Reports that the Russian top diplomat's daughter was attending a wedding in Georgia caused uproar in the country this past weekend, leading to the disruption of the event at one of the country's most prominent resorts.
On May 19, Georgian media reported that Yekaterina Vinokurova, the daughter of Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, was visiting the country to attend the wedding of her brother-in-law at Kvareli Lake, a popular vacation place in the wine-rich Kakheti region.
The reports triggered outrage given Georgians' overwhelming public solidarity for Ukraine's defensive fight against the ongoing Russian invasion and their own troubled relationship with their former imperial overlord.
The news came as the Georgian government was facing a backlash over the authorization of several airlines for regular Russia flights following Moscow's recent decision to resume direct flights after a 4-year unilateral ban. Two separate rallies were held that day as the first Russian Azimuth Airlines plane touched the ground at Tbilisi airport.
Despite the initial denial by the resort that Lavrov's daughter was staying there, various signs pointed to her presence. There was also no official denial of Vinokurova's visit by Georgian authorities, prompting protests the next day near the resort. Police officers who were defending the site detained 17 persons (who were later released).
It was figurehead President Salome Zourabichvili who tried to defuse tensions by holding a briefing at 5 pm local time and delivering the news that she received assurances from the interior minister that the "second half of the wedding" would not be taking place that day and "the family" had "left" (though unclear whether she meant just the wedding venue or the country).
"This is a victory of sorts for the public," the president said, comparing it to the 2019 events when Russian MP Sergei Gavrilov was forced out of the country. It was the protests against Gavrilov's controversial appearance in the Georgian parliament that Moscow used as a pretext to ban direct flights with Georgia four years ago.
The president went on to slam the Georgian government for "playing with" and "irritating" their people amid the already tense environment brought on by Russia's war against Ukraine. And while delivering her criticism, Zourabichvili voiced what looked like the first confirmation that Vinokurova was indeed among the wedding guests.
Zourabichvili demanded to know how the daughter of a member of Russian President Vladimir Putin's inner circle could enter the country without the authorities' knowledge. The president further called on the government to carry out stricter border controls, including filtering out those under sanction as a result of the Ukraine war.
Vinokurova, who carries her spouse's surname, has landed on the sanctions list of Ukraine and various Western countries, including the U.S. and the United Kingdom. Her husband, Russian businessman Alexandr Vinokurov who reportedly was also visiting the country, has also been sanctioned by the West.
Ruling Georgian Dream party MP Gia Volski was the first to give clear confirmation of her visit.
"It was Lavrov's daughter, as we learned later. She is now Vinokurova, with another surname, her husband's surname," Volski told reporters, adding that her brother-in-law, Mika Vinokurov, whose wedding she was attending "is known for his quite anti-Russian statements" (an apparent reference to Vinokurov's social media posts).
Georgian Dream's chairman and chief spokesman, Irakli Kobakhidze, on the other hand, commented in his characteristic combative tone, shaming the protesters and the opposition figures for trying to escalate the situation while accusing the president of xenophobia.
"Disrupting a wedding, particularly of a person who has not committed any crime in Georgia, is incompatible with our culture," Kobakhidze told reporters on May 21.
For critics, however, hosting a wedding ceremony with a controversial guest list evoked Georgians' familiar and uneasy feeling of having their country reduced to a place of food and entertainment by its northern neighbor.
Kobakhidze further argued that sanctioning family members goes against the standards of human rights. In separate statements, Georgian Dream leaders also reiterated their stance that Georgia would not impose its own sanctions against Russia.
The news about Vinokurova's visit was conspicuously absent from mainstream Russian media coverage.
Nini Gabritchidze is a Tbilisi-based journalist.