The Georgian Government has come under fire from the opposition and from abroad for warmly welcoming comments by Sergey Lavrov suggesting that Russia may soon restore flights with the country.
The Russian Foreign Minister made the comments on Wednesday, praising Georgia for its ‘courage’ in not joining Western sanctions against Russia and expressing a hope that direct flights would soon be restored.
EU sanctions against Russia over their invasion of Ukraine included a ban on Russian airlines entering their airspace.
‘I am glad that our contacts between people are actively developing’, Lavrov said.
The chair of the ruling Georgian Dream Party, Irakli Kobakhidze, was quick to welcome the possibility of resumed flights, citing its ‘importance’ to Georgians.
‘When it comes to alleviating the situation of our citizens, any such decision is welcome for us’, Kobakhidze said, adding that Russia’s 2019 suspension of flights to Georgia had ‘damaged the citizens of Georgia’.
[Read on OC Media: Irakli Kobakhidze: The face of Georgia’s turn from the West]
Other members of the ruling party similarly praised Lavrov’s statement.
Responding on Thursday evening, Ukrainian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Oleg Nikolenko labelled the ‘lack of solidarity’ from ‘some’ Georgian politicians, including Kobakhidze, ‘politically vile’.
‘We also believe that such pro-Russian rhetoric is not in line with the spirit of Ukraine and Georgia’s friendly and strategic relations and is contrary to Georgia’s path towards European Union membership’, he said.
Ukraine and Moldova received EU membership candidate status earlier this year, while the EU rejected Georgia’s bid until they carried out reforms.
Russia banned flights to and from Georgia in July 2019 after protests in Tbilisi sparked by a visit by Russian MP Sergey Gavrilov to address the Georgian parliament.
Gavrilov himself also told NEWS.ru that the flights should now be restored, along with diplomatic relations, which Georgia severed following the 2008 August War.
The former director of Georgian Airways, now General Director of the Moscow and Georgia Business Brokerage, Roman Bokeria, told Business Media Georgia on Thursday that a request that flights be restored was issued to Russia on behalf of the Georgian people.
The government’s warm response to Lavrov’s statement was met with anger in other quarters in Georgia.
In a strongly worded statement on Friday, President Salome Zurabishvili outright rejected the potential restoration of flights.
‘I do not welcome the restoration of flights to Russia! At a time when all our partner countries, by word or deed, express their maximum solidarity with Ukraine’s self-sacrificing struggle, for me, and I am sure for the majority of society, the position of the government and the ruling party is, to say the least, incomprehensible’, she wrote.
[Read on OC Media: Datablog | Georgians are becoming wearier of economic ties to Russia]
Major opposition parties also categorically rejected the proposal.
Khatia Dekanoidze, a prominent member of the United National Movement party, said it was ‘unacceptable’ to talk about restoring flights.
‘This not only contradicts our strategic relations with Ukraine and the Western world, but is also a step against national interests’, said Dekanoidze. She added that renewed flights, along with the government’s refusal to join sanctions against Russia, would cost Georgia and represented a deepening of the government’s ‘pro-Russian policy’.
US Ambassador to Georgia, Kelly Degnan, also aimed a thinly veiled barb at the authorities’ response to Lavrov.
‘I think most Georgians would rather hear that Russia was withdrawing its troops from Abkhazia and Tskhinvali and finally complying with its obligations under the 2008 Treaty rather than direct flights’, she said.