The first flight from Russia to Georgia in five years – A4851, operated by Rostov-on-Don-based airline Azimuth – landed at Tbilisi’s Shota Rustaveli International Airport on May 19, marking the resumption of air traffic between the two countries after being terminated in 2019.
The restoration of flights between Russia and Georgia has proved highly controversial, and sparked protests across the country. Experts and politicians interviewed by The Insider said the move has made it more convenient for Russia's special services to travel to and from Georgia, influencing its internal affairs.
The May 19 flight was met with protesters with placards reading “Russian plane, go f*ck yourself,” according to footage published by TV Rain. Six protesters were detained, according to a report by local outlet NewsGeorgia.
Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili called the arrival of the flight from Moscow “undesirable”, adding that its landing occurred “in defiance of the Georgian people's resistance.”
On May 10, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed decrees abolishing a visa regime for Georgian citizens and resuming air traffic with the country. Passenger flights were terminated in 2019 following mass protests in Tbilisi caused by Russian MP Sergei Gavrilov's speech to the Georgian Parliament.
Georgian Parliament Speaker Shalva Papuashvili of Bidzina Ivanishvili's Georgian Dream party announced that Georgia will not impose sanctions against Russia “based on the national interests of our population so as not to aggravate relations [between the two countries].”
Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili tweeted that these decisions are a provocation, and are unacceptable “as long as Russia continues its aggression against Ukraine” and occupies Georgian territory. She then called to convene the Georgian Security Council and the introduction of three-month visas for Russian citizens, “based on [Georgia’s] internal challenges.”
Zurabishvili said Georgia is a welcoming country and has accepted “everyone” over the past year, but there are things “that shouldn't be happening.” “You can't have Russian-language kindergartens opening that won't make it equally mandatory to teach the Georgian language to children who live in Georgia today,” she stressed.
Georgia has repeatedly said that it will not join sanctions against Russia. In November 2022, Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili said that his country “is not going to comply with anybody's directives” and will do “what is necessary [for it].”
Fly while you can
In an interview with The Insider, a Russian aviation expert who wished to remain anonymous noted that the decision to resume air links with Georgia could be explained by both political and economic reasons. The economic component of the problem, according to the expert, stems from the fact that Georgia is a popular destination for Russian tourists, as well as those who want to relocate from Russia – the demand from both groups will allow Russian airlines to obtain another source of income.
However, Georgia will not allow foreign-made aircraft into its airspace, the expert noted. Russian airlines have to return over 400 aircraft to their Western lessors under the sanctions imposed on the country, but have largely not complied.
Therefore, it will only be possible to travel on Russian-made Sukhoi SuperJets to Georgia, “which will soon stop flying” as they are equipped with SaM146 engines, manufactured by the joint Russian-French company PowerJet, which require regular repair and maintenance. Russian firms are unable to repair the engine’s combustion-related parts on their own.
Despite the setback, the expert says, “as long as there is a possibility to fly [to Georgia], the airlines will make at least some money.” He adds that regular flights between Russian cities and Tbilisi will make it easier for “cops and FSB officers from Center ‘E’ [a unit within Russia’s Internal Affairs Ministry in charge of combating extremism – The Insider]” to travel to Georgia, where many of the Russian opposition activists and politicians have moved.
David Khadzhishvili, a Georgian MP from the United National Movement, in turn, points out that Russian airlines are under sanctions, which is recognized by “even the corrupt Georgian government.” In his opinion, which he voiced to The Insider on May 10, only aircraft belonging to Georgian airlines will be able to fly to Georgia [the arrival of Azimuth Airlines flight A4851 in Tbilisi on May 19 runs contrary to his statement; Azimuth Airlines is not under international sanctions – The Insider]. He added that his party would do everything possible to get these companies sanctioned.
According to calculations of the Georgian Interior Ministry from January to the end of September 2022, 112,700 Russian nationals remain in the country – close to 3% of its population. Over one million people crossed the border from Russia during the period.
The ways of the secret services
Khadzhishvili says that though opening of air communication between Russia and Georgia is good for Georgian business, it is unacceptable in wartime.
“If a normal pro-Georgian and pro-Western government existed in Georgia, and we were sure that no spies and agents of the FSB or GRU would come to us, we would be glad to see Russians and other tourists.”
In addition to doubts about the Georgian security service, which, according to the deputy, works “together with the Russians, and during these 10 years has not revealed a single Russian spy in Georgia, although there are many,” he points out that the opening of air links can help circumvent the anti-Russian sanctions imposed by Western countries.
Khadzhishvili considers Putin's introduction of visa-free travel for Georgian citizens as a pretext for Georgia to open air links with Russia. “If they [simply] allowed their companies to fly, Georgia would not have been able to open direct flights, because this is not a [valid reason], but the abolition of the visa regime with Georgians is a clear pretext,” he comments.
A Russian political technologist close to Ivanishvili's Georgian business associates confirmed to The Insider that the decision benefits the Russian special services and the current Georgian authorities:
“The Georgians are very upset by this ‘liberal trash’ from Russia, and they're not happy. Everyone will get what they want. If they expel the fugitive Russians, some will return. The security services will help the Georgian authorities to restore order, they will take the flows under control, they will additionally strengthen the Armenians, and in general, the criminals will start to move back and forth. Everything will be to the advantage [of both sides].”
In addition, Armenia and Georgia, according to the political technologist, are “perfectly integrated” into the North-South transport corridor proposed by India, which intends to connect Mumbai with Russia and Europe, bypassing Azerbaijan and the Suez Canal. The corridor will create a “parity of forces,” and it will be “not so easy for Azerbaijan to take Karabakh,” says the source.
The Georgian political analyst and creator of the YouTube channel News from the Caucasus (“Novosti s Kavkaza”) Gela Vasadze notes that Putin and his authorities have been doing everything to tear Georgia away from Russia for the past 22 years.
In 2001, Russia introduced a visa regime when Georgia refused to allow Russian troops to enter Pankisi Gorge, a densely populated district of Georgian Chechens.
“And now, when Georgia already had a visa-free regime with the EU, when a generation has changed over the past 22 years, and young people just don't speak Russian because the Russian language was not necessary – you can’t go to Russia to study or work – they say that the visa regime is canceled!”
At the same time, he stresses that Russian influence in Georgia is essentially influence on one person – Bidzina Ivanishvili. According to him, sociology confirms that only 5 percent of the country's residents do not consider Russia a hostile country. “So Putin can keep all these obscene proposals in his wallet,” Vasadze concludes.
Vasadze’s sentiments are echoed by David Khadzhishvili, who thinks that the resumption of direct air travel between Russia and Georgia will lead to a direct response from the Georgian people.
“I think people will go out in the street just like they did against this Russian law on foreign agents. Georgian people will once again stand up for their interests, for the civilized world and once again show that this should not happen in Georgia.”