Russia has banned flights to Georgia and is asking Russian travel companies to stop organizing tours to Georgia in response to massive anti-Russia protests in Tbilisi.
Late on June 21, Russian President Vladimir Putin issued an executive order banning Russian airlines from flying passengers to Georgia and “recommended” that Russian tour companies suspend sales of package tours for Russians to Georgia. It also called on the government to “[t]ake measures to secure the return of Russian citizens who are temporarily on the territory of Georgia.” The Russian news agency Interfax reported that the flight ban would take effect starting on July 8, and Deputy Prime Minister Maksim Akimov also said that Russians in Georgia should return by July 8.
The order was titled “Certain Measures to Ensure the National Security of the Russian Federation and the Protection of Russian Citizens from Criminal and Other Illegal Actions.” It was not clear what “criminal” or other “illegal actions” it was referring to.
But Tbilisi has been tense since June 20, when a Russian lawmaker was shown on television sitting in the seat of the chair of the Georgian parliament. Massive protests followed that night, with over 300 arrested and 240 hospitalized with injuries. Police used tear gas and rubber bullets against the demonstrators.
Russia heavily backs the de facto governments of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two breakaway territories that most of the world (but not Russia) recognizes as part of Georgia. Moscow also bases thousands of troops in each territory and has been building barbed-wire barriers to create de facto borders with Georgia. In this context, the symbolism of the Russian MP sitting in the Georgian parliament enraged many Georgians, leading to the unprecedented protests.
Meanwhile, however, Russians have been a significant part of the tourism boom that Georgia has seen over the past several years. Russian-speaking tourists are ubiquitous in Tbilisi, and while the government has systematically removed the Soviet-legacy Russian-language signs from streets, the metro, and other public spaces, the Russian language is again highly visible in the restaurants, bars, and other enterprises catering to tourists.
But state statistics show that, while the number of Russian tourists has increased substantially since 2011, they still make up a relatively small portion of all visitors to the country, making the potential impact of a tourism ban unclear.
While the Russian presence in Abkhazia and South Ossetia has been a festering wound for Georgians, the temperature of the Tbilisi-Moscow conflict had dropped considerably since the arrival to power earlier this decade of the Georgian Dream government. GD came to office on promises to take a less confrontational approach toward Moscow than its predecessor, the Mikheil Saakashvili-led United National Movement.
Under the GD, the Georgian government has continued to pursue Euro-Atlantic integration, including membership in NATO and the European Union, as its exclusive geopolitical direction. But the suspicion has lingered that GD is soft on Russia, and the appearance of the Russian MP was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
The last two days have seen a spike in anti-Russian sentiment in Georgia; a photo of a Georgian woman at the protests holding a sign saying “Fuck Russia” has gone viral; and one trendy Tbilisi restaurant posted that they have instituted a political test of sorts for its potential patrons.
Meanwhile, the Russian media – eager to expose any manifestation of Russophobia around the world – has seized on the events. “How exciting it is to watch Washington-style Georgian democracy, with its rubber bullets and gas, directly from the den of the bloody dictatorship, where tear gas has not been used against protesters for 20 years,” wrote Margarita Simonyan, the director of RT, on her Telegram channel.
“This is a bacchanal of radical political forces in Georgia, which are doing everything possible to prevent normal bilateral relations between Georgia and Russia,” Deputy Foreign Minister Grigoriy Karasin, whose brief includes talks with Georgia, told Interfax. The two countries do not have diplomatic relations. Karasin added that Moscow would continue to pursue the restoration of relations, in spite of “these sorts of speeches and hysterical statements.”
Joshua Kucera is the Turkey/Caucasus editor at Eurasianet, and author of The Bug Pit.
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