The launch of visa-free travel and direct flights between Russia and Georgia is driving a lot of anger against the Georgian government, which not only bucks the international trend of isolating Moscow over the Ukraine war, but also is unabashedly bent on profiting from it.
Yet while much of Georgian society is protesting against the arrival of planeloads of Russians, another, less vocal category of Georgians is happy to see travel barriers with Russia gone.
The moment the Kremlin restored visa-free access to Georgians after a 23-year break and scrapped a four-year-old ban on direct flights, Malkhaz called his son in Moscow to say he was coming to visit. "I have not seen my son and my grandchildren in three years," said Malkhaz, a retired steelworker, who asked not to be identified by his last name.
"It was a pain in the rear to get there, as you had to jump through the hoops with all the visas, invitation letters, migration cards and whatnot," he said. "You also had to fly through another country or ride in a bus for two days. I'm too old for all of that and so is my wife. So I think we are among the few Georgians who are actually happy about this."
Like most Georgians, Malkaz resents Moscow for its long history of tormenting and dismembering his nation. He sees Russia as an occupying force that effectively carved breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia out of Georgia proper. But the maelstrom of wars and total economic ruin that Georgia experienced in the immediate aftermath of the Soviet Union's collapse forced many Georgians to move to Russia.
After moving to Moscow in the late 1990s, Malkhaz's son took odd jobs as an illegal alien for a few years. He has since essentially bought himself citizenship, worked his way up to a managerial position in a construction company and married a Muscovite. "My grandchildren look totally Russian. There is nothing Georgian about them, except their last name," Malkhaz said with a smile. "I call them little occupiers," he added in a reference to a label applied to Russians in Georgia.
Mzia, an Abkhazia-born Georgian who runs a boutique in Moscow, also welcomed the easing of travel. "Quite simply, my family and friends can now come visit me," she told Eurasianet. "Also, I employ Georgians at my shop. None of them have their residence papers in order, so they need to go back and forth to extend their stay. With direct flights and no visas in place, it is going to be much cheaper and easier for them to do that."
But most of the Georgian intelligentsia, which has long stopped having any ties with Russia, is angered and embarrassed by these changes. "Given our own history of Russian occupation, we should be displaying twice as much solidarity toward Ukraine as everybody else," said Giorgi Maridashvili, a musician and vocal coach based in Tbilisi. "Everything we do should be focused on contributing to the efforts toward stopping the war, not on making travel convenient for some people."
The Kremlin's sudden charm campaign is also widely construed as an attempt to sabotage Georgia's national dream of joining the European Union. Western officials said that allowing direct flights could result in the extension of international sanctions against Russia to Georgia and that, more broadly, the simplification of travel goes against the spirit of Georgia's EU integration aspirations.
Georgia's most prominent civil society groups and democracy watchdogs now rally against simplified travel with Russia under the slogan: "Russian planes don't land in the European Union." Allowing direct flights from and to Russia puts at risk Georgia's chances of getting EU candidate status (a landmark step toward eventual membership that Georgia hopes to make this year), over a hundred of Georgian civil society organizations said in a joint statement.
"Putting it simply, I don't want anything that pushes us away from the EU and closer to Russia," said Tamara Sartania, a Georgian democratic development consultant who is also native to Abkhazia. Like her, the overwhelming majority of Georgians support the goal of EU integration. Many dismiss as irrelevant the government's argument that direct flights and visa-free ties will make life easier for Georgians living in Russia.
The arrival of the first direct flight from Moscow to Tbilisi on May 19 was met at the airport by a crowd of protesters, who accused the ruling Georgian Dream party of selling out to the Kremlin and squandering Georgia's European future. Georgia's maverick president Salome Zourabichvili lent a voice of support to the protests, tweeting "no to flights to Russia!"
"Our government wants to turn Georgia into a restaurant for Russians, which is what we were in the Soviet times," a protester at the airport told Eurasianet. "Dependence on Russia, which we worked so hard to put behind us, means that we will always be corrupt, poor and backwards. Even if you put aside the moral aspects of getting all chummy with a regime of war criminals, there will be no way forward for this country if our economy and our society are defined by how many khinkalis [meat dumplings] Russians can eat."
Before Georgian Dream came to power in 2012, all Georgian governments had torturous relations with Moscow. The Kremlin introduced visas for Georgians and applied economic pressure during the presidency of Eduard Shevardnadze. Moscow banned imports from Georgia and eventually invaded during President Mikheil Saakashvili's tenure. Things began to change with the arrival of the Georgian Dream.
Although the two counties don't have diplomatic relations and Georgia legally recognizes Moscow as "occupying" parts of its territory, economic dependence on Russia has grown significantly over the last decade under Georgian Dream's policy of normalization with Moscow. Since the start of the war in Ukraine, Georgia has controversially emerged as a key destination for both R&R and escape for Russians, who face diminished international travel and relocation options because of the sanctions.
Direct flights will likely bring more Russians to Georgia in the summer season, while simplified visa rules will allow more Georgians to do business in Russia. Moscow could exploit the consequent increase in ties and trade to undermine Georgia's European plans.
This gambit is not lost even on those Georgians who welcomed the simplification of travel. "Yeah, I see what that bastard [Russian President Vladimir Putin] is doing, but what can I do? I have family there," said Malkhaz. Mzia has little patience with criticism of supporters of simplified travel. "I don't need to be lectured on Russian occupation," she said. "After all, the Russian army occupies my home and I can't even go to see my grandparents' graves there. Everybody stands up for Ukraine today and I'm glad they are, but nobody stood up for me when as a little girl I was kicked out of my home."
Although she insists she hates the Russian government for its role in Georgian conflicts and for the invasion of Ukraine, Mzia is against labeling all Russians as occupiers and invaders. "It is not all that simple and, either way, the fact is that I live here now and there are many other Georgians here too. We did not ask for [canceling] visas and [allowing] flights, but we are obviously all happy that it's become easier for us to go home. We might live in Russia and have papers, but Georgia is home and always will be."
While it is essentially at war with the civil society and the intelligentsia, Georgian Dream party appears to be banking on support from people like Malkhaz and Mzia in its controversial policy of rapprochement with Moscow. The party also caters to businesspeople, like air companies, exporters and hoteliers that stand to benefit from easy travel between Georgia and Russia.
Georgia is thus caught in a battle between long-term benefits of European integration and short-term benefits of Russian integration, and this battle is set to intensify: there is already talk in Russia of restoring diplomatic ties with Georgia.