Emergency landing: Russian-Georgian rapprochement
    National interests come first

    ANALYTICS  02 June 2023 - 18:03

    Matanat Nasibova

    The recent street rallies in Tbilisi triggered by resuming of flights between Russia and Georgia demonstrated that the United States and the European Union weren’t the only ones unhappy about relative warming in Russian-Georgian relations but so was a large segment of the civil society of the South Caucasus republic itself.

    Judging by the rallies in the squares of Georgia’s capital city, there are quite a few people who are vehemently opposed to any kind of rapprochement with Moscow.

    When two weeks ago the first airliner landed from Moscow, over a thousand Georgians gathered with a goal far from welcoming. They gathered to present the parliament with a demand to immediately stop all flights and contact with Russia in general.

    According to Georgian media reports, the demonstrators were expressing fears that Tbilisi, due to renewed business and communication links with Moscow, could fall under Western sanctions and even lose the chance to finally acquire EU candidate status.

    In general, the restoration of direct air links between Georgia and the Russian Federation after four years was an occasion for Georgian citizens to reaffirm their commitment to the European model of development.

    Surely, the United States and the European Union also did not remain silent. Following the decree of Russian President Vladimir Putin on the lifting of the ban on direct flights to Georgia and the introduction of a visa-free regime with the latter on May 10, the US State Department said that if flights between Russia and Georgia are established, companies at Georgian airports will be at risk of sanctions, as they will have to serve aircraft subject to export-import control.

    In Brussels, this news was also received with annoyance: Lead spokesperson for the external affairs of the EU Peter Stano reminded that because of the war between Russia and Ukraine, the EU countries and a number of other states imposed sanctions against the Russian aviation sector while emphasising that the EU and its partners do not allow flights from Russia, to Russia and over Russia, and as a result, such a decision of the Georgian authorities causes concern for the European path of Georgia.

    Although the reaction of the US and the EU is quite natural and fully fits into Western logic, Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili and his government refuse to follow it in this case, stating that this is at odds with Georgia's interests and the recommendations of the West are not approved by the country's leadership.

    Garibashvili even called the dissatisfaction of the United States and the European Union with the fact that the republic continues trade and economic relations with Russia despite its conflict with Ukraine illogical, and put forward arguments in support of the national interests of his country.

    At a meeting at the end of May as part of the annual economic forum in Qatar, Garibashvili reminded his Western partners that after the August 2008 war, the West did not impose any sanctions...

    "Where is the logic?" the Georgian prime minister wondered, adding that in 2008 no one in the world imposed sanctions against Russia.

    Moreover, only in the period from 2008 to 2022, the European Union alone bought goods from Russia worth 2.3 trillion dollars, and even the current trade turnover between the EU and the Russian Federation in just four days is equal to the same amount as the Russian-Georgian commodity operations for the whole year.

    According to the Georgian Statistics Service, in 2022 the country traded with Russia for about $2.5 billion, which, the prime minister noted is only 0.3 per cent of the total Russian trade turnover. In general, Garibashvili said that Georgia did not interfere with the resumption of direct flights when Russia lifted the ban, which remained in force since 2019, only because air traffic is part of trade and economic relations.

    At the same time, the Georgian prime minister expressed gratitude to the United States and Europe - "for everything they have done for the country", but stressed that the country has the right to have its own national interests.

    On the other hand, this is also a hint to Moscow that, despite not joining the anti-Russian sanctions, nothing has been forgotten and that Russia should not count on close rapprochement.

    As is known, back in May 2022, the government of Georgia announced that it would not join Western sanctions because of the Russian war in Ukraine, since this is contrary to the interests of the country. Confirming this policy, Prime Minister Garibashvili recently rejected the proposal of the European Union to impose sanctions against third countries that continue to do business with Moscow.

    To clarify: the EU is going to approve the 11th package of sanctions in the near future, which will mainly be aimed at countries that mediate in the supply of sanctioned goods to the Russian Federation. That is, Georgia has shown that in any situation it is guided primarily by its own benefit, not at all trying to please the West or the Russian Federation.

    It is worth noting, however, that Georgia's categorical attitude towards the EU sanctions policy not only brought a certain revival to the difficult Russian-Georgian relations but also contributed to specific messages from Moscow. In any case, Grigory Karasin, head of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Federation Council of the Russian Federation, was not mistaken when he said that Georgia's position on sanctions would not go unnoticed - Moscow really appreciated this fact. However, Kyiv did revoke its ambassador from Tbilisi...

    Meanwhile, the expert community has a conflicting opinion regarding the prospects for rapprochement between Georgia and Russia. For example, the Russian community is more optimistic about this possibility, arguing this primarily by the fact that there are now many Russian citizens in Georgia, which is already a positive trend in terms of warming bilateral relations. And the gesture of the Russian government regarding the resumption of air traffic once again shows Moscow's desire to normalise relations with Tbilisi.

    However, in Georgia itself, they are less optimistic about a possible rapprochement with the Russian Federation, considering air travel only a symbolic decision of Moscow. At the same time, Georgians are well aware that in the coming years, they will not be able to become a member of the EU, let alone NATO, but they will have to improve relations with Moscow one way or another. At least for the sake of the Georgian economy...


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