First Moscow-Tbilisi flight in four years, Georgian opposition stands up
A Russian plane arrived in Georgia on Friday for the first time since 2019 in the Caucasian country where the opposition sees the restoration of air links with Russia as a threat to its European aspirations.
The flight, which departed from Moscow and was operated by the airline Azimuth Airlines, landed in Tbilisi at 1:17 p.m. local time (9:17 a.m. GMT).
In front of the airport, a hundred protesters gathered against the resumption of flights, an AFP correspondent said. Many display the Ukrainian and Georgian flags.
“Fuck Russian planes,” says a poster held by a protester, using a slogan symbolizing the Ukrainian military’s resistance to the Russian invasion of February 24, 2022.
Police deployed to the scene arrested at least six protesters, according to Alain Khoshtaria, leader of the opposition Droa party, on the initiative of mobilizing against the measure.
Russian President Vladimir Putin made the surprise decision last week to restore flights between the two countries that were banned in 2019 in response to anti-Moscow agitations in Georgia.
In response, the Georgian opposition called for demonstrations at the capital’s airport.
“When I see my country slipping into the Russian orbit, I feel bitter and angry,” says Lacha Sigoua, a young history student interviewed by AFP this week.
“We simply cannot see Georgia going back to its old ways with Russia as it has waged a brutal war against Ukraine,” he said.
– “Treason” –
The country has a complicated relationship with its former Soviet-era overlord. A short but bloody war broke out between the two neighbors in 2008, against a backdrop of tensions associated with Georgia’s desire to move closer to the West.
At the end of the conflict, Moscow recognized the independence of two separatist regions in northern Georgia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and established military bases there.
The resumption of flights, along with allowing Georgians to stay in Russia without a visa for less than 90 days from May 15 – except for professional migration – is once again fueling division.
“We will not let them work in Georgia,” rival Alain Khoshtaria told AFP, accusing the ruling Georgian Dream party of “treason”.
The country’s president, pro-European Salome Zourabichvili, also criticized this “new Russian provocation”.
Unlike the president, Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibachvili welcomed the resumption of flights, specifying that only Russian companies and aircraft free from Western sanctions would be authorized to operate in Georgia.
“It is only a question of economic and trade relations,” he assured.
– “Practicality” –
Critics say the government is jeopardizing Georgia’s EU membership by cooperating with the Kremlin.
Shortly after the start of the Russian invasion in February 2022, the country of about 4 million inhabitants bordering the Black Sea submitted a joint application with Ukraine and Moldova.
In June, union leaders granted official candidate status to Kiev and Chisinau, but made Tbilisi conditional on a number of reforms (justice, electoral system, freedom of the press).
Political analyst Ghia Nodia believes that the leader of the Georgian Dream party is “practically sabotaging integration” with the EU.
Mr Garibbachvili rejected these criticisms and assured last week that his government is guided by “strategic fortitude and political pragmatism”.
The ruling party affirms that it supports requests for EU membership, but also of NATO, with the desire for integration written into the national constitution and supported as voted by 85% of the population.
However, “the European Union wants a democratic Georgia”, recalls Mr. Nodia. “That is why the ruling party, whose sole aim is to stay in power, sees the West as its natural enemy and autocratic Russia as a good ally.”