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Russia-Georgia flights resume despite protests, strained ties

By Associated Press
Published: May 19, 2023, 7:54am

TBILISI, Georgia (AP) — Direct flights resumed on Friday between Russia and Georgia amid protests and sharp criticism from the South Caucasus nation’s president, just over a week after the Kremlin unexpectedly lifted a four-year-old ban despite rocky relations.

Georgian police on Friday afternoon dispersed protesters who had gathered at Tbilisi airport to meet an Azimuth Airlines flight from Moscow, the first to arrive from Russia since July 2019, with signs and slogans criticizing the Kremlin and what they described as the current Georgian government’s pro-Russia course.

Georgia’s pro-Western president, Salome Zourabichvili, who has previously clashed with the government over mending ties with Moscow, also voiced her opposition in a tweet posted on Friday.

“Despite the opposition of the Georgian people, Russia has landed its unwelcome flight in Tbilisi. No to flights to Russia!,” Zourabichvili said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin last Wednesday unexpectedly abolished visas for Georgian nationals and lifted the flight ban Moscow unilaterally imposed in 2019 after a wave of anti-Kremlin protests in Georgia.

Putin’s decrees came a day after leaders of several Central Asian and South Caucasus states stood beside him at a military parade marking the anniversary of Nazi Germany’s defeat in World War II, in what looked like the Kremlin seeking to show that Russia still had allies and wasn’t completely isolated.

Following Putin’s decrees, Russia’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement lifting its 2019 recommendation for Russian citizens to avoid traveling to Georgia.

Russia-Georgia relations have been complicated since the Soviet Union’s collapse in the early 1990s. The two countries fought a short war in 2008 that ended with Georgia losing control of two Russia-friendly separatist regions.

In the aftermath, Tbilisi severed diplomatic ties with Moscow, and the issue of the regions’ status remains a key irritant, even as relations have somewhat improved.

After Russia invaded Ukraine last year, Georgia joined international resolutions condemning the war, provided Kyiv with humanitarian aid and took in thousands of refugees. However, its authorities stopped short of supplying Ukraine with weapons, citing the need to maintain neutrality.

At the same time, the Black Sea country of 3.7 million people became one of the main destinations for Russians fleeing the crackdown and the partial mobilization into the military that Putin announced in September 2022.

Zourabichvili last week responded to Putin’s decrees with a tweet calling them “another Russian provocation.”

“Resuming direct flights and lifting visa ban with Georgia is unacceptable as long as Russia continues its aggression on Ukraine and occupies our territory!,” she said.

Opposition lawmaker Giorgi Vashadze told reporters that Georgia’s pro-Western political parties planned to hold a rally outside the parliament building on Friday evening.

“The current authorities want rapprochement with Russia, but the population is against this and is committed to the Euro-Atlantic course,” Vashadze said, referencing Tbilisi’s stalled European Union membership bid and decades-long aspirations to join NATO.

By contrast, Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili on Friday said at a media briefing that restoring direct flights from Russia was the right thing to do. Garibashvili stressed that Tbilisi wouldn’t allow flights by Russian airlines sanctioned by the West, but said that stopping trade and economic relations with Moscow would “harm the interests of the Georgian people.”

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The Georgian aviation authority this week authorized two smaller Russian airlines, Azimuth Airlines and Red Wings, to launch flights to Tbilisi and Georgia’s second city of Kutaisi.

Vazha Siradze, a Georgian interior ministry official, said in a statement Friday that six people were detained during the demonstration at Tbilisi airport after allegedly throwing eggs and shouting insults at police.