Tbilisi, Georgia – On an outcrop overlooking a plunging ravine in the Caucasus Mountains is a giant concrete monument shaped like a horseshoe. A Soviet-era mural runs along its inside, depicting scenes from Georgia and Russia’s tangled history.
The “Friendship Arch”, designed by Giorgi Tsereteli, was built above the ski resort of Gudauri in 1983, marking the bicentenary of an accord between Russia and Georgia known as the Treaty of Giorgievsk.
The treaty established what was then eastern Georgia as a Russian protectorate.
The colourful scenes depict Georgian warriors on horseback and Russian Red Army troops. Traders sell fresh fruits and souvenirs to the thousands of tourists who stop to admire the mural and its breathtaking surroundings of jagged peaks and cavernous gorges.
Many of those visitors are Russian but today the ties that bind Georgia and Russia have become more strained than at any time since 2008, when Russia comprehensively defeated Georgia in a war over Georgia’s breakaway territory of South Ossetia.
Protests that began in June in Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi, have taken aim at Russia’s continued “occupation” of 20 percent of Georgian territory: its overt military and economic support for South Ossetia and for Abkhazia, a region Georgia lost in a war in 1993.
The protests have also been directed at the current Georgian government and its policy of rebuilding economic ties with Russia while leaving the ongoing territorial disputes untouched.
It is a policy that has proven itself to be fragile.
President Vladimir Putin‘s response to the outpouring of Georgian anger on June 20 was to ban flights from Moscow to Georgia, warning Russian holiday-makers they were in danger, and imperilling a tourism industry that depends to a large extent on Russian roubles.
But it has also shown that between Russians and Georgians there are long-standing personal ties and relationships that run deeper than politics.
Sergey Ganin is an easy-going former veterinarian from Russia who now works as a paragliding instructor in Gudauri. He pilots adventurous tourists on breathtaking swoops and spins over the Soviet monument, climbing the thermals that rise up from the valley floor.
Sergey said his opinion of Georgians has been shaped by his experience of working with a Georgian paragliding team for the past four years.
“As a stranger, I was met with respect and love,” he said, although he admits that sometimes young Georgians see him as “an aggressor”. The problem is because of the absence of alternative voices in Russia’s mediascape, few people in Russia are even aware of how Georgians feel.
“We in Russia do not think [about Abkhazia and South Ossetia] that there is something going on. That part of Georgia’s territory is under the influence of our country. I don’t think about it when I am in Russia, but I see that this situation here is painful for every Georgian.”
In reality, everything is fine, people are very hospitable. There is no danger.
Holiday-maker Inna Fateeva from Saint Petersburg decided to travel after Putin’s embargo was announced, but before Russian tourism agencies cancelled their tours.
“I don’t watch news or TV. I got the information from relatives who started to call and tell me not to go to Georgia because it’s dangerous there,” she said. “There was a moment when I was doubtful, but I came anyway. In reality, everything is fine, people are very hospitable. There is no danger.”
Georgia’s National Bank has warned the deficit in Russian tourists could cost $200-300m this year alone. And already the embargo, which only came into effect on Monday, is being felt in hotels and businesses that cater for mostly Russian holiday-makers on Georgia’s Black Sea coast.
Lali Chochia is the chef of a small, family-oriented hotel not far from Batumi, situated in a pine grove behind a long stretch of beach famous for its black magnetic sand. She said the hotel was fully booked for July and August until the announcement of the travel ban.
“We’ve lost about 20 percent of bookings. But people will find a way to visit because most of my Russian friends don’t support Putin’s policies. When you come to Georgia, if you’re Russian, you feel good here, you make friends, you enjoy the food and the nature. This is more important than your president’s politics.”
For Lali, her own relationship with Russia is complicated. Born in Sukhumi, Abkhazia, she was forced to flee her home during the 1992-93 war there. She is one of an estimated 250,000 Georgians made homeless by conflicts with Russia and Russian-backed separatists and spent 18 years living in Moscow before eventually returning to Georgia.
“I still think that Russia played an unfair game between Abkhazians and Georgians – and we’ll never know the truth because everything was hidden,” she said.
“The [Russian state] just plays with people. They do what they want, they don’t care about society, about people. But I don’t blame the Russians who come here, I’m this kind of person. The best way to judge something or think about something? It’s your own experience.”
Though the numbers are already falling, Russian tourists will continue to visit Georgia, especially those who do not believe the Kremlin’s messaging. There are third countries through which they can fly and they can also travel the Georgian Military Highway.
It is the main road running over the mountains towards Vladikavkaz in Russia. The same road takes you past the famed Soviet monument to Georgian-Russian friendship. It hardly seems like a friendship today, but it is a relationship that hopefully will survive the current geopolitical antagonism.