Tbilisi’s Balancing Act Between Moscow and Brussels
Visits by the Russian elite and resumption of direct flights have angered many Georgians.
When Yekaterina Lavrova Vinokurova arrived in Georgia to attend a lavish wedding in the heart of the country’s wine region, she likely did not expect to be greeted with public protests and a huge outcry.
But Vinokurova is the daughter of Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov, and both she and her husband are under western sanctions. Her visit last month has served to stir fresh anger amongst Georgians towards what they see as the government’s rapprochment towards Moscow.
In a dramatic twist, news of her arrival broke on May 20 as protests were being held over the resumption of direct flights with Russia after a four-year hiatus. Some demonstrators travelled to the Kvareli Resort, in the north-eastern Kakheti region, straight from the airport in the capital Tbilisi, where a Russian passenger plane had landed on May 19, the first since Russian President Vladimir Putin lifted a 2019 flight ban in early May.
The ruling party, Georgian Dream, which had welcomed the flight, shamed the protests as acts of “xenophobia”.
“[The flights] and the visit are a continuation of the Georgian Dream policy to accommodate Moscow’s interest amid the war raging in Ukraine,” Kornely Kakachia, director of the Georgian Institute of Politics, told IWPR. “Nobody believes that the authorities do not know who is entering the country.”
Both events fuelled frustration among Georgians waiting for the country to achieve EU candidate status: in 2022 the European Council granted it to Ukraine and Moldova but withheld Georgia’s invitation, stating that Tbilisi must implement a series of reforms by end-2023 before its application could advance.
Meanwhile, the government has been cautious in its rhetoric on Russia, seemingly in the hope of benefiting from increased tourism and trade and defuse tension with the neighbour it fought a 2008 war with over Georgia’s breakaway regions.
Kakachia said that Tbilisi was wrong to hedge its bets in this way, adding, “This is the wrong time for a balancing act.
“Tbilisi now has a historic chance to get candidate status and there is an impression that the ruling party embarked on an informal diplomacy, trying to have separate discussions behind the scenes. This infuriates many pro-European Georgians.”
THE WEDDING THAT WASN’T
Vinokurova’s visit to attend her brother-in-law's wedding was leaked to the media. A journalist from TV channel Mtvari called the resort posing as a courier who had to deliver flowers and asking to confirm whether she was in the hotel. The administrator responded that the person in question was staying at their resort.
The story quickly gained traction on social networks, despite the fact that the hotel management posted on its Facebook page that no one with the name Lavrov was on its premises and that information was fake. The post was later removed.
Protesters who headed to Kvareli found a police cordon, settling down to play drums and blow whistles when cars entered or left the territory. Local media reported banners with slogans including “Russians have no place in Georgia” and eggs being thrown at vehicles leaving the hotel.
Clashes with the police resulted in 16 people being detained. Tite Gedenidze, a member of the opposition party United National Movement (UNM), was among them.
“The protest was at the entrance, there was no intention to go and no reason to detain anyone,” he told IWPR. “At a certain point, a squad of the Special Tasks Department gathered together and we saw that they were heading towards us, we realised that they were going to disperse the rally and detain us. As soon as they approached us, they started capturing our activists. They did not care who was who, or from which organisation, they detained anyone they could reach.”
Gela Khasaya, another civic activist, was arrested twice, at the rally in Kvareli and at Tbilisi airport the day before.
“My detention at the airport was relatively peaceful, but what happened in Kvareli was shocking,” he recalled.
The Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association (GYLA) issued a statement saying that the footage from the rally showed the degrading treatment of people detained for administrative offences.
“We have been urging to reform the code of administrative offences for years,” Shorena Loladze, GYLA’s director of legal aid, told IWPR. “The authorities are increasingly using detention with subsequent administrative sanctions against protesters to somehow restrict their freedom of expression and freedom of assembly.”
President Salome Zourabishvili intervened to defuse tension, holding a press briefing stating that the wedding had been called off and that she had received assurances from the interior minister that the guests had left
Lavrova is said to have entered Georgia by land, like thousands of Russian who have left their country since the invasion of Ukraine, but she could have flown. On May 10, President Putin announced the restoration of direct flights between Moscow and Tbilisi, lifting the ban imposed in 2019 after a Russian lawmaker was invited to parliament, triggering large street protests in the capital.
“There are several types of interests here. One is the PR of the Russian government, which can say that Georgia is a country where relations are improving,” Kakha Gogolashvili, director of the Centre for European Studies of Rondel Foundation, explained to IWPR. “The second is to further strengthen transit opportunities for Russia, while such a space with Europe is closed. The third is the prospect of shipments of dual-use goods and other types of prohibited sanctioned operations being carried out closed, in this case already using our airspace.”
Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili stated that Moscow’s decision was not the result of negotiations with Tbilisi, but welcomed the decision as a positive humanitarian move. Zourabishvili, however, described the move as a provocation.
Elected with the support of the ruling party in 2018, the president’s relations with the Georgian Dream leadership has since become strained. In her speech to mark Georgian independence day on May 26, she called on the Georgian government to “keep its word” and meet society’s “will to strengthen the country's independence, establish democracy, and join the European family”.
On May 29, EU diplomats in Georgia delivered a démarche on the resumption of the flights with Russia stating that “[it] goes against the decisions of 27 member states not to have flights to and from Russia and not to allow overflight of Russian airplanes on the territory of EU member states”. They added that although Russia’s decision was unilateral, it had required the agreement of the Georgian government.
While the government remains cautious in its statements on Russia, it has increasingly taken decisions in contrast with EU policies, like the law on foreign agents which was aborted following large street protests. Similarly, comments about and towards western allies can be controversial and confusing.
On May 30, during the Global Security Forum in Bratislava, Garibashvili identified the expansion of NATO as “one of the reasons” for war in Ukraine while two days later, during the EU Summit in Moldova’s capital Chisinau, he said that Georgia deserved EU candidate status.
For analysts, the comments in Bratislava contain ill-timed elements of euroscepticism.
“Non-alignment is a movement that does not involve joining NATO, nor joining the EU, nor supporting anyone in any conflict or dispute,” noted Gogolashvili. “This is actually unacceptable for Georgia, because we are committed to joining the EU's foreign and security model statements.”
The Georgian Dream party did not respond to IWPR’s requests for comments.
This publication was prepared under the "Amplify, Verify, Engage (AVE) Project" implemented with the financial support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Norway.