About a month ago, the shaky relationship between Georgia and Russia took another hit when anti-Russian protests emerged in the capital Tbilisi. And you know what? I love talking politics. If you’ve never even heard of any of this, well, sit back and get your education glasses on.
*Olivia Newton-John voice* Let’s get political, political…
Where it all started from (this time)
On June 21, Sergei Gavrilov, a visiting member of Russian Parliament, took the speaker’s chair in Georgian parliament to address local lawmakers. Too bad he did it in Russian – and combined with the apparent offense of speaking from the speaker’s chair, Georgians were quick to react.
Thousands of people gathered to protest in front of the parliament building in the capital Tbilisi. Unfortunately, the protest escalated as some protesters started storming the building, and the police used tear gas and rubber bullets to tame the attackers. Over 200 people were injured although luckily no one got killed, and a few people lost an eye.
For the next weeks, the protests in front of the parliament continued but without further violence. Many wore eye patches in honour of those who’d lost their eye on that first night. Even over a month later, the protests are still going on although on a pretty tiny scale now.
The president of Georgia sympathised with the protesters, and the speaker of the Georgian parliament Irakli Kobakhidze was forced to resign.
Why it was a big deal
To an ignorant foreigner (like me) the incident might seem like a petty thing to fight about. In truth, the Georgian distaste towards Russian politics goes much deeper than this single incident.
The tensions between the two countries heightened in 1991 when Georgia became independent in the wake of various nations breaking off from the Soviet Union.
The biggest strain today are probably land disputes: Russia has supported Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two breakaway regions within Georgia striving for independence; the way Georgians see it, those regions have been occupied by Russia. For example, in Abkhazia the official currency is Russian rubles and Georgians are not allowed to visit.
Oh, and in 2008 the two fought a brief war over the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, during which Russia even attacked into Georgia proper. During this time over 200,000 Georgian refugees escaped Abkhazia.
Recently Georgia’s independent energy politics (Russia is a big provider of gas and energy) and their tentative plans to join NATO and/or EU have made the situation a little more exciting. In 2006, there was also a fun bout of espionage on both sides which resulted in Russian bans of Georgian wine export and deportation of some Georgian citizens. However, politicians have seemed eager to warm up the icy relations.
I did the middle-school thing and looked up most of this on Wikipedia. But hey, it has an all right summary of all the bananas things that have gone down between the two countries.
Drumroll – consequences
After the protests, anti-Russian sentiments have started emerging all around Tbilisi. Hastily painted graffiti and stickers glued to lamp posts declare “Putin khuylo” – “Putin is a dickhead” – , “Russia is occupant” and even “Putler kaput”. Politics have even spread to Tinder, where many list their height, hobbies and “My country is occupied by Russia” on their bio.
As the atmosphere towards Russian politics started getting more and more hostile, Russia decided to not help the issue at all and ban all flights to and from Georgia, claiming the country wasn’t safe for Russian tourists. The ban started on July 8, giving Russian holidaymakers in the country time to pack their bags to the brim with khinkali and khatchapuri and get back home.
Of course, a flight ban does not mean a full travel ban. Russians are still allowed to travel to Georgia – for example, flying via a different country, or arriving through a land border. But it does make travel to Georgia harder; and even though the country might be a Russian holiday favourite, inconveniencing travel might just make Georgia’s Northern neighbours look to other countries for a break.
Why the Russian flight ban matters
In 2018, around 8 million people visited Georgia. Out of those 8 million, 1.5 million were Russian. Last year they were the second largest group of travellers right after Azerbaijanis and coming in front of Iranians, and if you do the math, you’ll notice that they made up almost 15% of annual visitors.
Georgia’s economy is not doing too bad; but it is still a relatively poor country, and its tourism sector will likely suffer from the loss of Russian tourists. So far the effects are unknown; but in a few months, the Georgian economy might be feeling the loss of Russian roubles. Most experts seem to agree that the flight ban might cost Georgia hundreds of millions of lari; but some seem to think that the loss in profit will not dent Georgian economy too badly.
Unlike during some past quarrels, Russia hasn’t (yet) banned the export of Georgian goods but if the tensions continue, that might be a real possibility. Any kind of an embargo would likely hit the Georgian economy even harder than the current flight ban.
So why should YOU visit right now?
Let’s forget about Russia for a second. Imagine this: sipping a glass of delicious red wine on a wooden terrace overlooking hills and a glistening river; strolling around town with wine ice cream in hand; enjoying a refreshing glass of homemade wine in an unmarked basement decorated by Soviet knick knacks and served by a warmly-smiling Georgian lady.
(You might be detecting a certain theme here.)
Wine aside, Georgia is the place to be. It boasts both mountains and beaches, coffee shop culture and history. The capital Tbilisi is very lively even considering that you can move around the Old Town pretty comfortably without crowds. If this was Prague or Paris in July, you’d have to fight with all your might to make waves in a mass of tourists; the whole of Georgia is delightfully devoid of them.
English is widely spoken, food is delicious and prices are insanely low.
Oh, and for digital nomad type of people, the scene is just emerging and Tbilisi will without a doubt be a big meeting point in a few years. Right now, the community is small and cozy,
But on a more serious note: Georgia needs you. Not only because this cute little country deserves all your love but because its tourism industry might take a severe hit from the loss of Russian tourists. Have you got a dollar? Georgia could use it.
Is it safe to visit?
That’s it. That’s the whole paragraph.
Georgians are incredibly friendly towards foreigners – even Russians. Most people that I’ve talked to have nothing against the citizens of Russia, their frustration is purely towards the government.
In addition, crime rates in the tight-community Georgia are very low, and you’re unlikely to even encounter pickpockets.
So yes, you’ll be completely safe. (Unless we’re talking traffic. When Georgians get behind a wheel, they go feral.)
Georgia is a country that in a few weeks has stolen my heart. Coming back to Tbilisi after a trip almost feels like coming home – to me it’s insane that the country has as few tourists as it does.
So if you’re planning to go on a holiday soon, maybe keep this little Caucasian treasure in mind…
Have you been to Georgia or is it on your list?