According to Georgian Economy Minister Levan Davitashvili, since Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, some 200,000 Russian citizens arrived in Georgia. But not all decided to stay, said the minister in an interview in December 2022, with the Georgian media platform Interpressnews. Of those who came, 60,000 stayed, while others used Georgia as a transit point, relocating to other countries. Likely because of this newfound hub status, it is now being reported that the country “has emerged as a convenient logistics conduit between Russia and the outside world.”
It is not just trucks with goods that are moving through Georgia. Last year, Russian remittances to Georgia reached USD 2 billion in total. Money reaching Georgia is in Russian rubles, which are then converted into dollars and returned to Russia, where they are sold on the black market, reported JamNews. All of this has won Georgia praise from Russia. Speaking at a press conference on January 18, Russia's Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, expressed hope that flights between the two countries will resume as well, a wish that was quickly echoed by the ruling Georgia Dream Party.
Public reaction and criticism
Georgian Dream has drawn public criticism for its cozy stance on Russia, including from Georgia's President Salome Zurabishvili, who said, the idea of restoring flights was “incomprehensible.” The president also urged the ruling government to “seriously look into the influx of Russian citizens into Georgia and all the social and political implications,” rather than discussing the resumption of flights.
Secretary General of Lelo opposition party, Badri Japaridze, told journalists that Lavrov's remarks about the Georgian government illustrate that the ruling Georgian Dream party's policies are anti-European and “only serve to make the authorities of the Russian Federation satisfied.”
Opposition party members echoed President Zurabishvili's calls. “This not only contradicts our strategic relations with Ukraine and the Western world but is also a step against national interests,” said opposition United National Movement party member Khatia Dekanoidze.
The founder of another political party, Strategy Builder, Giorgi Vashadze, said the recent praise from Russia signals a deal in the making between Russia and Georgia which may cost Georgia EU candidacy. “Russia imposed sanctions on us while there were no hostilities, and today they lift those sanctions, that means something else is happening? What is happening? A deal, and if Georgia is a participant in this, it will lose the prospect of receiving the candidate status. That’s why Russia, [Irakli] Kobakhidze [Chairman of Georgian Dream] and [Bidzina] Ivanishvili [former Prime Minister] want to resume these flights, so that we receive the final refusal,” Vashadze told journalists.
US Ambassador to Georgia said, “most Georgians would rather hear that Russia was withdrawing its troops from Abkhazia and Tskhinvali, and finally complying with its obligations under the 2008 treaty — rather than direct flights.”
Ukraine, too, has not been silent on the matter. Ukrainian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Oleg Nikolenko did not shy away from bluntness, accusing the ruling party of “lacking solidarity,” and being “politically vile.” In an interview with Ukrainian media, Andrii Kasianov, Ukraine’s charge d’affaires in Georgia, did not rule out the possible evacuation of Ukrainian citizens living in Georgia if flights between Russia and Georgia resume. The interview led to Kasianov's summoning by the Georgian Foreign Ministry, while a member of Georgia's ruling party Irakli Kobakhidze described the diplomat's comments as “shameful speculation.”
Flights between Georgia and Russia have been banned since 2019, on President Putin's orders, following Russian lawmaker Sergey Gavrilov's visit to the country in June 2019. A group of protesters stormed the parliament building in the capital Tbilisi just as Gavrilov was getting ready to address legislators from Orthodox Christian countries from the speaker’s chair. Clashes broke out between protesters and the police as a result. More than 200 people were injured.
Despite the criticism, the ruling Georgian Dream party is confident that the resumption of flights would be beneficial, especially for Georgians living in Russia who won't have to look for alternative routes to travel back home. The UN estimated that some 450,000 Georgian citizens resided in Russia in 2020. “You know that flights have been restricted one-way. Georgia was sanctioned. If this decision is taken from their side, I don't see anything wrong with it. On the contrary, it can be good for our country. It should be good from the point of view that up to a million of our compatriots live in Russia and direct flights will even help them to travel,” said Secretary General of Georgian Dream, the Mayor of Tbilisi, Kakha Kaladze, according to reporting by Interpressnews.ge.
The ruling party also described the New York Times article which detailed the transportation of goods to Russia via Georgia, as fake information. The story which describes at detail how shipments reach Russia mainly through mountain highway in Georgia was also referenced albeit indirectly, in an interview with the President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen and CNN's Chief International Anchor Christiane Amanpour. “If Georgia had exported sanctioned products to Russia, exports from Georgia to Russia in 2022 would have increased disproportionately,” wrote the Chairman of Georgian Dream, Irakli Kobakhidze, on his Facebook page.
Georgian authorities made further statements that they have taken measures to ensure the enforcement of international sanctions on goods transported through Georgia. Speaking at an event dedicated to the International Day of Customs, the Minister of Finance, Lasha Khutsishvili, said, a working group within the customs was created shortly after international sanctions against Russia were imposed. “More than 1,000 customs operations have been canceled since the sanctions came into effect. In addition, we have more than 500 cases when business operators were warned in advance that by performing the mentioned operation, international sanctions would be violated. Therefore these operations were no longer carried out. We proactively work with business operators to let them know in advance what constitutes a sanction violation,” noted Khutsishvili.
The Georgian ruling government faced public criticism following Russia's invasion of Ukraine for its lack of strong-worded statements and criticism. It also did not join the list of countries and allies sanctioning Russia, while Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili went so far as to criticize the supply of arms to Ukraine.