Russia restores visa-free access for Georgians, lifts flight ban

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Russia on Wednesday restored visa-free travel for citizens of Georgia and lifted a ban on direct flights between the two countries imposed in 2019, according to a decree published on a Russian government website.

The move represents a sharp warming in relations between Moscow and Tbilisi, which have been among the most strained in the former Soviet Union, but which have improved in recent years.

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Russia allows citizens of most former Soviet republics visa-free access but imposed a visa regime on Georgians in 2000, citing the risk of terrorism in the North Caucasus region. Moscow banned direct flights to Georgia in 2019, after anti-Russian protests.

Georgia allows Russians visa-free access and full work rights for up to a year, which has made the country one of the main destinations for Russians who have left their country since the start of the war in Ukraine.

Moscow and Tbilisi have had no formal diplomatic relations since 2008, when they fought a brief war over South Ossetia, a Russian-backed breakaway region of Georgia.

Georgian society remains strongly anti-Russian, with hundreds of thousands of Georgians living as internal refugees after fleeing South Ossetia and another Russian-backed secessionist region, Abkhazia.

However, the Georgian government has avoided taking an overtly anti-Russian stance since the start of what Moscow calls its “special military operation” in Ukraine, launched on February 24, 2022.

Tbilisi declined to impose sanctions on Moscow even though Georgian public opinion is pro-Ukrainian and the large influx of Russian anti-war emigres has created some strains within Georgia.

Tbilisi’s stance has strained relations with the European Union, even as it earned praise from its old foe Russia, which referred to Georgia’s position on the war as “balanced” and had repeatedly offered to restore direct flights.

In March, amid large protests, Georgia’s government abandoned efforts to pass a draft law regulating so-called “foreign agents.” Critics said the bill was modelled on a Russian law they say was used to undermine civil society there, and that it is symbolic of an authoritarian shift in Georgia.

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