Astoria Grande docked into sensitive surroundings, but what caused such wild protests?

No cruise brand can afford to pick a political side during times of conflict, it can only act accordingly – as the recent Georgian protest against Russian cruise ship Astoria Grande clearly demonstrates

All hell broke loose last week, as protestors and anti-war demonstrators threw eggs at the Astoria Grande a Russian cruise ship – while it docked in the Black Sea port of Batumi.

Through feverish chants that demanded the ship’s immediate departure, the situation became a war of words between pro-war cruise passengers and dockside objectors.

Pressure hit fever pitch when a Russian flag was hastily displayed from the cruise ship’s windows, prompting such an enormous backlash that Astoria Grande was hounded from the port after only 60 minutes. Departing two days early, the crowd cheered as the ship promptly departed.

Although the current Georgian situation hasn’t affected the overstuffed headlines of British media, this snippet provides a fascinating insight into Georgia’s situation. The country seemingly has no option but to court Russian tourists, but that doesn’t mean everyone remains happy about it.

Not only are dominant opposition parties making loud noises about Russia’s occupation of Georgian territory, but other voices are firmly against Putin’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine. Any event that delivers Russian tourists now erupts into a hefty dollop of civil unrest.

With fresh protests recently taking place against incoming Russian cruises, Astoria Grande has proven to be the largest symbol of contention for some time.

Recently commencing cruises across the Black Sea from the Russian port of Sochi, the ship’s visit to Batumi may prove to be its last local excursion. Following the hostile reception, Astoria Grande has reportedly dropped Batumi from all upcoming plans.

That may cause some embarrassment for operator Aquilon Shipping Co, as the ship only first weighed anchor in Batumi last week – bringing 800 Russian tourists to the Georgian port.

Things didn’t go well on this inaugural visit, and although the ship was allowed to dock (as it wasn’t sanctioned), tumultuous protestors caused a premature departure from the ship’s schedule.

Sounds like a normal diplomatic stand-off on paper, but there’s more if you go digging. Which we have.

A bit of background

The Georgian/Russian affair has been a political mess since 1991. When Georgia deported four suspected Russian spies back to the Motherland in 2006, Russia retaliated with a full-scale diplomatic and economic war, quickly followed by rampant hostility towards ethnic Georgians living within Russian borders.

Tensions subsequently reached boiling point and resulted in, what many now regard as, the first European war of modern times.

In an echo of the current Ukrainian situation, the Russian propaganda machine pushed forward a notion that Georgia was being rightfully reclaimed by the Motherland, yet the residents of Georgia viewed things differently.

The Republic of Georgia had declared its independence from the crumbling Soviet Union in early 1991, but that didn’t mean the break-up came smoothly. Extreme fighting between Georgia and separatists left swathes of the former South Ossetian Autonomous Oblast under the de facto rule of Russian-backed (yet internationally unrecognised) separatists.

To keep the peace, Georgian, Russian and Ossetian troops were stationed across the disputed territory, but all goodwill promptly dissolved following a clash of mantras. Once Vladimir Putin was elected in 2000 and a change of power in Georgia during 2003 delivered a contrasting view – one centred around a pro-Western stance – from that of Putin, things turned violent.

Russia was suddenly spooked by Georgia’s subsequent bid for NATO membership, resulting in a full-on diplomatic crisis. Then, on August 1, 2008, Russian-backed South Ossetian forces began to attack Georgian villages, violating the 1992 ceasefire agreement.

In a further echo of current Ukrainian developments, the Russian propaganda machine then accused Georgia of committing “genocide” and “aggression against South Ossetia.”

Russian-backed forces launched a full-scale invasion – by land, sea and air – on August 8, calling the offence a “peace enforcement” operation. At the same time, this coincided with an information war, just to muddy the waters. It wasn’t until the President of France – Nicolas Sarkozy – personally negotiated a ceasefire agreement on August 12 that the mayhem began to simmer.

However, that wasn’t the end of national strife. Since 2008, there’s been a polarising attitude towards any Russian presence on Georgian soil – not helped by the International Criminal Court’s arrest warrants for Russian nationals accused of war crimes.

The conflict displaced 192,000 people, with over 20,000 ethnic Georgians still to return home in 2014. Russia has since been accused by the European Court of violating human rights. Naturally, none of that aids the Georgian people’s attitude towards Russian tourists.

