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There is more to Putin’s visa-free gambit than meets the eye

Moscow’s carrot-and-stick diplomacy routinely receives a lukewarm response from Tbilisi, yet Georgia’s top brass has proven time and time again that its tough talk on Russia cannot be taken at face value.

July 13, 2023 - Saahil Menon - Articles and Commentary

Georgian Airways Boeing 737 at the Vnukovo airport in Moscow. Photo: fifg / Shutterstock

Russia’s recent move to abolish entry requirements for Georgian citizens and reinstate air connections between both countries might seem like an overdue goodwill gesture without any strings attached. Make no mistake, however, this overture is part and parcel of a carefully crafted foreign policy calculation that serves the Kremlin’s manifold geostrategic interests. For starters, a reciprocal visa-waiver agreement will help quash growing calls from civil society and prominent opposition figures in Georgia to rescind the year-long, uninterrupted stay Russian nationals enjoy on their territory.

As the carnage in Ukraine intensifies and risks spilling over into the Russian Federation proper, President Putin should presumably be looking to disincentivise overseas trips by able-bodied reservists. He will want to ensure that an adequate pool of fighting-age, combat-ready men are at his beck and call when push comes to shove. While measures have been taken to this effect – namely freezing the bank accounts and invalidating the travel documents of draft dodgers in extreme cases – an erstwhile Soviet republic imposing stricter mobility protocols on its citizenry risks triggering a chain reaction in neighbouring states. After all, they can ill afford to harbour displaced and cash-strapped Russians indefinitely.

Much like the Persian Gulf monarchs, the ex-KGB agent banks on a social contract of sorts to keep the public at large politically agnostic and stifle independent thinking. Admittedly, he has not bought their silence with no-show, thumb-twiddling government jobs or by using hydrocarbon proceeds as a slush fund to command unwavering loyalty. Rather and somewhat ironically given how hellbent he remains on reviving the Soviet Union, Putin often alludes to the miserable Iron Curtain years as a yardstick for the masses’ comparatively better living standards under his watch. The self-styled tsar’s reign hinges on preserving the post-Soviet status quo through rudimentary freedoms that were withheld by the old guard.

One such perk the younger generation will fight tooth and nail to safeguard is the ability to venture abroad at will. There is now an unprecedented sense of desperation on the part of middle-class millennials to pack up and flee Russia. This is not just for fear of enlistment but also the financial distress wrought by western-led sanctions. It is worth recalling that Putin first assumed office on the promise to redress his predecessor’s gross mishandling of the domestic economy. By extension, he aimed to restore long-lost national pride at the turn of the twentieth century. Incidentally, his claim to fame is fast coming undone as ordinary citizens find themselves bearing the socio-economic brunt of their commander-in-chief’s bloodlust.

Doing the Kremlin’s bidding

Georgia’s “infinite hospitality” tagline at the ITB Berlin tourism fair earlier this year was nothing more than a euphemism for a rampant “Russophilia” which runs deep at the state level. The ruling Georgian Dream party continues to peddle the fallacy that incoming Russians oppose the war. This is despite the fact that the bulk of them are simply anti-conscription sell-outs who will do or say just about anything to avoid being thrown into the meat grinder. Those evading the call of duty have no qualms with denouncing Russia’s barbarism once they are out of the woods. Many even demonstrate solidarity with Ukraine for the sake of blending in. Sadly, the Georgian populace has overwhelmingly bought into this charade and contented themselves with pure showmanship over resisting mass migration from an aggressor state.

In stark contrast to the flak the so-called “foreign agents” bill drew from Georgia’s inhabitants, there has been little pushback against the unquestioned admission of more than one hundred thousand Russians since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Despite the fact that many Georgians are being uprooted from their dwellings as a result of the bidding war they are now engaged in with these newcomers, the administration has failed to fortify the porous border through which recurrent waves of hooligans, crypto scammers and intelligence operatives from a supposed adversary infiltrate Georgia unabated. Worse still, the overrepresentation of a single community and consequent shortage of accommodation is squeezing out immigrants from other backgrounds through greater purchasing power.

