Georgia received the first commercial airliner from Russia in four years after President Vladimir Putin ordered the restoration of direct flights with the aspiring European Union member state.
An Azimuth Airline plane from Moscow touched down at Tbilisi International Airport on Friday.
Georgia’s government welcomed Putin’s decision this month to lift the ban and ease visa requirements for its citizens, though critics lambasted the move and President Salome Zourabichvili called it a “provocation.” The US and the EU urged Georgia to observe sanctions imposed over Russia’s war on Ukraine.
On Tuesday, Georgian Airways received permission from the nation’s civil aviation service to start flights to Russia from May 20. Peter Stano, the EU’s lead spokesperson for foreign affairs and security policy, said the same day that the bloc regretted Tbilisi’s decision to resume flights, which raised “concerns” about Georgia’s EU path and the country’s commitment to aligning with its foreign policy declarations.
Small groups of protesters gathered outside the airport after an opposition leader called for a demonstration against the resumption of flights, saying it dented the country’s chances of joining the European bloc.
“We will not end up in the EU with Russian planes,” Helen Khoshtaria, leader of the Droa party, said earlier in the week.
Ministers have sought to cultivate links with the Kremlin even as tensions remain over two separatist regions that Russia has occupied since a brief war in 2008. Georgia has also been confronted with an influx of Russians fleeing the war since Putin ordered the February 2022 invasion of Ukraine.
The thaw in relations between the governments in Tbilisi and Moscow has stoked divisions within the nation of 3.7 million, where anti-Russian protesters accuse the authorities of jeopardizing the country’s longstanding efforts to join the EU and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
Although Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili has condemned Russia’s “unjustified” aggression against Ukraine, his government hasn’t imposed sanctions on Russia and has refused to provide military aid to Kyiv.
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