Dozens of Georgians protested Friday outside an airport in the capital Tbilisi as a Russian passenger plane landed in the Caucasus country for the first time since 2019.
An AFP journalist at Tbilisi Airport reported the flight operated by Azimuth Airline had touched down at 13:17 local time (0917 GMT). A Georgian airline is expected to begin flying to Moscow on Saturday.
Holding Georgian and Ukrainian flags, protesters gathered just outside the airport.
“You Are Not Welcome,” said one placard, while a banner held by several people read: “Russia Is a Terrorist State.”
“Despite the opposition of the Georgian people, Russia has landed its unwelcome flight in Tbilisi,” tweeted Georgia’s pro-EU President Salome Zurabishvili.
The resumption of air travel comes as Moscow’s offensive in Ukraine stretches into its second year and Russia’s isolation from the West deepens.
Russia also fought a brief but bloody war with Georgia in 2008, and anti-Russian sentiment runs deeps in the pro-Western country.
In response to anti-Moscow rallies in Tbilisi, Russia banned air travel with the country in 2019.
But in a surprise move last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin lifted a flight ban with Georgia.
He has also introduced a 90-day visa-free regime for Georgian citizens.
– ‘Treason’ –
Elene Khoshtaria, leader of Droa, an opposition party which called for protests, said six demonstrators had been detained.
“We will not let them operate in Georgia,” Khoshtaria said of the flights, speaking to AFP ahead of the arrival of the plane.
She accused the ruling Georgian Dream party of committing “treason,” adding that it would “receive an appropriate reaction from Georgian citizens”.
The government insists it needs to maintain economic ties with Russia.
Hundreds of Georgians already took to the streets to protest against the resumption of flights this week.
“When I see my country sliding into a Russian orbit, all I feel is bitterness and anger,” Lasha Sigua, a 20-year-old history student, told AFP.
“We can’t watch indifferently that for Georgia it is business as usual with Russia, which is waging an atrocious war against Ukraine,” said Sigua.
Georgia and its former Soviet master Russia share a complicated history.
In 2008, after years of tensions over the small South Caucasus country’s efforts to forge closer ties with the West, Moscow fought a war with Georgia.
After the war, Moscow recognised two separatist territories in the north of the country as independent, stationing military bases there.
Putin’s decision has sparked mixed feelings in the Black Sea nation whose government faces mounting accusations of covertly cooperating with the Kremlin after years of tensions.
“The whole civilised world is isolating Putin, but the Georgian government is happy to reopen air links with Putin’s Russia,” said Sigua’s friend, 19-year-old Kote Ratiani.
– ‘Schizophrenic behaviour’ –
Analyst Gela Vasadze called Putin’s move to resume air travel “part of a hybrid war aimed at spoiling Georgia’s relationship with the West.”
But Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili has welcomed the return of flights as Putin’s “very positive decision from a humanitarian point of view”.
He said only Russian airlines and aircraft that are not affected by Western sanctions would be allowed to operate in Georgia.
“I want to reassure our friends in the European Union and elsewhere: this is only about economic and trade relationships,” he said.
He also said that last year Russia collected around $300 billion from trade with the EU.
Critics have accused Garibashvili’s government of failing to secure the country’s candidacy for EU membership and flirting with the Kremlin.
Georgia applied for EU membership together with Ukraine and Moldova after Russia invaded its pro-Western neighbour in February 2022.
Last June, EU leaders granted formal candidate status to Kyiv and Chisinau, but urged Tbilisi to reform the justice and electoral systems, improve press freedom and curtail the power of oligarchs.
“Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, Georgian government’s behaviour has been schizophrenic,” said political analyst Ghia Nodia.
“They say they want European integration and at the same time their posture towards Europe is confrontational.
Garibashvili has dismissed such claims, calling them “an insult to the Georgian people”.
Speaking last week, he said his government’s stance on Russia was shaped by “strategic patience and pragmatic policy”.