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15 June 2023

A New ‘Georgian Dream?’: Tbilisi Moves for Economic Gains Over Security Guarantees

Georgia plans to build a second civilian airport near Tbilisi, aiming for economic gains as an international air transport hub. However, this contradicts an existing agreement and raises concerns about compromising national security and defense capabilities

A New ‘Georgian Dream?’: Tbilisi Moves for Economic Gains Over Security Guarantees

Image: Alexandra Pandrea/Shutterstock

Original article: Beka Chedia, The Jamestown Foundation. Many thanks to The Jamestown Foundation's Eurasia Daily Monitor for their collaborative spirit.

On June 5, Georgia announced plans to build a second civilian airport near Tbilisi. During a recent government meeting, Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili reiterated this decision and justified it with the government’s intentions to turn the country into an international air transport hub. In 2005, management of Tbilisi International Airport, on the initiative of former President Mikheil Saakashvili, was transferred to Turkish company TAV Georgia (TAV). At the time, by signing the agreement, Georgia agreed not to build a new airport within a 200-kilometer radius of the existing facility until 2027. However, based on the presented plans, the new airport will be built in the village of Vaziani, which is situated just 15 kilometers from the Tbilisi airfield. Thus, to accomplish this goal, the Georgian authorities will have to start negotiations with Turkish TAV on the revision of the agreement to remove restrictions on the construction of another airport in this vicinity.

Of particular interest here is the selected location for the new facility. This area was formerly the location of the Soviet Union’s military airfield, where Soviet fighters were based for many years as well as several large groupings of the Soviet Ground Forces. Later, in the post-Soviet period, a squadron of Russian MiG-29 fighters was stationed there. Until 2001, a Russian motorized rifle regiment was also based near the airfield. Then, in 2001, as a result of the historic agreement (within the framework of an adapted treaty on the reduction of conventional armed forces in Europe) signed at the Istanbul Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe Summit in 1999, this military base, including the airfield, was withdrawn from Georgian territory. The area was then transferred to the Georgian Armed Forces, and today, it remains under the purview of the Georgian Ministry of Defense. At one time, Georgia’s allies put significant resources into restoring the base. When the Russians left, as seems customary, they destroyed almost all the infrastructure in the area. Even so, already by 2002, with the financial assistance of Turkiye, the base was restored.

The Vaziani air base was fully functional until the 2008 invasion, when Russian aircraft bombed the area. Since then, this airfield has been inactive, though it is still considered part of Georgia’s military infrastructure. Near the airfield is the main headquarters of the Georgian military, where several large formations of the Georgian army are located. The personnel stationed there are mainly those who were trained under various US military programs. Moreover, the only military training ground in eastern Georgia is also located near the airfield, and military exercises are regularly held there not only for the Georgian army but also for joint North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) or Georgian-American military exercises, such as the annual “Nobel Partner” drills.

A country that aspires to become a member of NATO, in addition to having an army of the appropriate standard, must also possess suitable infrastructure, including military airfields, regardless of whether it has an air force or not. After the Russo-Georgian War of 2008, the Georgian Air Force’s potential was reset to zero. By the decision of the country’s military-political leadership at the time, the air force was completely abolished and incorporated into the Georgian Land Forces.

A few years ago, the current government suddenly decided to restore some Soviet-style air equipment, including Su-25 military attack aircraft, Mi-24 attack helicopters and Mi-8 military transport helicopters, using the Tbilisi Aviation Plant. This was presented to society as a fait accompli of the restoration of the Georgian Air Force. To demonstrate this, on May 26, during Independence Day celebrations, five Su-25 attack fighters performed a flyover of Tbilisi.

While Georgia has other airfields where military equipment could be placed, the presence of such infrastructure, including an airfield near Tbilisi, which represents the geographical center of the South Caucasus, could be of interest to NATO. Based on its suitable location, and the presence of a military base where thousands of military personnel could be located,this territory has, at times, been considered as a potential location for a NATO or US military base.

In 2018, active discussions began on the possibility of the joint development of the Vaziani air base by the United States and Georgia. In 2018, US General Steve Lyons, a commander of the United States Transportation Command, engaged in negotiations on the issue with then–Georgian Minister of Defense Levan Izoria and then–Prime Minister Mamuka Bakhtadze.

And now, at the same location, the Georgian Dream authorities want to build a civilian airport. The desire to strengthen the country’s capabilities in international transport seems legitimate, though the existing international airport has room for expansion.

New expansive economic projects, of course, can help stimulate the economy and create new jobs. But the alleged concern for the domestic economy at the expense of national security has already become a kind of hallmark for the current government in Georgia. Previously, during former President Eduard Shevardnadze’s time in office, discussions began on expanding the existing civilian Black Sea seaport at the expense of the nearby naval base in the city of Poti. At the time, the implementation of this project had also been justified by domestic economic interests and profitability. However, the authorities eventually dropped the issue, instead giving priority to national security over economic interests.

For some reason, the current Georgian government has decided to take this valuable military infrastructure and undermine its strategic value by giving it a purely civilian economic purpose. Could this represent an attempt to begin voluntarily demilitarizing Georgia in the name of economic development? And could it be a preventive measure in favor of Russia and contrary to the implementation of future NATO or US infrastructure plans? In truth, if a civilian airport is established in Vaziani, as the infrastructure is being developed for economic activity, the likelihood of active military training in the area will be at risk. Thus, if the Georgian Dream authorities continue to actively harm national security in the name of economic considerations, then, at least on paper, the country may indeed bolster its domestic economy but will become more defenseless against future Russian aggression.