Tensions Flare in Georgia as Direct Flights Resume With Russia

As passengers on the first direct flight from Russia to Georgia in more than three years disembarked on Friday, they were met by protesters cursing their arrival.

Shouts of “Why did you come here? Your country is an occupier!” echoed through the arrivals hall at Tbilisi International Airport. Outside, a crowd of about 200 hundred demonstrators unfurled a banner saying “You are not welcome.”

“I am only here for a vacation,” one passenger replied, running away from a media throng that had gathered to meet the flight.

Russia invaded Georgia in 2008, and it wields military control over 20 percent of its territory. Graffiti that says “Russians go home” is commonplace in Tbilisi, the Georgian capital. A determination to join NATO is enshrined in the former Soviet republic’s Constitution.

But with the arrival of Azimuth Airlines Flight A4851 from Moscow on Friday, the tiny country of Georgia in the Caucasus Mountains took a major step toward building closer ties with Moscow. It follows a decree on May 10 by President Vladimir V. Putin ordering the restoration of direct flights from Russia and abolishing visa requirements for Georgian nationals.

The resumption of flights, and the resulting protests on Friday, underscore the tensions within Georgia over its relationship with Russia, and the wariness that many Georgians feel about moving closer to a country that it was at war with 15 years ago, and that last year invaded Ukraine, another former Soviet republic.

The thaw in relations also illustrates Moscow’s need to court other governments, whether through friendly outreach or hardball diplomacy, lining up as many partners as it can as most of the Western world turns against it.

Azimuth Airlines Flight A4851 was met by about 200 people protesting its arrival.Credit…Tako Robakidze for The New York Times

Victor Kipiani, chairman of the Geocase think tank in Tbilisi, said the Georgian government is attempting to perform a “balancing act” by trying to keep its overall pro-Western orientation while also exploiting the economic benefits of being next door to Russia.

“The country is a prisoner of its own geography,” said Mr. Kipiani, who is also a lawyer. “In the absence of a formidable security umbrella, of course the government is trying to be more soft, cautious, and careful in its actions.”

Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili of Georgia said the decision to resume flights was made with the “interests of the Georgian people” in mind. He said that Georgia is not at risk of facing Western sanctions since the government would only permit airlines that are not subject to sanctions to operate in the country.

Once a pro-Western trailblazer that showcased its confrontation with Moscow as a sign of its growing independence, Georgia has suddenly emerged as one of the few former Soviet republics moving closer to Russia even after its invasion of Ukraine.

In 2008, Georgia fought its own five-day war with its northern neighbor, leaving two of its regions under Moscow’s military control. Since then, the countries have severed all diplomatic relations and have no immediate plans to restore them.

Many of its peers, including Kazakhstan and neighboring Armenia, attempted to distance themselves from the Kremlin, diversifying their political and economic aspirations by re-emphasizing their ties with the West.

However, the government in Tbilisi, led by the Georgian Dream party for more than a decade, has faced the urgent challenge of ensuring its continued grip on power. With accumulating voter fatigue, it made the choice to become more authoritarian and anti-Western, said Paata Zakareishvili, a former government minister who has since distanced himself from the party.

“In the end, it appeared that only Russia could help them preserve their rule in that form,” said Mr. Zakareishvili, now an analyst, in an interview. “Not the West.”

Murals in Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital, showing support for Ukraine, and for Giorgi Antsukhelidze, a soldier who was killed during the war between Russia and Georgia.Credit…Tako Robakidze for The New York Times

Mr. Putin’s decision to restore flights to Georgia and lift the visa requirement for Georgian nationals was “a gift” from the Kremlin to the Georgian government and a recognition of its drift toward Moscow, said Armaz Akhvlediani, a member of Parliament and a disenchanted former leader of Georgian Dream.

“This would never happen without certain steps from the Georgian government,” Mr. Akhvlediani said in an interview. “Since 2020, our government embarked on a path of implicit rapprochement with Russia.”

The government, in explaining its decision, pointed to the economic and social benefits of cooperating with Moscow in some areas. Direct flights between Georgia and Russia can bring the mountainous nation of 3.7 million people up to $400 million per year, according to its economy minister, Levan Davitashvili. And the visa-free policy with Russia will allow thousands of Georgians to see their relatives in Russia, the government said.

A flight run by Azimuth Airline landed in Tbilisi on Friday, the first direct flight from Russia in more than three years.Credit…Vano Shlamov/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The economic benefits of Georgia’s proximity to Russia have only increased with the war in Ukraine. After the invasion, thousands of Russian professionals rushed across the border to Georgia, fleeing repression and the threat of being drafted at home. They have injected more than $2.8 billion into Georgia’s small economy according to the country’s central bank, and have filled Tbilisi’s cafes, bars, and barbershops, while also purchasing Georgian products.

With the current unemployment rate at 17.3 percent in Georgia, many Georgians could consider trying to find work in Russia.

That might help struggling Georgians seeking income, but Mr. Akhvlediani, the lawmaker, said he also worried that it would inevitably raise pro-Russian sentiments in the country.

Throughout its history Georgia has been challenged by the need to preserve its independence in the region that has been the scene of great power politics.

Since emerging as an independent nation in 1991, Georgia has oscillated between periods of rapid reform, civil war, and creeping stagnation. Since coming to power in 2012, the Georgian Dream party has aimed to bring about normalcy and stability.

Initially, Bidzina Ivanishvili, the party’s founder and informal leader, has voiced strong support for Georgia’s widely popular aspiration to join NATO and the European Union.

However, the party has faced recurrent accusations from activists, lawmakers and many members of the public that Mr. Ivanishvili, a reclusive billionaire who made his fortune in Russia, was secretly backed by the Kremlin. Despite his retirement from frontline politics, he is still widely seen by many Georgians as a shadow ruler who makes all the important decisions.

“He is ruling somewhere from sky and is responsible for nothing,” said Mr. Akhvlediani, who has worked extensively with Mr. Ivanishvili.

Protesters preparing signs and stickers ahead of the resumption of flights between Russia and Georgia, in Tbilisi on Thursday.Credit…Tako Robakidze for The New York Times

Thomas de Waal, a leading expert on the region, said he would not describe the government as overly pro-Russian. “The No. 1 priority of this government right now is regime survival,” he said in a phone interview, “and they are highly transactional in that regard.”

Over the past few years, the party has alienated many of its early supporters, particularly those whose main aim was to remove Georgia’s previous firebrand ruler, Mikheil Saakashvili.

It has also increased pressure on independent news media outlets, in one case jailing a prominent media executive, and on the country’s vocally pro-Western civil society. In 2022, the former director general of the main opposition television network, Nika Gvaramia, was sentenced to three and a half years in prison in a case widely seen as tainted by political agendas.

In March, the Georgian government sparked tensions and widespread protests in Tbilisi by attempting to introduce a law that could designate people foreign agents — widely viewed as being inspired a similar Russian statute. Thousands of people took to the streets, chanting “No to the Russian law,” in front of the Parliament building. After two nights of clashes with the police, the government abandon the proposal.

However, for many, the mere attempt to pass such legislation served as a clear indication of the ruling party’s pro-Russian leanings.

Kristina Siritsyan, one of the passengers, said she did not see the resumption of direct flights as a betrayal by Georgia. “I think the opposite,” she said as she strode past the demonstrators.“There should be peace and people must be friends.”

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