Protests outside the parliament, airport and hotel blockades, clashes with the police, and the arrest of protesters — in recent days, Georgia has once again heated up.
These mass protests have two causes. It is noteworthy that they are not formally related but have coincided in time. The first is the resumption of air communication between Georgia and Russia, and the second is the arrival of relatives of the Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Sergey Lavrov, to the country.
However, these two events have one common characteristic: they are evidence of Georgia being strongly drawn into the sphere of Russian influence.
And it seems that this process will have further continuation.
Moreover, leaders in Tbilisi seem to underestimate the danger of their actions. They remember what happened two months ago when mass protests in Georgia halted the adoption of a law that would have jeopardized the country’s European future. And the current protests are significantly less impactful compared to those in March.
However, by defending the right of the relatives of one of the organizers of the 2008 war and the annexation of sovereign territories to enjoy their vacation in Georgia, the Georgian government is clearly playing with fire.
There are those in Georgia who are not willing to accept such flirtation with Putin’s Russia.
“An unwelcome flight”
“They tell us that because there is war in Ukraine, we must stop everything, worsen the situation for our people, and not think about the economy, and trade,” said the Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili in response to Western criticism of resuming air communication with Russia.
Despite the fact that such a step clearly contradicts the sanctions policy of the European Union, the Georgian government has stated that they will not take it into account. As the head of the Georgian government explained, “we must be a member of the EU to comply with the policies of EU countries.”
Therefore, despite all the warnings, the first flight from Russia to Georgia took place on May 19. Moreover, despite assurances from the Georgian authorities, permits for flights were granted to a Russian airline that operates flights to the annexed Crimea, thereby falling under Ukrainian sanctions.
And this is not a coincidence: later, another Russian airline that also flies to Crimea and falls under Kyiv’s sanctions received permits for flights to Georgia as well.
The first flight from Russia was accompanied by mass protests both at the airport and outside the parliament in Georgia. Among the most popular signs were slogans that echoed the inspiration of Ukraine’s resistance against Russia: “Russian plane, go to…”
However, the plane did not go anywhere but landed at the airport in Tbilisi.
Later, the actions of the protesters were effectively supported by the President of Georgia Salome Zourabichvili.
“Despite the resistance of the Georgian people, Russia landed in Tbilisi with a flight that is not welcome,” she initially wrote on Twitter.
Subsequently, Zourabichvili made an emergency address where she criticized Georgian Airways, which had also started operating direct flights to Moscow.
“It is taking advantage of a new reality that is unacceptable to a significant portion of the population. I will refrain from using Georgian Airways flights to avoid enriching the company,” Salome Zourabichvili stated.
In response, Georgian Airways declared the country’s president persona non grata on their aircraft.
It is worth noting that this airline aggressively defends the ability to fly to Russia, and this is not the first excessively sharp reaction from them to criticism of resuming flights. Earlier, the press service of Georgian Airways referred to the participants of a picket outside their office as “ridiculous nobodies.”
However, all these protests turned out to be not very large-scale.
Even on the day of the opening of the airspace with Russia, only a few thousand people came out to protest against it, which is incomparably less than during the March protests.
Perhaps the scandal would have died down at that point, but simultaneously with the launch of flights to Russia, another event occurred that became a true catalyst for the protests. The opposition TV channel Mtavari learned from its sources about the visit of Ekaterina Vinokurova, the daughter of the Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Sergey Lavrov, to the country.
Violation of hospitality law
The daughter of Putin’s top diplomat came to Georgia for a reason.
These days, a wedding was supposed to take place in Kakheti involving Alexander Vinokurov, her husband’s brother.
This is not the first time in recent years when representatives of the Russian elite choose Georgia for their celebrations. In 2021, Russian TV host Vladimir Pozner decided to celebrate his anniversary in Tbilisi. However, that idea resulted in protests outside the hotel, forcing Pozner and his guests to hastily leave Georgia.
However, the current incident appears to be much more scandalous.
First, we are talking about Lavrov’s family, i.e. close relatives of a man who was among the key players in the 2008 war against Georgia (the Foreign Minister has held his current position since 2004) and the subsequent annexation of the occupied Georgian territories.
Secondly, both Lavrov’s daughter and her husband are under sanctions from Western countries, but no restrictions have been imposed on them in Georgia itself. This is another illustrative example of the fact that Georgia is not going to adhere to a common European policy of restricting Russia.
It is not surprising that the Kvareli Lake Resort hotel, where Lavrova was supposed to stay, was blocked by protesters.
And police attempts to unblock it resulted in fights and detentions. According to the police, 16 people were administratively detained.
Meanwhile, the Georgian government had been denying the visit of Lavrov’s relatives to the country for a long time. It was only when President Salome Zourabichvili confirmed this disgraceful fact in her address, stating that the government acknowledged the truth of this information. However, she emphasized that the confirmation was not regarding the arrival of the scandalous family but rather that they were forced to leave Georgia.
“Although it was quite difficult for me to reach out, I did receive assurances from the Minister of Internal Affairs that the family, the people who were planning to celebrate the second part of the wedding today, have left. Therefore, the wedding will not take place today,” announced the President of Georgia.
Later, sources from the Mtavari TV channel confirmed this information. Lavrov’s daughter and son-in-law reached the airport and headed toward Saudi Arabia under the escort of the State Security Service and the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Georgia.
The Georgian authorities openly came to the defense of this couple.
“No sanctions can be applied to a family member as a whole; such an approach blatantly contradicts human rights standards,” later stated Irakli Kobakhidze, the chairman of the ruling Georgian Dream party, seemingly forgetting the fact that the US and EU found sufficient grounds for imposing sanctions.
He separately accused both President Salome Zourabichvili and the protesters of violating the “law of hospitality.” He also reminded us that Georgia has not joined the Western sanctions against Russia, and therefore is not obliged to comply with them.
Steps toward Russia
There is no doubt that the visit to Georgia by the relatives of a Russian top minister has significantly exacerbated the protests related to the opening of airspace with Russia.
And this prompts the question: Are these events not connected?
Why did they coincide in time?
Is it possible that Russia is deliberately stirring up the conflict to provoke internal confrontation in Georgia? Or is it possible that the date of the opening of the flights was specially chosen to coincide with the wedding of Lavrov’s relatives?
But most likely the question is different.
The resumption of flights and the scandalous celebration are both consequences of the current unprecedented rapprochement between Georgia and Russia.
It is unknown whether any of the wedding guests traveled to Georgia on a direct flight from a budget airline — it is unlikely. However, the fact that they chose Georgia as the location for their celebration indicates that the Kremlin no longer perceives the Georgian government as hostile.
In addition, Russian top tourists must have received security guarantees from the Georgian authorities, which explains both the harsh actions of the police against the protesters and the subsequent excuses by the Georgian Dream management.
And if so, the current steps toward this may not be the last.
Russian MP Sergei Gavrilov, who caused the 2019 protests in Georgia, is already predicting the restoration of diplomatic relations between the countries, which were severed by President Saakashvili after the 2008 war.
Also, according to Georgian journalists, representatives of the Georgian Dream party have already begun to speak unofficially about Russia’s readiness in principle to resume negotiations on unblocking the Georgian-Russian railway connection, which has not been in operation since the early 1990s, as the railway passes through Russian-occupied Abkhazia.
The implementation of such plans will mean a new level of Georgia’s final turn away from the West and toward Russia.
Unless, of course, Georgian citizens prevent this.
In March, they managed to stop this reversal, but a couple of months later, the Georgian authorities took revenge.
Protests launched over the Moscow flights do not appear to be powerful enough to force the authorities to abandon their plans.
But this is precisely the significance of such “black swans” as the visit of Lavrov’s daughter. After all, the purpose of this wedding was to demonstrate the fact that the Russian elite already treats Georgia as a country that has abandoned the Western course in favor of economic preferences.
Post Scriptum. Elite trends are easily “read” and copied by average Russians. According to Russian ticket booking services, Georgia has become the second most popular tourist destination for Russians in the current month of June.
Such attention toward Georgia is not surprising, as it is an important and integral part of the “grand Stalinist style” that is now being carefully replicated in the Kremlin.
Originally posted by Yuriy Panchenko on European Pravda. Translated and edited by the UaPosition – Ukrainian news and analytics website