A cruise liner carrying Russian tourists was met with protests in the Georgian city of Batumi, with footage of Russian passengers leading to further outrage online.
According to the Maritime Transport Agency, the Palau-flagged cruise ship Astoria Grande entered the port of Batumi from Trabzon in Turkey on Thursday, after beginning its trip in the Russian city of Sochi.
Several hundred people gathered in front of the dock on Thursday evening to protest the ‘politics of the Russification’ in Georgia. Demonstrators whistled and chanted ‘Russian warship, go fuck yourself’ and ‘Abkhazia is Georgia’. Some also brought photographs depicting Abkhazia and the 2008 August War.
A smaller demonstration was also held in Tbilisi in front of the parliament building. The cruise caused further anger in Georgia after several of the passengers interviewed by Georgian media made statements in support of Russian policy in Georgia.
One woman when asked by TV station Formula: ‘do you know that our territories are occupied by Russia?’, responded by defending Georgia’s place in the Soviet Union.
‘No, we don’t know a thing like that, you were some republic of ours, a union, and not occupied, you were our brothers,’ she said.
When the journalist clarified that they were asking about Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the woman responded that Russia ‘liberated Abkhazia from you’.
‘They asked us for help; you went there with tanks’, she said.
She also said that she had visited Abkhazia where she saw buildings damaged during the war. ‘They were destroyed by you. Russia helped Abkhazia to free itself from you’.
According to Georgia’s law on occupation, entering Abkhazia directly from Russia is a criminal offence carrying a maximum sentence of five years in prison.
Another passenger said that Russia was not an occupier and that for her, ‘everything is the Soviet Union’.
‘I don’t know anything about the occupation, for us, everything is the Soviet Union. Russia is not an occupier, we are the Soviet Union, united and strong’, she said.
Footage was also widely shared of a man and woman aboard the ship taunting protesters, with the man appearing to chant ‘Russia!’ in response to the protesters’ chants in Russian of ‘Putin is a dickhead’.
The Maritime Transport Agency says that the cruise ship Astoria Grande, which is registered in Seychelles under the name of Goodwin Shipping Limited, is not subject to international sanctions.
The cruise liner left the Batumi port during the rally as the Georgian anthem played.
Protest in Batumi and Tbilisi
As the demonstration against the ship in Batumi was underway on Thursday, the chair of the ruling Georgian Dream party, Irakli Kobakhie, accused protesters of ‘boorishness’. Speaking to the pro-government TV channel Imedi, he said that ‘this boorishness has caused serious consequences to the country at different times’.
‘We often recall that the Georgian Dream Government is the only government during which the country did not have a war. In all previous wars, of course, Russia was the aggressor, but in all cases, when our country faced problems, it was among them the result of the boorishness carried out by the representatives of our country’.
‘This is exactly what we left in the past. We don’t need a policy of boorishness, we need a rational, pragmatic policy. This is the only recipe for Georgia to maintain peace and for the country to develop’, Kobakhidze said.
President Salome Zurabishvili took the opposite view, writing on Facebook that she was proud of the people who ‘peacefully protested the latest Russian provocation’.
‘A Russian cruise liner visiting the Georgian port of Batumi while Putin blockers grain shipments and hinders free navigation in the Black Sea. The security of the Black Sea is vital for Georgia, Ukraine and the European Union’, the president wrote.
News of passenger ships travelling from Sochi to Batumi first appeared in the Russian media in January, citing the Sochi port administration. Georgian authorities denied the claim at the time, stating that ‘the Russian side did not apply to the Georgian side and therefore, we do not know what negotiation the Sochi port administration is talking about’.
According to the Astoria Grande’s website, the 7-day cruise around the Black Sea will leave Sochi for Turkey and Batumi again on 29 July.
For ease of reading, we choose not to use qualifiers such as ‘de facto’, ‘unrecognised’, or ‘partially recognised’ when discussing institutions or political positions within Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh, and South Ossetia. This does not imply a position on their status.