To see the waterfront in Sukhumi the legal way, Russians must first go to Georgia, and then enter Abkhazia. Otherwise, they risk four years in jail.

TBILISI, DFWatch – Tbilisi City Court has sentenced a Russian businessman to pay a fine of about USD 1 200 because he had visited Abkhazia before coming to Georgia.

The court found that the businessman had violated a law which bans travel across the borders between Russia and the breakaway regions of Georgia, unless with express permission from Tbilisi.

Many had thought that the ban, enforced in the wake of the war in 2008, would not be enforced. But following the court ruling, everyone who has visited South Ossetia after the law came into force, and those who have crossed into Abkhazia from Russia, except for certain diplomats, aid workers and others with special permission, may now risk arrest on arrival in Georgia.

The law prescribes up to four years in jail for violators.

The defendant in the case, Konstantin Rodionov, was arrested at Tbilisi airport on March 17. He said he came to make business and ‘to create more job places here.’

“I completely blame Russia of my arrest, because they didn’t warn me that there were such kinds of law in Georgia regarding crossing occupied territories,” he said.

Georgia’s law on the occupied territories was adopted in 2008, after the Russo-Georgian war. Although the law prescribes four years in jail, Rodionov avoided jail because he admitted guilt, which is grounds for leniency in Georgia. Instead, the businessman will have to pay a 2 000 lari fine and then he will be expelled from the country.

On March 29, another Russian citizen, Bela Vekua was arrested for violating the same law. She had visited Abkhazia in September 2010 before arriving to Georgia. An investigation is launched in her case.

Russian news website Insomni reports that other Russians have also been arrested in Georgia for having violated the law. It writes that the practice started in 2009, when a Russian citizen, Zaurbek Hestanov, was arrested for arriving in the city of Gori, coming from South Ossetian territory.

November 29 last year, the Russian citizen Henrik Madosyan was arrested there. In August last year, another Russian, Anatoly Maksimenko, detained in the same area. This was followed by the arrest of the businessman Rodionov and Bela Vekua.

At the end of February, on orders of President Saakashvili, Georgia unilaterally canceled visa rules for Russian citizens. They now can enjoy a 90-day visa-free stay. According to a statement by the president’s administration today, there has been a 70 per cent increase in Russian visitors since the rules came into force after February 28.

The Russian Duma called the lifting of visa rules propaganda. But Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov responded that Russia is also ready to cancel visa rules for Georgian citizens if Georgia will amend the law on occupied territories. He says it’s not safe for Russian citizens to visit Georgia because of the law.

Georgia answered that it is ready to abolish the law on occupied territories when Russia starts pulling back its occupying troops from Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

In practice, the only breakaway republic possible to visit without breaking Georgian law is Abkhazia, because South Ossetian authorities do not allow people to cross directly from Georgian-controlled territory, only via Russia, which is a violation of Georgian law.