Visa-free Regime with Russia, Resumption of Flights and European Integration Aspirations

Visa-free Regime with Russia, Resumption of Flights and European Integration Aspirations

Malkhaz Nakashidze

Jean Monnet Chair, Batumi Shota Rustaveli State University

According to the decree issued by the President of Russia, Vladimir Putin, the visa regime with Georgia will be canceled from May 15, 2023. Citizens of Georgia will be able to enter Russia without a visa for up to 90 days. By Putin’s decree, the ban on flights to Georgia was also lifted from May 15. Direct flights between Russia and Georgia were stopped in 2019. This decision was made by Moscow unilaterally after the visit of Sergei Gavrilov, deputy of the Russian State Council in Tbilisi, to the Parliament of Georgia and the ongoing protests[1]  against Russia due to his actions in the parliament session hall. To recall, Russia stopped direct flights to Georgia in October 2006, after the spy scandal between the two countries. In 2008, the flights were resumed for a few months, but they were stopped again after the August war.

The government of Georgia warmly welcomed such a decision of Putin. The Prime Minister of Georgia stated that “from a humanitarian point of view, everything and every decision that will make life, movement, and doing business easier for our citizens is certainly positive and welcome.”[2]  The chairman of Georgian Dream said that this is the lifting of the sanction that Russia imposed on Georgian citizens by banning flights. “We couldn’t have any position on that because it was a unilateral decision at the time and it’s still a unilateral decision today.”According to him, “there is no connection between this issue and the status of the candidate. He also stated that under no circumstances will it be allowed to circumvent the sanctions, and Georgia will not impose sanctions on Russia, because “by imposing sanctions on Russia, in fact, we will impose sanctions on our own country and our own people, which we will not do.” Irakli Kobakhidze invoked the Constitution of Georgia and emphasized that promoting the connection of the Georgian diaspora with Georgia is “our constitutional obligation”. The government is fully controlling the situation and everything is ensured in terms of security.” Regarding the criticism related to the entry of a large number of Russian citizens into Georgia, he also said that “we will not allow xenophobic campaigns to take place in our country on ethnic grounds.”[3]

Regarding this decision, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Georgia also said that if we judge from a “humanitarian prism”, Moscow’s decision to cancel the visa regime and resume flights with Georgia “is welcome for any responsible government”. “The decision taken by the Russian Federation is an independent decision.” “This is their sovereign decision, and any country decides which country’s citizens to establish a visa-free regime for and for which to remove it. We are dealing with this very event.” However, we have to agree with the ambassador of the European Union, who stated that it was Russia’s decision, but Georgia’s consent was required.[4]

Kobakhidze invoked the Constitution, but he did not enact Article 78 of the Constitution, which stipulates: The constitutional bodies shall take all measures within the scope of their competences to ensure the full integration of Georgia into the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.[5] This decision of the government – to welcome and oppose Putin’s decision is in clear contradiction with Article 78 of the Constitution of Georgia and the perspective of Georgia’s European integration, especially at a time when the country is waiting for the status of a candidate for EU membership from the European Union.

The opposition of this government’s decision to the European Union was confirmed by the actions of the EU member states themselves. On behalf of all 27 countries of the European Union, the EU ambassador to Georgia handed over the ministry to Demarsh for the start of flights with Russia.[6] Herchinsky told the journalists that this decision of the Georgian government is against the bans imposed by the EU countries.[7] This decision was also protested by the US State Department, which stated that “many Western countries, including the United States, prohibit Russian aircraft from entering their airspace. “We would be concerned if flights between Russia and Georgia were to resume, given that companies at Georgian airports could become targets of sanctions if they service aircraft subject to additional import and export controls.”[8]

Nevertheless, the authorities created all the conditions for Russian airlines to fly to Georgia, the visa regime was lifted and thousands of citizens of the Russian Federation entered, Russian citizens crossed the Georgian border 443,624 times in the second quarter of 2023 [enter].[9] In Georgia, they move freely in the territory of Georgia, buy real estate, land plots.[10]According to the registry data, in the period from March 1 to October 12, 2022, 2,585 citizens of Russia purchased a total of 2,964 apartments in Georgia, with a total area of 189,084 square meters. In the same period, 252 citizens of Russia bought 249 plots of land, 37.9 hectares in Georgia.[11]

Although the government has constitutionally banned the sale of agricultural land to foreigners, Russian citizens’ land is freely bought using various corrupt schemes. Citizens of Georgia change the status of agricultural lands to non-agricultural purposes, and then citizens of Russia buy them. This cannot be done without the consent of the executive power, local self-government.

Actually, if we look at the cancellation of the visa regime and cancellation of flights from the state point of view, Igoi is dangerous for the European interests of the country in many ways. The government is trying to simplify this issue, to present it as a domestic, everyday life issue, as if it is only for the benefit of ordinary citizens of Russia, including many Georgian citizens living in Russia. However, this is not the case for a person who is slightly certain about the issue, and it is more of a global issue.

Russia is a state hostile to Georgia, which has occupied 20% of Georgia’s territory and officially threatens the country on a daily basis. Among them, he openly opposes Georgia’s European and North Atlantic aspirations and organizes provocations every day. The Russian Federation officially states in its state strategy that it will protect its citizens on the territory of other countries, including by using armed forces. Russia has already implemented the so-called Passporting in Abkhazia, Transnistria, Ukraine and this experience exists. Trust in state institutions is very low in Georgia, and no one knows whether the relevant services actually check such a large number of incoming citizens, and there is no institutional control mechanism for the executive authorities in this area.

There are examples when the Georgian authorities did not allow activists or media representatives critical of the Russian authorities to enter the country, while the obvious supporters of Putin’s policy, who may have violated the Georgian legislation on occupation, freely enter the country. Georgia, which has been a strategic partner of the European Union and the USA for years, should join all the sanctions imposed by the West on Russia and impose a visa regime for Russian citizens to enter Georgia. It is also necessary to implement changes at the legislative level regarding the issues of issuing residence certificates to Russian citizens and purchasing real estate.

May 31, 2023 – Batumi, Georgia