Editor’s Note: Will Cathcart is an American freelance journalist based in Tbilisi. He is a former media advisor to the president of Georgia. Follow him on Twitter at @cathcarsis and on Instagram at @willcathcart. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
Dear travelers, wine drinkers, hikers and beachgoers—Dear epicureans, romantics and historians—Dear anybody looking for an adventure or wanting to spite Russian President Vladimir Putin. The country of Georgia needs you. If you’ve ever considered visiting this small Black Sea nation nestled between Russia and Turkey, now is the time. For those of you who have already been, it is time to return.
After protests in Tbilisi last week against a visit by a Russian politician—NOT against the Russian people, and I cannot emphasize that enough—Putin has issued a ban (starting July 8) on Russian airlines flying to Georgia. Meanwhile, the president of Russia’s Duma alluded to canceling visas, and a Russian consumer watchdog mentioned the possibility of restricting imports of Georgian wine, a major Georgian export to Russia, Reuters reported.
In reaction to these #TbilisiProtests, Putin is trying to punish, subdue, and bankrupt the Georgian people for speaking truth to power, for exercising their right to assemble and for ultimately sacking their speaker of Parliament, who resigned after protesters demanded it. Controversy arose after a Russian member of Parliament delivered a speech to Georgian parliamentarians in Russian, the BBC reported. If Putin has his way, the Georgian economy will lose up to $300 million, according to one estimate cited by Russia’s state-run TASS news agency.
Why is Putin doing this? For two reasons: First, he is terrified that the Russian people will see protests in Georgia and do the same. Second, Putin wants to twist the narrative to make the Russian people think that the protest this weekend was a Russophobic demonstration (pro-Kremlin media outlets, according to the Georgian site civil.ge, portrayed the protests as undermining Russian-Georgian relations).
It was not. But because of Putin’s actions (and a previous Soviet strategy to divide and conquer the region) 20% of this country is occupied by Russian forces. The truth is complex, but it’s not hard to understand:
Georgians want their country back. And they want to share it with visitors because they are proud of this land.
The story of Georgia’s occupation is painful, nuanced and sometimes bitter. But it is one that the Georgian people openly debate to this day thanks to the freedom of expression that they now share. That freedom scares Putin more than any army.
The Georgian people have a serious bone of contention with the Kremlin. Based on the Kremlin’s track record since the 2007 cyberattacks on Estonia—the beginning of a trend that escalates to this day because Putin’s actions were not met with consequences by the West—the Russo-Georgian relationship is unlikely to change anytime soon.
But the Georgian problem with the Kremlin does not extend to the Russian people. Russians are welcome here, just as they always have been. Russians soldiers in tanks are not.
Georgians may consider themselves European, but Russian culture is celebrated in Georgia. Russian language, literature, film, and ballet are revered in this country. In reality, the Georgian and Russian people have more in common now than ever before: Both of their countries are occupied by Vladimir Putin and his corrupt cronies.
If there ever was a time to help this fragile Eurasian democracy, it is now. Embassies in Tbilisi from the West, including the United States, are doing just that, by encouraging social-media followers to visit Georgia in defiance of Putin’s ban.
If enough people take part, Putin’s plan will backfire just as it did during a 2006 embargo.
For those of us in Georgia living in the ominous shadow of the largest country on the planet, the campaign is an inspiring display of solidarity.
Georgian support for the EU (while other members are attempting to exit) and NATO has seen record highs, yet both organizations have stalled on welcoming or aiding Georgia amid pressure from Russia. Despite their yearly platitudes, it is clear that neither is coming to Georgia’s aid. But citizens of those member countries can. All one needs to do is visit. Georgia relies on tourism, and this ancient Silk Road hub prides itself on its hospitality.
For thousands of years, Georgia has been invaded by every conceivable empire. Yet it has survived. In so doing, Georgian culture has tailored itself to a sort of weaponized hospitality. Georgians are adept at differentiating between an individual and their government; this is essential to survival under occupation. Americans in the hostile age of Trump would do well to pay attention.
Be it Moscow, Milwaukee or Mogadishu, where you come from doesn’t matter. Right now Georgia needs YOU. Come defy Putin and his malicious travel ban. Enjoy ancient wine and innovative cuisine. Explore this beautiful country from the stunning Caucasus Mountains to the vibrant Black Sea coastline.
You will help a small democracy flourish, you will stand up to a geopolitical bully and you will have the time of your life. And like 3.7 million Georgians, I’ll be happy to show you around.