Protesters gathered at Tbilisi airport in Georgia, holding banners that read “you are not welcome,” as the first direct flight from Russia arrived after nearly four years of suspension.
Scuffles broke out when police prevented the protesters from standing outside the airport arrivals hall.
The Azimuth Airlines plane landed at 13:20 local time (09:20 BST) following approval from Georgia’s civil aviation authority.
While Georgia’s government has embraced the return of direct flights, the decision has faced widespread opposition among Georgians.
Irakli Kobakhidze, chairman of the governing Georgian Dream party, argued that the move benefits citizens who previously had to take more expensive detours. However, many Georgians see it as a setback for their country’s aspirations to join the EU.
Over 100 Georgian organizations have described the decision as “direct sabotage” of their European aspirations, as they hope for Brussels to grant candidate status later this year.
The first flight included a delegation of pro-Russian Georgian NGOs and businesses, as reported by Russia’s state news agency. Georgian Airways also plans to operate daily flights to Moscow.
This apparent thaw in relations follows President Vladimir Putin’s decree to lift Russia’s unilateral ban on direct flights, which was imposed in response to mass anti-Russia protests in Tbilisi in 2019.
Although Russia has lifted entry restrictions on Georgian citizens and allowed visa-free visits of up to 90 days, the two countries still lack diplomatic relations.
The conflict between Russia and Georgia in 2008 resulted in 20% of Georgia’s internationally recognized territory remaining under Russian occupation.
Georgia’s pro-European President Salome Zurabishvili denounced the resumption of direct flights as “another Russian provocation.” Both the EU and the US expressed disappointment with these developments.
US Ambassador to Georgia Kelly Degnan questioned the decision to accept what she referred to as a “gift” from an aggressor country, raising concerns about the price Georgia may have to pay.
The EU’s spokesperson for foreign affairs, Peter Stano, stated earlier this week that the decision raised doubts about Georgia’s commitment to align itself with the 27-member union.
Opposition parties in Georgia criticized the return of direct flights as a “reward” to the ruling Georgian Dream party for its favorable stance towards Russia since the invasion of Ukraine.
While Georgia refrained from imposing sanctions on Russia and allowed many Russian citizens to relocate to the country, opposition leader Levan Khabeishvili emphasized that “the will of the Georgian people is unshakeable! We choose Europe, not Russia!”