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Putin's Calculated Maneuver: The Geopolitical Implications of Restoring Air Traffic and Scrapping Visa Regime with Georgia

By Malkhaz Matsaberidze
Wednesday, May 24, 2023
On May 10, it became known about Putin's decision - the Russian president restored direct air traffic and canceled the visa regime with Georgia. The Georgian government welcomed this move by Putin, while the opposition saw the further growth of Russia's influence on Georgia and a threat to Georgia's European future.

The Kremlin has always used economic ties to achieve its political goals. Georgia's 30-year post-Soviet experience with Russia is enough to convince us of this. The economic sanctions imposed by Russia on Georgia and the transition from sanctions to the 'dandling' policy served political goals.

Both the visa regime and direct air flights are political tools for the Kremlin, and this is how the step taken by Putin toward Georgia on May 10 should be perceived. The visa regime with Georgia was established by Putin himself in 2000, still during the period of Shevardnadze's rule. It was a tool to punish Georgia - Putin did not like Shevardnadze's cautious Western course and was angry that Shevardnadze did not support his war against the Chechens.

For some reason, the Kremlin was convinced that Georgians could not tolerate the visa regime with Russia and that Shevardnadze would face problems. Georgia also introduced a visa regime with Russia, but soon after the August 2008 war, Saakashvili canceled the visa regime first with the North Caucasus and then with all of Russia. In these circumstances, the Georgian Dream came to power in 2012 and it is still maintaining the same policy.

After Putin attacked Ukraine, the visa-free regime with Russia turned into a national problem for Georgia, - the country has hundreds of thousands of Russian citizens, not a small part of which is planning to stay in Georgia for a long time. Nothing is hindering them from staying in the country. Public opinion polls show that a large part of the population of Georgia supports establishing a visa regime for Russian citizens.

Pro-Western opposition parties are also calling for the necessity of establishing a visa regime with Russia. On May 10, President Salome Zurabishvili requested the convening of the Security Council to discuss the establishment of a three-month visa regime for Russian citizens and to control the activities of those Russian citizens who remained in Georgia. It is also clear that while the Georgian Dream is in power, it will not impose any restrictions on Russian citizens in Georgia.

As for the direct air connection between Georgia and Russia, Putin stopped and resumed it several times. Russia stopped direct flights to Georgia in October 2006, after Russian spies were arrested in Georgia. In 2008, direct flights resumed for a few months but were stopped again after the August war. The last direct flights to Georgia were stopped by Russia on July 8, 2019, after the sitting of the deputy of the Russian State Duma, Sergey Gavrilov, in the chair of the Georgian Parliament, caused a public protest.

The Georgian Dream government unanimously welcomed Putin's cancellation of the visa regime and the restoration of direct flights. The main argument was the citizens of Georgia in Russia, who would find it easier to connect with their homeland. But Putin did not take this step for 'humanist' reasons.

With this step taken on May 10, Putin is trying to achieve several goals:

1. He 'rewarded' the current government of Georgia for 'good' behavior, which Russian propagandists even noted when commenting on Putin's decision. This 'prize' will also benefit the Georgian dream before the 2024 elections, - here is my policy bringing results;
2. He showed the world that he actually perceives Georgia as an ally and expects more from it;
3. Georgia is seen in the Kremlin as a way to avoid Western sanctions. Russia will try to get the goods it needs through Georgia.
4. The restoration of direct flights with Russia and the mutual cancellation of the visa regime is likely to have a negative impact on obtaining EU candidate status;
5. With this step, Russia will try to bring Georgia even closer to its economic space, Russify economic institutions, and lead demographic expansion in Georgia on an even greater scale.

Deposits of Russians in Georgian banks exceeded 2 billion, compared to March 2022, in March 2023, the amount of remittances from Russia to Georgia increased 8.3 times and amounted to 224 million USD. The amount of real estate purchased by Russian citizens is increasing, they are buying apartments and land en masse, 17 thousand companies have been registered in Georgia by Russian citizens, and more than half of them were registered in Ukraine after the war started. In the not-so-distant future, the Kremlin will use all this to influence Georgia.