Throw in the current carbon copy reasoning for Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and subsequent nuclear sabre-rattling, and it’s a potent recipe for anti-Russian attitudes to intensify. Especially when a cruise ship full of Russian nationals descends upon your port in a gleaming cruise ship (ironically built in the West).

Astoria Grande snapped here before she was Astoria Grande – wearing her previous AIDA livery. Credit: Wikicommons

Astoria Grande: Caught in the crossfire

With Russian-generated angst residing at a new high, Astoria Grande’s visit sparked a wave of anger from local residents – stoked further when the Russians were distinctly heard parroting Kremlin-fed propaganda about the 2008 Russian invasion.

Don’t forget, akin to the Russian annexation of Crimea, the conflict claimed large portions of Georgia – South Ossetia and Abkhazia – in the name of Vladimir Putin. He is not a popular figure in Georgian culture.

That brings us back to last week’s event. When the Astoria Grande arrived in Batumi and tourists began to disembark, protestors waved a variety of flags (from the Georgian and Ukrainian flags to the EU pennant), threw eggs, and chanted anti-Putin slogans. Emotions were undoubtedly high.

The ruckus prevented the Russian cruise ship from completing its scheduled inventory, and despite the arrest of 23 protestors, the screaming chants continued. Faced with a diplomatic incident, Aquilon Shipping Company opted to leave Batumi somewhat earlier than planned.

And that’s where most media outlets would like you to stop reading, but digging deeper reveals further political turmoil. The ruling Georgian Dream party has recently sought to repair relations with Moscow, angering many Georgians and reigniting a direct fight between the two nations.

The pro-European Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili heaped praise upon the protestors and their actions, especially considering the Ukraine conflict and latest provocation relating to grain shipments and free movement across the Black Sea.

In stark contrast to that, ruling party chairman Iraki Kobakhidze criticised the protests as unnecessarily violent, while also blaming Kelly Degnan – the United States ambassador – for claiming that ‘Georgians should not be expected to welcome tourists from a nation that was occupying their land’.

It’s a swirling political mess that would have kept any rational-minded cruise company from visiting. Yet, the Astoria Grande sailed right in. And this wasn’t to be her only visit, with the ship’s schedule vowing to enter Batumi every fortnight as part of a cruise itinerary that departed from the Russian port of Sochi.

Costing £900 (€1,150) per person, that cruise route has now been dropped in favour of an excursion along the Turkish coast. The whole situation begs the question: W as the Aquilon Shipping Company out of their minds to organise a Georgian pitstop?

Batumi has a delicate political seascape to navigate. Credit: Shutterstock

A delicate political seascape

That’s a hard one to answer.

You can hardly blame the Russian people for booking an attractive cruise to a country where homegrown media claim Georgia was the instigator. Most Russians believe the propaganda; Russia did no wrong, and instead went in on a ‘peacekeeping exercise’, with foreign enemies spinning the atrocities to fit a Western agenda.

As such, the Aquilon Shipping Company likely ran with the notion that – even with the current Ukrainian conflict – they were cruising to a friendly ‘liberated’ port. After all – the bigwigs at Aquilon are following the same protocols and state media as their passengers. Their treatment in Georgia probably came as a shock, rather than a rude awakening.

Their consequent action to drop the Georgian itinerary stems from a need to avoid passenger upset. There’s nothing like being egged and hackled by a large crowd of enraged protestors to ruin your trip. Tripadvisor (or the Russian equivalent) would become awash with disastrous reviews. Quite frankly, Aquilon did the right thing in diverting future cruises away.

But what about the protestors? Were they in the wrong?

That’s up to personal opinion. Georgia is a complex country to understand in relation to freedoms, but the right to protest hasn’t become the jail-able sentence that certain Russian events have showcased.

If anything, the recent rejection of the Astoria Grande by the Georgian people will not act as an instigator for further conflict, but rather as a learning curve for future Russian cruises.

The likes of Aquilon Shipping Co won’t pause their cruise offerings, as life continues as normal for the majority of Russian civilians and their economy – but the unwelcome reception in Batumi may cause those with a more inquisitive nature to read between the headlines and take stock.

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About Calum Brown

Calum holds a deep interest in all things heritage and remains one of Britain’s most enthusiastic historians.

As a seasoned journalist, he has spent considerable time abroad and relishes all forms of transport. Shipping is in the blood, with a family connection to Stena Line embedded in his DNA. He also refuses to admit that 21st Century music exists.

Calum has developed a skill for bringing history alive, and always insists on making heritage accessible for everyone.