A week after Moscow's announcement on lifting its air travel ban with Georgia, Tbilisi authorized the first operators to carry out regular flights to and from Moscow. The government claims it won't be accepting any airline or aircraft that has come under Western sanctions, but the consequences of the resumption of flights between the two countries remain uncertain.
On May 10, Russian President Vladimir Putin issued a decree restoring direct air links with Georgia, ending a 4-year unilateral ban and lifting the visa requirement for Georgian citizens, which had been in place since 2000. Both measures had been instruments of Russian pressure against its wayward former colony.
Five days after the announcement, the Georgian civil aviation agency said it had authorized the first Russian operator, Azimuth Airlines, to conduct regular flights between Moscow and Tbilisi. Soon another permit followed, this time for the local Georgian Airways. Tbilisi says Azimuth and its aircraft are not under the international sanctions imposed on Russia due to its full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
"It is Georgia's firm position that flights between Georgia and the Russian Federation will be carried out only by airlines and aircraft that are not under sanctions," the Georgian Civil Aviation Agency said on May 15.
The agency said that Georgia has received "several requests" for permission for regular flights between the two countries and that Tbilisi was consulting with countries that have maintained air connections with Russia while abiding by the sanctions. Georgian officials have cited Turkey and Israel as examples.
The list of sanctioned aircraft mainly includes Boeing and Airbus models that Russia confiscated from Western leasing companies after the sanctions took effect. The sanctions also make it impossible for Moscow to get spare parts or service from these manufacturers for regular upgrades, raising safety concerns for operational Russia-run planes.
The fleet of Azimuth Airlines consists of Russian-made Sukhoi Superjet 100s, which could spare Georgian airports the sanctions evasion trouble that would arise by serving the more widely used and now Russia-seized Airbus or Boeing models. The Azimuth jets will be making seven two-way trips a week, with one-way budget flight tickets costing up to 300$.
But critics have pointed out that its aircraft still relies on Western-made parts, expressing safety concerns amid the difficulties that Russian airlines face in carrying out necessary upgrades. There is further concern as individuals and companies linked with Azimuth have landed on various blacklists in the West. The fact that the company has been operating flights to Russia-annexed Crimea and is sanctioned by Ukraine adds to the dismay in Georgia.
Experts also warned that Georgia-based companies may lack the expertise to service Superjet aircraft, adding to safety concerns.
"One thing is that it is immoral to let this company in. Another thing is that we may get in trouble in terms of sanctions. And the third is that it is dangerous to fly with this 'aviadvigatel' [aircraft engine]," Zura Japaridze, a Georgian opposition politician, said after the announcement.
Georgian Airways, on the other hand, operates Western-produced Boeing and CRJ aircraft. It is unclear whether it will face challenges flying them to Russia.
Rallies are held in Tbilisi against the government's decision to accept flights from Russia. But Georgian leaders appear less troubled.
The May 10 announcement from Moscow was initially met with several hours of silence by Tbilisi officials, followed by welcoming statements by various members of the ruling Georgian Dream party, who reiterated earlier arguments that easier travel would benefit many Georgians residing in Russia. (Critics argue that with no precise statistics available, the government could be significantly exaggerating the number of ethnic Georgians in Russia, which it has put at "up to a million," for political purposes.)
Ultimately, Georgian Dream leaders decided to take credit for Moscow's decision, attributing it to the "pragmatic policy" the government has been pursuing toward Russia. The Georgian government has drawn much ire since last year for pursuing Moscow-appeasing politics amid Russia's growing international isolation.
Doubling down on that rhetoric, some officials went as far as to suggest that such policies could eventually lead to Georgia regaining Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the country's two breakaway regions that Russia has recognized as independent states since 2008 and which Moscow backs militarily and politically.
(Later, when news broke that Azimuth Airlines would be flying to Georgia, some raised alarms that the airline had listed the two regions as countries on its booking website. The names disappeared from the list soon after the backlash. Georgian Dream officials used the fact to further support their argument).
Tbilisi also embraced the prospects of boosted income from tourism as a result. "We expect an effect of about $300-400 million from tourism, which we can call the flights effect," Economy Minister Levan Davitashvili told reporters on May 15.
The enthusiasm is not shared by Georgia's Western allies, who repeatedly questioned the motives of Moscow's decision and the possibility of resuming flights without violating sanctions.
"Why anyone would welcome a gesture, a gift from a country that is a brutal aggressor, I don't know. I think that is a very important question to ask," Kelly Degnan, the US Ambassador to Georgia, said in recent remarks to the media. The ambassador pointed at the need to determine whether relevant airlines are sanctioned and weigh safety risks.
Earlier, US State Department Principal Deputy Spokesperson Vedant Patel also warned of sanctions risks for companies at Georgian airports if they "service aircraft subject to import and export controls." EU Spokesperson Peter Stano, too, warned of safety concerns on May 11, saying that due to the sanctions, 95% of the Russian fleet is unable to "update or upgrade" their aircraft.
"The European Union encourages Georgia, which is aspiring to become EU candidate country, to align with the existing EU sanctions … against Russia also in the area of aviation and to remain vigilant regarding any possible attempts to circumvent the existing sanctions," Stano said. In another statement on May 16, the EU spokesperson said the EU "regrets" the decision to resume Georgia-Russia flights which "raises concerns in terms of Georgia's EU path."
Georgia has not joined Western sanctions against Russia but has vowed it will not allow Russia to use its territory to bypass international sanctions. And both US and EU diplomats said in recent months that there was no evidence of Georgia assisting Russia in evading sanctions.
But as Georgia awaits Brussels' decision on its bid to become an EU membership candidate later this year, the restoration of air travel may mark another low point in Tbilisi's already strained relations with the West.
Nini Gabritchidze is a Tbilisi-based journalist.