. "These are very important questions, because we all know Putin does not give anything without extracting a price."

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