‘Another provocation!’: Georgia balks as Russia ends visa regime

President Salome Zourabichvili says lifting a visa ban and resuming flights is meaningless as long as Russia occupies Georgian and Ukrainian lands.

Russians crossing the border
Travellers from Russia cross the border to Georgia at the Zemo Larsi/Verkhny Lars station in Georgia [File: Irakli Gedenidze/Reuters]

Russian President Vladimir Putin has abolished visas for Georgian nationals and lifted a 2019 ban on direct flights to the South Caucasus nation, a move that comes amid rocky relations between the two countries and that was quickly denounced by Georgia’s president as a “provocation”.

Announced on the Russian government’s website, the move introduces a 90-day visa-free period starting May 15.

In a statement, Russia’s transport ministry said Russian airlines would operate seven flights weekly between Moscow and Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi.

It said Russia wanted “to facilitate the conditions for communication and contacts between the residents of Russia and Georgia”.

Georgian President Salome Zourabichvili balked on Twitter, writing: “Another Russian provocation! Resuming direct flights and lifting [the] visa ban with Georgia is unacceptable as long as Russia continues its aggression on Ukraine and occupies our territory.”

Zourabichvili has repeatedly accused Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili of the ruling Georgian Dream party of maintaining questionable ties with Moscow since being elected with its backing in 2018.

Moscow and Tbilisi have one of the most strained relations among the former Soviet Union nations and have had no formal diplomatic relations since 2008, when a brief war erupted over South Ossetia, a Russian-backed breakaway region.

Much of Georgian society remains strongly anti-Russian, with thousands living as internal refugees after fleeing South Ossetia and another Russian-backed secessionist region, Abkhazia.

In March, Georgia abandoned efforts to pass a “foreign agents” draft law after mass protests, with critics deploring the bill as modelled on a Russian law they say was used to undermine civil society.

Travellers from Russia drive after crossing the border to Georgia at the at the Zemo Larsi/Verkhny Lars station
Travellers from Russia drive after crossing the border to Georgia at the Zemo Larsi/Verkhny Lars station [File: Irakli Gedenidze/Reuters]

While Russia allows visa-free travel to most former Soviet countries, it imposed a visa requirement on Georgia in 2000, citing a security risk.

Moscow also banned direct flights to Georgia in 2019 after anti-Russian protests.

Tbilisi allows Russians visa-free access and employment rights for up to a year, which has seen the country become a refuge for Russians fleeing the draft during the invasion of Ukraine.

Despite a strong pro-Ukrainian stance among top politicians and the public, Georgia has refused to impose sanctions on Russia, causing friction with the European Union.

Russia praised Tbilisi’s decision and said its position on the war was “balanced”.

Strained relations

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies