Police detained a reported six activists near Tbilisi International Airport as around 200 people protested the arrival of the first passenger flight from Russia to Georgia on Friday.
The flight from Moscow’s Vnukovo airport, operated by Russian airline Azimuth, marked the end of a nearly four-year Russian ban on flights between the two countries.
Protesters began their demonstration at First Republic square in central Tbilisi, and travelled in a convoy to the airport, where they were prevented by police from approaching the arrivals terminal.
Standing at a distance from the airport, some protesters threw eggs filled with paint at police, while others held banners saying ‘you are not welcome’ and ‘Russia is a terrorist state’. As the airplane landed, around 13:20 in Tbilisi, protesters chanted ‘Putin Khuylo’ and ‘Russian airship, go fuck yourself!’, and played the Ukrainian national anthem.
Towards the end of the demonstration, police reportedly detained six protesters, of whom OC Media observed three being detained. Elene Khoshtaria, chair of Droa, the opposition party that organised the convoy, only avoided detention after the crowd moved to obstruct the police.
Both Georgian and Russian authorities have described the resumption of flights as a ‘humanitarian’ rather than a political issue. However, the first flight’s passengers included Georgian pro-Russian political activist Dimitri Lortkipanidze, and Valeri Kvaratskhelia, chair of the Socialist Georgia party and a prominent Putin apologist in Georgia.
Lortkipanidze, a former MP and a well-known conservative activist with links to Georgian far-right organisations, has in recent years led the Yevgeny Primakov Georgian–Russian Social Centre, a Kremlin-linked organisation based in Tbilisi whose stated aim is to promote ties between the two countries.
Both Lortkipanidze and Kvaratskhelia have in the past week claimed responsibility for Russia reversing its visa requirements for Georgians and air travel ban. Both regularly attended recent meetings between Georgian and Russian political activists, and Russian political and business leaders, in Moscow, at which the restoration of air travel between the two countries and the elimination of the visa requirement for Georgia were frequent topics of discussion.
This included meetings hosted by the Russian Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament, in March of this year and last December.
Valeri Kvaratskhelia’s son, Davit Kvaratskhelia, is the majority shareholder of Aero Handling Georgia, a company which provided overground handling services to the first Russian–Georgian passenger flight on Friday. Aero Handling Georgia was founded less than three weeks before Russia announced that it would lift the ban on flights with Georgia.
The ‘Georgian delegation’, as Russian state-run media termed the passengers of the flight, also included Merab Chikashvili, chair of the Tbilisi-registered Solidarity for Peace group.
Speaking to media on arrival, Chikashvili congratulated Georgians on the resumption of flights, which he described as a success of ‘public diplomacy’ conducted ‘on behalf of the majority of Georgians’ by Chikashvili along with Leonid Kalashnikov and Kasbeg Taysayev, the heads of Russia’s State Duma committee on CIS Affairs, Eurasian Integration, and Relations with Compatriots.
Alt Info, a Georgian pro-Russian far-right extremist group, have also recently taken part in meetings with Russian officials, and also claimed credit for the resumption of the flights.
As of Friday, two airlines — Azimuth and Georgian Airways — have confirmed that they will run flights between Georgia and Russia. Beginning in June, another Russian airline, Red Wings, is set to run Sochi-Tbilisi-Sochi and Moscow-Kutaisi-Moscow flights three times a week.
‘Deliberate sabotage’ of Georgia’s EU bid
On 18 May, over 140 Georgian civil society groups urged the government to reverse the decision to allow the resumption of flights, which they deemed a ‘deliberate act of sabotage’ against Georgia’s bid to gain EU membership candidacy.
[Read more on OC Media: Datablog | Is the Georgian government doing enough to secure EU membership?]
However, Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili rebuffed the mounting criticism on Friday by stating that as Georgia was not a member of the EU, it did not have to obey EU policy.
Georgia’s President Salome Zurabishvili also weighed in on the flight’s arrival, deeming it ‘unwelcome’ and stating that it had arrived despite ‘opposition’ from the Georgian people.
Despite the opposition of the Georgian people, Russia has landed its unwelcome flight in Tbilisi#No2Flights2Russia 🚫✈️
— Salome Zourabichvili (@Zourabichvili_S) May 19, 2023
The Georgian government’s decision to allow the resumption of flights was also criticised by the EU and the USA.
On 19 May, US Ambassador to Georgia, Kelly Degnan, reiterated Washington’s disapproval, stating that the decision was made ‘for the convenience largely of Russians who want to come to Georgia’ rather than for Georgian people.
‘I think it’s understandable why people are concerned, why people want to have a better understanding of what this is going to cost Georgia’, added Degnan.
Amidst the growing discontent over the resumption of flights, Georgian Dream chair Irakli Kobakhidze focused his criticism on the USA for their ‘discriminatory’ visa issuance practice for Georgians.