Protests greet first Russian plane to land in Georgia in years

·3-min read
Russia had banned air travel with Georgia since 2019
Russia had banned air travel with Georgia since 2019

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.

Anti-Russian sentiment runs deep in Georgia, which was annexed by the Russian empire in the 19th century and -- after short-lived independence -- forcibly incorporated into the Soviet Union.

There have been no formal diplomatic ties between the two countries since Russia invaded Georgia in 2008 following years of tensions over Tbilisi's pro-Western orientation.

The resumption of air travel comes as Moscow's offensive in Ukraine stretches into its second year with most Western companies having cancelled their own flights to Russia.

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.

"Despite the opposition of the Georgian people, Russia has landed its unwelcome flight in Tbilisi," tweeted Georgia's pro-EU President Salome Zurabishvili.

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."

One of the protestors, rights activist Lana Gvinjilia, 49, said the resumption of regular flights with Russia "means our government is collaborating with the Kremlin".

"This is humiliating for the Georgians who stand with Ukraine and we will not tolerate this situation."

- 'Treason' -

Russia had banned air travel with the country in response to anti-Moscow rallies in Tbilisi in 2019.

But in a surprise move last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin lifted the flight ban, a decision protested by hundreds in Georgia.

Putin also introduced a 90-day visa-free regime for Georgian citizens.

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".

The party, which insists on its commitment to the country's EU membership bid, has recently stepped up anti-Brussels rhetoric.

The government faces mounting accusations of covertly cooperating with the Kremlin after years of tensions but insists it needs to maintain economic ties with Russia.

Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili welcomed the return of flights as Putin's "very positive decision".

He said only Russian airlines and aircraft that are not affected by Western sanctions would be allowed to operate in Georgia.

- 'Schizophrenic behaviour' -

"I want to reassure our friends in the European Union and elsewhere: this is only about economic and trade relationships," he said, adding that last year Russia collected around $300 billion from trade with the EU.

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.

Critics have accused Garibashvili's government of undermining Georgia's European integration and flirting with the Kremlin.

"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".

He said his government's stance on Russia was shaped by "strategic patience and pragmatic policy".

Among the protesters at the airport, lawyer Lasha Tkesheladze, 29, said the resumption of flights was "totally unacceptable."

"We want to be in the EU, not under Russia's rule, that's why we are protesting here today."