Russia on Wednesday restored visa-free travel for citizens of Georgia and lifted a ban on direct flights between the two countries imposed in 2019, according to a decree published on a Russian government website.
In a statement, Russia’s Transport Ministry said Russian airlines would operate seven flights weekly between Moscow and Georgia’s capital Tbilisi. It said Russia wanted “to facilitate the conditions for communication and contacts between the residents of Russia and Georgia”.
The move represents a sharp warming in relations between Moscow and Tbilisi, which have been among the most strained in the former Soviet Union, but which have improved in recent years as Georgia’s ruling party has avoided offending Moscow.
Russia allows citizens of most former Soviet republics visa-free access but imposed a visa regime on Georgians in 2000, citing the risk of terrorism in the North Caucasus region. Moscow banned direct flights to Georgia in 2019, after anti-Russian protests.
Georgia allows Russians visa-free access and full work rights for up to a year, which has made the country one of the main destinations for Russians who have left their country since the start of the war in Ukraine.
Moscow and Tbilisi have had no formal diplomatic relations since 2008, when they fought a brief war over South Ossetia, a Russian-backed breakway region of Georgia.
Georgian President Salome Zourabichvili, whose position is largely ceremonial and who has repeatedly accused the ruling Georgian Dream party of having ties to Moscow since being elected with its backing in 2018, wrote on Twitter that Russia’s move was “a provocation”. She said visa liberalisation was “unacceptable” while Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine continued.
Georgian society remains strongly anti-Russian, with hundreds of thousands of Georgians living as internal refugees after fleeing South Ossetia and another Russian-backed secessionist region, Abkhazia.
However, the government has avoided taking an overtly anti-Russian stance since the start of what Moscow calls its “special military operation” in Ukraine, launched on Feb. 24, 2022, and declined to impose sanctions on Russia.
Georgia’s stance on the war has earned praise from Moscow, which described it as “balanced”, but has strained relations with the European Union, which many Georgians would like their country to join.
In March, amid large street protests, Georgia’s government abandoned efforts to pass a draft law regulating so-called “foreign agents”. Critics said the bill was modelled on a Russian law they say was used to undermine civil society there, and that it is symbolic of an authoritarian shift in Georgia.