24.05.2023 Author: Henry Kamens

US Threatens Georgia with Sanction: “The Beacon of Democracy” over direct flights and visa free travel

Georgia - direct flights and visa free travel

Very seldom is something that can be so beneficial for one country attracted the wrath of so many others, as in the reaction to Russia affording Georgia visa-free status and direct flights, after so many years of travel and visa restrictions, recriminations, and name-calling. The US and the Georgian president also want to stop flights from resuming between the neighboring countries, which were suspended last year in the wake of the Ukrainian civil war, Russia’s special operation, and in light of the US-EU instigating anti-Russian protests in Georgia and other countries.

Those speaking out the loudest are those who are the least involved and who are not stakeholders in what should make most Georgians happy: being able to freely visit family and friends in Russia without the need for complicated and expensive visa applications and having to travel overland to Russia. This can potentially be a game changer, as now the US is threatening Georgia, “The Beacon of Democracy” with sanctions.

Winners and losers

The US Ambassador, Kelly Degnan, has made it clear in her statements that the US is very upset over the decision of the Georgian government to look after its own best interests in her many remarks. On May 11, spoke about Moscow’s decision to resume flights with Georgia and noted that the United States cannot comment on whether this decision will affect Georgia’s EU candidate status.

At least it is good to know that she is not making policy decisions for the EU. The United States is not in the European Parliament, so we don’t have anything to do with those decisions, told the US Ambassador.  She noted that Putin is doing this not out of the goodness of his heart [lifting visa restrictions] and “how no one believes that the Russian president cares about the comfort of Georgian passengers”.

Others are also closing ranks with the EU and US in labeling to Russia’s decision to lift the visa regime and direct flight ban with Georgia, describing it as a provocative offer and an apparent attempt to increase Georgia’s dependency on Russia.

Meanwhile, the lame duck US Ambassador continues by saying claiming how “We have seen that sometimes Putin uses the presence of Russians in the country to interfere in this country,” and how many Georgians are already worried about the arrival of hundreds of thousands of Russians in Georgia, and “now we hear from the Russian Tourism Agency that as a result of the resumption of direct flights, perhaps, another million will come.”

I am sure many Georgians would take exception to the rhetoric of the US Embassy, as [they know] firsthand the value that Russian citizens have added to the Georgia economy, especially in terms of the real estate market and bringing new skills, human resources, and investments to Georgia, and being active consumers.

As one Georgian university student, who has family in Russia, shared with me, “for Georgians whose family members live in Russia as immigrants: resuming direct flights between these two countries is really beneficial! As long as Russians are not free from visa regulations and can’t stay in Georgia for more than 12 months, everything is fine. The West tries to make the relationship between Georgia and Russia worse, but the authorities aren’t allowing that.”

According to the US State Department, “If direct flights between Russia and Georgia are restored, we will, of course, be concerned that companies in Georgian airports may face the risk of bankruptcy if they serve aircraft subject to import and export controls.”

It is interesting to see how what most Georgians welcome as normalization of relations is being reacted to, especially by the figurehead Georgian president, Salome Zurabishvili, the lifting of restrictions as a 2019 flight ban was quickly denounced by Georgia’s president as a “provocation.”

Earning frequent flyer points

But already some are trying to earn frequent flyer points from the decision, Giorgi Pkhaladze one former airport employee, who used the Vladimir Putin’s cancellation of the visa regime for Georgian citizens, to draw attention to himself or to his political sponsors. Later it was learned that he left the job for other reasons, aside from perhaps using his departure as a political ploy, and he only worked at the airport as a parking lot attendant.

Pkhaladze, an employee of Tbilisi International Airport, said: “I will not serve people flying from Russia on a direct flight!!! I wrote a statement about leaving my job, resignation, and effective May 19 I will no longer work at Tbilisi International Airport!

“Tbilisi and Batumi International Airports governing company, “TAV Georgia”—a Turkish company, responded, explaining that his employment status contained several inaccuracies.

We find it necessary to explain that Giorgi Phkhaladze addressed the company’s human resources management service on May 1 of this year with an announcement of his resignation. Accordingly, his resignation will not be in any connection with the lifting of the ban on flights to Georgia for Russian airlines, which was announced on May 10.

It is also noteworthy that Giorgi Pkhaladze, who worked as a cashier-operator at the parking lot of Tbilisi International Airport, had nothing to do with flight services. Accordingly, it is completely inappropriate to talk on his part that “those who fly from Russia will not be served”

Olive Branch or Provocation?

Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili said in a post on Twitter on May 10 that Putin’s dual decrees were “another provocation.”  She describes the moves “as being completely unacceptable and coming at an inappropriate time. We do not need gifts from Russia, masked as some kind of a concession. In today’s situation, we are on the same side as all our European friends!”

She goes on to describe how the action “might serve to cover up their [alleged] failures in Bakhmut, “I don’t know how to describe it, but this might have served to cover up where they are unable to demonstrate strength. It might also have been a response to the new eleventh package of sanctions announced by the EU … describing it as it can be [many things] but most importantly for us, this is a provocation to challenge our society” and how it presents a very BIG challenge to the Georgian government.

She is correct when she says that “this will undoubtedly cause some kind of tension between the political parties, [as their only claim] to fame is complicating and Russian baiting at every opportunity. The claimed Pro-Western opposition parties issued a joint statement, accusing the ruling Georgian Dream of “once again” endangering Georgia’s European and Euro-Atlantic future, pointing out that the country’s international isolation may bring it under Russia’s dominance.

Girchi-More Freedom, Droa, StrategyAgmashenebeli, Lelo, UNM, and European Georgia pledged to “do everything to change this regime democratically.” They are constantly trying to prove to their outside sponsors, especially American, that they are more anti-Russian than the other parties. Apart from the former ruling UNM, these last leg parties are polling in the low single digits, and any future they may have may likely depend on outside sponsors.

