The Resumption of Flights from Moscow sparked discontent in Georgia
The decision by Tbilisi authorities to resume flights between Georgia and Russia prompted the opposition to protest against the government on Friday.
Protesters gathered at the airport carried banners reading "You are not welcome" as the first direct flight in almost four years arrived from Russia, the BBC reported. People also gathered in front of the parliament in Tbilisi.
The BBC reported clashes with police at the airport as authorities refused to allow protesters to stand outside the arrivals hall.
The Russian Azimuth Airlines plane arrived at 1:20 p.m. local time on Friday, just days after receiving the green light from Georgia's civil aviation authorities.
The Government of Georgia welcomes the resumption of direct flights from Russia.
"The beneficiaries are our citizens, who have to take a detour at triple the price," said Irakli Kobakhidze, chairman of the ruling Georgian Dream party.
The government claims one million ethnic Georgian citizens living in Russia could benefit, although Russian figures put the number closer to 114,000.
But most Georgians oppose the government's move to allow the flights, with more than 100 Georgian organizations calling it "direct sabotage" of their country's bid to join the EU. Georgia hopes Brussels will approve its bid to become a candidate in December.
A delegation of pro-Russian Georgian NGOs and businessmen was on board the first flight, according to the Russian state news agency. The national carrier Georgian Airways also plans daily flights to Moscow.
The apparent thaw in relations comes after President Vladimir Putin signed a decree ending Moscow's unilateral ban on direct flights imposed in response to mass anti-Russian protests in Tbilisi in 2019.
Moscow also lifted 20-year entry restrictions on Georgian citizens, allowing them to visit Russia for up to 90 days without a visa.
And yet the two countries continue to have no diplomatic relations.
Russia and Georgia went to war in 2008 and 20% of Georgia's internationally recognized territory remains under Russian occupation.
The pro-European president of Georgia, Salome Zurabishvili, denounced "another Russian provocation".
The EU and US expressed disappointment at the resumption of direct flights.
US Ambassador to Georgia Kelly Degnan questioned the decision to accept a "gift" from an aggressor country.
"I think the important question is why, why now? Why is Putin now making these concessions, these offers to Georgia. What is the price that Georgia will have to pay? We all know that Putin gives nothing without making a profit." she said, as quoted by the BBC.
A European Commission spokesman said earlier this week that the decision casts doubt on Georgia's commitment to join the 27-member bloc.
"We and our partners do not allow flights from Russia, flights to Russia and flights over Russia," he pointed out.
The Georgian opposition strongly condemned the return of direct flights as a "reward" to the ruling Georgian Dream for "good behavior" towards Russia after its invasion of Ukraine.
Georgia did not impose sanctions on Russia and allowed tens of thousands of Russian citizens, many of them fleeing military mobilization, to settle in the country.
Levan Khabeishvili, who leads the main opposition United National Movement party, said President Putin was trying to turn Georgia into a "Russian province".
But he added that "the will of the Georgian people is unshakable! We choose Europe, not Russia!".
Georgia applied for EU membership last spring along with Ukraine and Moldova, but unlike them did not receive an invitation. Brussels has demanded a number of reforms in the country before deciding whether to grant candidate status
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