Tbilisi has taken to the school of thought that appeasement breeds pacifism, when in reality the opposite holds true. The Kremlin now has carte blanche to move its foot soldiers into Georgia and “russify” the country to such an extent that the capital, as well as the coastal city of Batumi, no longer boast an open and liberal flair. Instead, they have an eerie ambience where Russian has become the lingua franca. To his credit, Putin could not have picked a more opportune juncture at which to offer the tiny Black Sea nation an olive branch. His “kiss and make up” escapade, which comes during severely ruptured ties between Georgia and the European Union, is simply a covert attempt at exploiting ideological fault lines within Georgian society.

The current establishment, which tacitly operates in the garb of a western-style democracy, has its fair share of internal saboteurs who will stop at nothing to derail Georgia’s “European Perspective”. Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili, along with ruling party head Irakli Kobakhidze, have become local poster children for Euroscepticism. They often parrot the Kremlin’s key talking points and outlandish conspiracy theories on the EU and Ukraine. At the same time, the resumption of direct flights to and from Russia will almost certainly be characterised by one-way traffic and further exacerbate Georgia’s cost of living crisis. The Georgian leadership is essentially doing Vladimir Putin a huge favour by taking in the undesirables he was keen to offload anyway. These people have even been branded as “national traitors” for refusing to take part in the war.

The Baltic blueprint


President Salome Zourabichvili’s plausible deniability when it comes to being in the dark over pro-Russian initiatives championed by members of her cabinet is now par for the course. The Georgian people are starting to see through the wrongdoing committed by senior officials, who have deliberately stymied their pathway to EU accession. Being denied candidate status last June was largely a by-product of Georgia’s soft spot for the Kremlin. This was much more important than any other deficiencies cited by Brussels. Existing sticking points, from press freedom and de-oligarchisation to judicial overhaul and the groundless incarceration of Mikheil Saakashvili, pale in comparison to the lifeline Tbilisi has thrown Moscow in its hour of need. By seeking to have it both ways and reducing the nation to little more than a pawn on Putin’s chessboard, the Georgian government only has itself to blame for ending up in the western doghouse.

Both Europe and the United States view this brewing rapprochement through a zero-sum lens. As a result, normalised Russo-Georgian relations and Tbilisi’s strategic partnership with the collective West cannot go hand in hand. Contrary to the actions of other rogue actors such as Turkey or the United Arab Emirates, Georgia does not have the bandwidth to get away with playing a double game. The recently re-elected Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has repeatedly used the ten million Syrian refugees stranded in his country as a bargaining chip to extract concessions and funds from Brussels. Meanwhile, the Emiratis have mastered the art of lobbying the US State Department and its transatlantic satellites to look the other way insofar as gross human rights violations and relations with international pariahs are concerned.

Perhaps what is most mind-boggling, from the Eurocrats’ vantage point, is that Georgia has made a wilful decision to take a leaf out of the Belarusian playbook in becoming a de facto part of the Russian Federation. After all, they could have emulated the Baltic states’ tried-and-tested template. Had the Georgian government shown some initiative and curbed inbound arrivals from Russia, much less implemented a full-fledged visa ban as Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia have done, they would have been on an entirely different trajectory with respect to EU integration. The short-term material gains that have resulted from positioning itself as a sanctions circumvention hub have proven far too lucrative for Tbilisi to try and rock the boat. This is despite the fact that this cosmetic windfall undermines national security and unity. The Baltics, by contrast, have not let profits trump principles and perceived the ongoing conflict as a cue to entirely wean themselves off a failed state in the making.

Mending fences with an existing occupier is tantamount to glorified capitulation, irrespective of the hollow soundbites we hear every now and then from closet Russophiles masquerading as public servants on Georgian land annexed by Moscow. Currently, Russia controls 20 per cent of Georgia’s territory. Taking aim at Russian passport holders by constraining their travel privileges will prove the ultimate deathblow to Putin’s already collapsing regime, having just withstood the saga of the Wagner mutiny. Needless to say, the Baltic trio were among the first EU member states to recognise this remedy and walk the walk. At the same time, they swiftly ramped up border protection as a means of preempting state-sanctioned human trafficking from both Russia and Belarus. Unless Georgian Dream follows suit and reorients itself in earnest towards the free world, it is only a matter of time before the country’s upper echelons are given a reality check by their increasingly disgruntled voter base.

Saahil Menon is an independent wealth advisor based in Dubai with an academic background in business, economics and finance.

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