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Georgia Is Walking A Fine Line Between The West And Russia

The United States and European Union have pressed on the Georgian government not to allow the re-establishment of direct flights with Russia as ruling party officials in Tbilisi refuse to rule out the possibility.

As Russian officials continued to float the prospect of reversing the ban they instituted nearly four years ago, the U.S. and EU issued similar statements to media outlets warning that servicing flights to Russia could violate Western sanctions against the Russian airline sector. 

"Many Western countries, including the United States, prohibit Russian aircraft from entering their airspace. We would be concerned about the resumption of flights between Russia and Georgia, given that companies at Georgian airports could be subject to sanctions if they serve aircraft subject to additional import and export controls," the U.S. State Department told the Georgian service of Voice of America. "The entire Western community has distanced itself from this brutal regime, and now is not the time to expand engagement with Russia." 

"We are aware of the recent discussions on the possible restoration of direct flights between Russia and Georgia," an EU spokesperson told the Georgian newspaper Netgazeti. "The European Union calls on Georgia to join the sanctions imposed by the European Union and other countries against Russia in the aviation sector and to remain vigilant against any possible attempts to circumvent the sanctions."

When Russia invaded Ukraine and the U.S., Europe, and their allies imposed sweeping sanctions against Moscow. While Georgia's government said it would not impose its own sanctions, it has consistently received praise from Washington and Brussels for cooperating with the Western sanctions regime, complying with financial sanctions and carrying out border controls to prevent sanctions evasion. 

But Tbilisi's toying with the prospect of welcoming Russian flights seems to have set off warning bells in Western capitals.

Russia unilaterally banned direct flights to Georgia in 2019 following a wave of anti-Russia protests. Russian officials have since repeatedly said that they would restore the flights once they deemed Georgia's "Russophobia campaign" to have ceased. Georgian officials have consistently said that they would welcome a lifting of the ban, which complicates things for one of the key drivers of the Georgian economy: Russian tourism.

But all that was before Russia's invasion of Ukraine, and this would seem to be an unlikely time for the flights to resume.

The Georgian government has tried to maintain a delicate balancing act in the wake of the Ukraine war. It is trying to not attract the ire of Russia while it's on the warpath, while at the same time complying with Western sanctions and seeking to take advantage of the favorable geopolitical moment to gain EU candidacy. 

Meanwhile, following Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the EU, U.S. and allied countries issued heavy sanctions against the Russian airline sector. That includes a ban on servicing Russian aircraft manufactured in the U.S., Europe, Canada or the UK.

Washington appears to be trying to tighten those restrictions; in recent weeks U.S. officials have reportedly been leaning on Turkey, which did not ban Russian flights following the launch of the war in Ukraine, to stop providing ground services to Russian airlines. 

Despite - or perhaps because of - that fraught environment, Russian officials have sought to revisit the issue of the flight ban. In mid-January Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was asked about the issue and said he hoped flights could resume soon, adding that Georgia's decision not to impose its own sanctions against Russia inspired "respect." 

Respect is not something many Georgians are seeking from the Kremlin, these days less than ever as emotions continue to run high over the Ukraine war. Lavrov's comments occasioned a political firestorm in Georgia. The political opposition, which takes every opportunity to paint the ruling Georgian Dream party as pro-Russia, leapt. 

Georgian Dream leaders, driven above all by opposing the opposition, have insisted that resuming flights would be in Georgia's interest. They have only doubled down as the criticism both internally and from abroad has intensified.

"Our position is simple: it [the flight ban] was a sanction imposed on Georgia by Russia at the time, in 2019, which, of course, aggravated the situation of our citizens," Georgian Dream chairman Irakli Kobakhdize said on February 3. "If unilateral sanctions are lifted by the Russian Federation, it will be welcome for us in the interests of our fellow citizens and countrymen."

One ruling party lawmaker said that the government would welcome the lifting of the ban, but emphasized that it remained committed to complying with international sanctions. "We will not oppose it, but we doubt that flights can be restored without violating sanctions," member of parliament Giorgi Khelashvili told Georgian news site Interpressnews. 

Khelashvili played down the warning from the U.S. "Companies that cooperate with sanctioned Russian companies will be subject to sanctions - this does not apply only to flights, but to any area in which Russia is sanctioned," he said. "We have known this for a long time and we also know that no one has yet made a substantiated accusation against Georgia of sanctions evasion. … Georgia will take this statement into account and will not violate the sanctions regime under any circumstances."

For their part, Russian officials have continued to stir the pot. Grigoriy Karasin, a Russian senator and former deputy foreign minister who remains Moscow's point man in discussions with Georgia, said that it was up to Georgia to lift the ban.

"It takes two to tango," he told Russian newspaper RBC on January 31. "And if one of the participants in the duet is skeptical, then you shouldn't pressure them. Whatever decision is made doesn't depend only on us," he said, without elaborating on what would be expected from Tbilisi.

In his comments, Kobakhidze disputed Karasin's characterization: "What took a unilateral decision at the time, in 2019, does not need a tango in 2023. It also takes a unilateral decision."

Following the demarches from Washington and Brussels, Russian officials again weighed in to mock Tbilisi's purported servility. "Now the West is starting to twist Georgia's arms about the too-calm relations with Russia," Karasin wrote on his Telegram channel. "Such are the rules of the game in international affairs regardless of history, geography, and states' own preferences. Washington decides - you do it!"

Georgia was in a condition of "geopolitical slavery" due to its Euro-Atlantic aspirations, wrote another Russian senator, Konstantin Kosachev. "There is only free cheese in a mousetrap," he wrote. "This is where Georgia ended up because of its Euro-striving, along with Ukraine and Moldova," he said, referring to Georgia's fellow EU aspirants.


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