Large protests have broken out, including clashes with police in the port city of Batumi, Georgia, against the arrival of a cruise ship carrying Russian tourists.
The cruise ship Astoria Grande arrived in Batumi, a large port city in western Georgia on the Black sea, carrying a majority Russian crew along with Russian musicians and celebrities. Georgians have begun protesting its arrival, saying that many of the passengers on board are supporters of the Kremlin’s agenda and its war in Ukraine as well as others claiming it is a ‘soft power’ attempt to generate an influx of Russian citizens into Georgia.
The protests began early in the morning, with smaller groups gathering around 1:30am local time (5:30pm EST). Georgian police cordoned off the port area, as well as establishing barricades and fencing in the area ahead of the anticipated protests. Police units also called reinforcements from riot and special response teams, according to local sources.
During the early morning hours, clashes with police began. At least 1 person was arrested, with another being reportedly detained after some members of the protesting groups attempted to break through the barriers.
The cruise ship arrived at around 6am (10pm EST). According to Georgian news outlet Formula, the passengers include “presenters of the RU.TV TV station and singers supporting the war against Ukraine will also be on the liner. On board will be: singers Dmitry Koldun, Mitya Fomin, Amirchik and Testosterone, as well as Ivan Chuikov and Dmitry Olenin.”
The Astoria Grande is sailing under the flag of Palau, according to online maritime tracking site VesselFinder.
Georgians protesting against the arrival of a Russian cruise ship with Russian tourists to the port of Batumi.
— Visegrád 24 (@visegrad24) July 29, 2023
At 5am on July 27, the cruise liner Astoria Grande arrived in Batumi with the majority of its passengers attempting to disembark in the Black Sea coastal city that is one of Georgia’s largest tourist areas. Media at the port speaking with some of the tourists broadcast several of the Russian citizens making statements that caused outrage among Georgians on social media.
“We don’t know about the occupation. You were a republic of ours, a union and not an occupied one. Russia is not an occupier, what did we do, did we occupy you? We were helping you, we liberated Abkhazia from you. They asked us, did you go there with tanks? I was in Abkhazia and I saw houses, all of them had broken windows, they were destroyed by you, Russia helped Abkhazia to get rid of you,” one tourist said to a Formula TV reporter.
After large groups of protestors gathered at the dock, held back only by police, the cruise ship left a day earlier than was originally planned. With another cruise set to arrive, groups have formed online to plan a gathering to protest against the disembarkation of the Russian tourists.
A student group posted online, calling for local residents to come join their contingent to block the arrival of the tourists. “Students will head to Batumi to meet the Russian ship. It will stop at the port on July 31, at 6 o’clock in the morning. We will start gathering from that time. We are waiting for you all from nine to ten o’clock. According to the schedule, the Russian ” tourists” are going to get off the ship at 10 o’clock and go to Batumi. To participate in tours around. We will meet the occupiers with a live chain and we invite you all to join us. There is no place for the Russian ship in the port of Georgia,” the event page reads.
Anti-Russian sentiment in Georgia has been on the rise as the number of immigrants from Russia has continued to rise since Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a partial mobilization in September 2022. An estimated 222,274 people have entered Georgia from Russia, according to the Georgian Ministry of Internal Affairs. While not all of them have stayed, multiple media sources put around half of that number still living in the country.
Many Georgians, particularly the younger age groups, have been vocal about their distaste with this influx. Street fights have occurred in the capital of Tbilisi, where local sources say Russian tourists and anti-Russian Georgian youth have sparred resulting in injuries.
Additionally, Georgia’s President Salome Zurabishvili stated in an interview with CNN that she was concerned that Russia was using propaganda and “soft power” moves to wage a different type of conflict with her country. “First of all, we have military occupation that has been ongoing since 2008 and continues to this day, in various forms since 1991. Two regions are occupied by Russian military bases. What I think can happen is that Russia is testing a second front today through ‘soft power,’ through propaganda,” she stated.
The Georgian President continued, saying that the large number of Russians now living in the country could also be used by the Kremlin as a causus belli. “All those Russians who have come to Georgia, I will reiterate, need to be monitored. We cannot allow such a number of Russians into Georgian territory without knowing who they are,” she said. “The majority of people fleeing Russia today are not actually supporters of Putin. However, we are aware of the threats utilized by Russia, that if the Russian-speaking population is not adequately protected, it could become a cause for Russia’s invasion.”
The Bigger Picture;
Georgia has long been a heavily pro-Western country and a foothold in the South Caucasus for NATO and European geopolitics. Armenia, with 2 Russian military bases and a contingent of Russian peacekeeping units in Nagorno-Karabakh, is still closely aligned to the Kremlin. Azerbaijan, only linked to the West via NATO member Turkey, has kept amicable dialogue with Russia open.
This leaves Georgia the only somewhat contested country in the region. If the Kremlin was to permeate further into the region, the population, who routinely polls at heavily pro West and pro-NATO numbers, would likely resort to violence, as was seen in the Tbilisi War in 1993. This would have the potential of drawing Russian intervention forces into the country, something neighbor Turkey would be highly critical of, causing another flashpoint between NATO and Russia.
This is a developing story. More information will be shared as it becomes available.
As of 8pm local time (12pm EST), the cruise ship Astoria Grande has left the port of Batumi ahead of schedule, with protests ongoing in Batumi and Tbilisi. The ministry of Internal Affairs states that during the 2 nights of protests, 23 people were arrested, with one reportedly being a citizen of Ukraine.
Russian cruise ship leaves Batumi port early, demonstrators chanting “Georgia” ?? pic.twitter.com/r7GSd7vnhR
— Revaz Topuria (@Rezitopuria) July 31, 2023