MOSCOW (AP) — Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday abolished visas for Georgian nationals and lifted a 2019 ban on direct flights to the South Caucasus nation, a move that comes amid rocky relations between the two countries and that was quickly denounced by Georgia's president as a “provocation.”
According to a decree Putin signed, starting from May 15, Georgian nationals will be allowed to enter Russia without visas -- unless they’re coming to Russia to work or to stay for longer than 90 days.
Another presidential decree lifts a ban on direct flights by Russian airlines to Georgia. Russia unilaterally imposed the ban in 2019 after a wave of anti-Kremlin protests in Georgia.
The decrees come a day after leaders of several Central Asian and South Caucasus nations stood beside Putin at a military parade marking the anniversary of Nazi Germany's defeat in World War II, in what looked like the Kremlin seeking to show that Russia still had allies and was not completely isolated.
Following Putin’s decrees, Russia’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement lifting its 2019 recommendation for Russian citizens to avoid traveling to Georgia.
Putin's decrees, the statement said, “are in line with our principled approach of consistently facilitating the conditions for communication and contacts between the citizens of Russia and Georgia, despite the absence of diplomatic relations.”
Russia-Georgia relations have been complicated since the Soviet Union's collapse in the early 1990s. The two countries fought a short war in 2008 that ended with Georgia losing control of two Russia-friendly separatist regions.
In the aftermath, Tbilisi severed diplomatic ties with Moscow, and the issue of the regions’ status remains a key irritant, even as relations have somewhat improved.
Beginning in 2000, Georgia and Russia implemented a visa regime. However, in 2012 Tbilisi unilaterally abolished visas for Russians, who are currently allowed to stay in Georgia visa-free for up to a year.
After Moscow sent troops into Ukraine last year, Georgia joined all international resolutions condemning the military action, while also providing Ukraine with humanitarian aid and taking in thousands of war refugees. Its authorities stopped short of supplying Kyiv with military assistance, however, citing the need to maintain neutrality and not get dragged into the conflict.
At the same time, the Black Sea country of 3.7 million became one of the main destinations for Russians fleeing the crackdown and the partial mobilization into the army Putin announced in September 2022.
Georgia's President Salome Zourabichvili has said that more than 700,000 Russians crossed into Georgia after the Kremlin started drafting men to fight in Ukraine. While 600,000 moved on to other countries, about 100,000 stayed in Georgia, she said.
Zourabichvili tweeted Wednesday that Putin's decrees were “another Russian provocation.” “Resuming direct flights and lifting visa ban with Georgia is unacceptable as long as Russia continues its aggression on Ukraine and occupies our territory!” she said.