As Salome goes on and on, it becomes clear that her own personal motivations are “most likely” funded by outsiders. She is not speaking for Georgia or the Georgian people, “I am sure that it will not cause any tension within society, but rather a very big reaction.  She explains how “Our Society understands very well that Russia is taking such steps based on its own self-interest.”

Do the Russians know a way that others don’t know as well?

Every country, especially fledgling democracies, must act in according to their self-interests and not be too easily manipulated by outsiders. Georgians know only too well the results of listening to special interests in the US, back during the 2008 US presidential elections, and how a protracted war would have been good for John McCain, as ordered. The price Georgia had to pay was high as a direct result.

It is just the opposite as Zurabishvili, explains in her broken Georgian language diatribe,

“Unfortunately, our government has not yet understood, has not thought about our history, and it has not thought about all the existing examples that Russia never responds to the government’s concessions with concessions. Rather, it will respond with something that will make one’s situation more difficult. This is its constant behavior and I think the government should think about it.

As if Twitter Matters, Salome?

I have already expressed my position on Twitter, [as if she has no other forum]. I believe that this is completely unacceptable and [comes at] an inappropriate time.

“We do not need visa removals, nor do we need to restore flights.”

Certainly, she is not speaking for the Georgian people, or those who try to make it to the US, cross the US border illegally, where they face violence and death on the way, having to borrow and sell all they have to start new lives. Only too often, based on stories that I have been told, they find themselves living in the street and the American Dream proves only too soon a nightmare experience, and they wished they had never left Georgia.

She continues, “As long as Russia remains the aggressor over the whole world and the occupiers of our territories, such gestures are really untimely and unacceptable! I call on the government to make its position clear. It is time, as I have repeatedly requested, for the National Security Council to meet publicly and discuss the three-month visa imposition that we need, even given the internal challenge.”

She calls for more needed “governmental control over those Russians who enter and stay in Georgia, and [how it is] necessary to take some measures so that all of this falls into a normal, civilized framework.”

We are a very tolerant country, we accept everyone, and this has been shown last year, but some things cannot happen in the country: Russian-language kindergartens cannot be opened, where teaching the Georgian language will not be mandatory. We cannot avoid imposing some measures on different professions. And adds …“What are the requirements for people of this, or that profession; this means, the licensing of even taxi drivers, tour guides, and many other professions.

Her justification for imposing such “European values” is that “this will serve to protect our society and this will be the right response to today’s provocation. We do not need gifts from Russia, masked as some kind of concession. In today’s situation, we are on the same side of all of our European friends.

Naturally, “this is to protect the honor of Georgia by avoiding starting some kind of relationship with Russia, and unlike everyone else in the world … that will make everything difficult for us, even in terms of our country’s accusations of circumventing sanctions. I can confirm that there is no such threat from Georgia today, but we should not create a situation that will intensify these accusations and make it harder to defend ourselves against them.

Good that you are certain of something!

Therefore, I once again appeal to the government to listen to the voice of the people, and not to the power of the people!” I am certain that people are united around this subject, and not only because this represents yet another decision that might challenge the decision [for the EU] to grant us candidacy status but because this goes against Georgia’s interests and its honor.

We know where our country, with its occupied territories and its solidarity with friendly Ukraine, stands. This is our position and we must remain loyal to the end—this is the request of our society.  I am certain that if events develop differently, which I hope they will not, society will also respond to it.”

You would think they [some people and many politicians] would understand that if Georgia ever wants its territory back, or in part, it needs to have good relations with Russia and learn to negotiate and not toss fuel on the fire.

Commentary is in her very words

Salome may be technically the president, and one thing is for sure, most of what she has proclaimed is not shared by the same populace that she claims to speak for, and society is looking forward to the best offers it can get from all its friends, close and far.

Why is she not making such heart-moving speeches on the EU’s refusal to offer Georgia Candidacy status or NATO’s unfilled promises to open membership, since 2008?  Those are moot issues, and need not be discussed, as they are known to most readers and most Georgians.

Even VOA, Voice of America,(recognized in the Russia as a foreign media agent)  a mouthpiece for US propaganda gets sometimes right, Zurabishvili, whose post is largely ceremonial, has often accused the ruling Georgian Dream party of having closer ties to Moscow since being elected with its backing in 2018.

But it fails to mention how she was elected, and the pressure applied by both the US and the EU to give her this “largely ceremonial” post. Now we know why, and what are her assigned duties, as if she is legitimately speaking about “what is in the best interests of Georgia and Georgians, and if she actually knows anything about conflict resolution and what is REALLY needed to resolve issues of territorial integrity between Georgia and its breakaway regions.

According to the AP, quoting a Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs statement, Putin’s decrees, “are in line with our principled approach of consistently facilitating the conditions for communication and contacts between the citizens of Russia and Georgia, despite the absence of diplomatic relations.”

As one 15-year-old Georgian schoolgirl, with dual Georgian-Russian citizenship, sums up the Georgian president’s: “Zurabishvili doesn’t care about some Georgians and only sees the negative side of resuming flights and is speaking on behalf of the West.”

My Georgian daughter-in-law, who now lives in the US, and is a former Georgian flight attendant, wrote me as this was going to press, and I am sure many Georgians feel the same. “I have an aunt in Vladikavkaz, North Ossetia, she is my mother’s sister and at least I will be able to see her and her family.  I’m very happy that the current government wants to have good relations with its neighbor, as if Saakashvili’s government was there now, they would never consider it.”

Henry Kamens, columnist, expert on Central Asia and Caucasus, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”

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