With travel restrictions lifted, Moscow hopes to strengthen ties with the former Soviet republic in the Caucasus, which seeks to join the European Union. The official explanation stated that Russia wants to “facilitate communication and communication between the citizens of Russia and Georgia, despite the absence of diplomatic relations.”
Diplomatic ties have been severed since 2008, when Russia invaded Georgia. Since then, one-fifth of the country has been occupied. In addition, Russia has imposed travel restrictions on Georgians. Moscow halted air traffic in 2019 due to protests by Georgians against Russian interference in Georgian politics. The visa requirement has been in place since 2000, when Russia said it feared terrorism from Georgia.
Despite the occupation, the Georgian government is increasingly turning towards Moscow. Tbilisi has criticized Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but it does not participate in Western sanctions against Russia, saying the aim is to protect the economy. The Georgian government says Russia’s lifting of travel restrictions is good news. Foreign Minister Ilya Darsiashvili said daily life has become “easier” and travel has become “freer”.
The opposition is angry
But the opposition has reacted harshly to the lifting of travel restrictions. Anna Tsitlidze, a member of the pro-Western party of former President Mikheil Saakashvili, spoke sarcastically about a “prize” from the Kremlin for the ruling Georgian Dream party. “This decision can be seen as a tribute by the Russian authorities to what the Georgian Dream has been doing for 11 years, and especially recently, to harm Georgia’s European course and the process of obtaining EU candidate status.”
Opposition members have accused Georgian Dream of colluding with the Kremlin for years. They point out that the party was founded by Bidzina Ivanishvili, a billionaire who made his fortune in Russia.
Salome Zurabishvili, the President of Georgia, who has mainly a symbolic function, is also opposed to resuming air traffic with Russia. She called the decision a “provocation” on Wednesday and has long denounced the Georgian government’s stance towards Moscow: “While all our partners express solidarity in word and deed with Ukraine’s selfless struggle, the position of the ruling party says the least that can be understood for me and the majority of society.”
Print from the European Union
It is not clear whether Georgia will open its airspace to Russian airlines under Western sanctions. On Thursday, the European Commission called on Georgia not to accept Russian aircraft and join the sanctions imposed on the Russian aviation sector, “as a country that aspires to become a candidate for membership in the European Union.”
Several hundred Georgians took to the streets on Wednesday to demonstrate against the lifting of travel restrictions. But it did not lead to mass demonstrations, as in March. Then tens of thousands of Georgians demonstrated against a bill introduced by the ruling party to pass a law that would label some media outlets and NGOs as “foreign agents”. After international protests and criticism, the ruling party withdrew the bill.
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