Russian tourists were greeted with a particularly frosty reception when their plane touched down in Tbilisi earlier today.
A horde of furious protesters surrounded the Georgian capital’s airport at 13:20pm local time (09:20 BST) to meet Azimuth Airlines flight A4851 – the first tourist plane from Moscow in four years.
Georgia’s government has welcomed the return of direct flights from Russia, which were unilaterally suspended by following anti-Kremlin protests in Georgia in 2019 but suddenly reinstated on May 15.
The civil aviation authority recently green-lit daily flights to and from Moscow despite widespread outcry, with Georgia’s government claiming ethnic Georgians living across the border only stand to benefit.
Many of the protesters held placards on which the words ‘Russian airship – go f*** yourself!’ had been emblazoned.
Others held loudspeakers which chanted the same slogan on repeat – a tribute to the now legendary Ukrainian soldiers on Snake Island who resisted the demands of Putin’s warship on the second day of the war with a defiant soundbite.
Irakli Kobakhidze, the chairman of the governing Georgian Dream party, claims that the return of regular tourist flights to and from Russia will greatly reduce costs for those wanting to travel for work, holidays or to see their families living abroad.
Kobakhidze claims he is employing a ‘cautious and pragmatic’ approach to Russia, but he has been widely criticised for refusing to condemn Russian atrocities in Ukraine and many Georgians claim the ruling party is committing ‘direct sabotage’ of their country’s aspiration to join the EU.
Opposition politicians also fear the renewed flights could offer Russian officials and businesspeople a way to skirt Western sanctions, and defiantly declared the people of Georgia ‘choose Europe, not Russia’.
Though the protests at the airport remained largely peaceful, the atmosphere was particularly hostile and six people were detained by security.
A rally against the resumption of flights also took place on Tbilisi’s main First Republic Square.
From the loudspeakers boomed the phrase: ‘Russian airship – go f*** yourself!’
Georgian journalists meanwhile descended on the Russian tourists who exited the plane.
In the airport’s arrivals concourse, one journalist asked one female passenger: ‘Do you know that Russia is an occupier?’
‘I won’t comment on it,’ she replied, but the journalist kept pressing.
‘I came to have a holiday,’ the woman said sheepishly.
Russia’s war of occupation in Ukraine is not a foreign concept to Georgians.
The makings of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine were evident as early as 2008, when Russia effectively baited the Georgian military into a skirmish with separatist forces in the regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
This gave Moscow an incentive to respond with swift military force, eliminating the Georgian troops and declaring both territories as independent states.
Georgia and most of the international community still regard Abkhazia and South Ossetia – roughly 20 per cent of Georgia’s landmass, as part of Georgia and under Russian military occupation.
Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of Russians, many of them military-age men, have fled their homes and crossed into Georgia amid Putin’s war in Ukraine to avoid being conscripted into Russia’s armed forces.
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