TBILISI -- Since the launch of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year, Georgia's government has tried to walk a thin line: to maintain its strong ties to the West while at the same time avoiding the wrath of a Russia on the warpath.
Now, the balancing act is facing its greatest challenge yet.
On May 10, Russia unexpectedly announced that it would restore direct flights to Georgia -- after suspending them in 2019 -- and cancel visa requirements for Georgians visiting Russia. Over a week later, on May 19, the first flight arrived from Moscow to Tbilisi's airport on Russia's Azimuth Airlines. Passengers on the inaugural flight, including some prominent Georgian pro-Russian activists as well as ordinary tourists, were greeted by a media scrum and hundreds of protesters.
The government of the ruling Georgian Dream party, which has faced accusations of appeasing Russia and failing to sufficiently support Ukraine, has argued the resumption of direct flights will boost tourism revenues and make life easier for Georgians who need to travel to Russia. It has sought to allay Western concerns by emphasizing that economic ties with Russia don't contradict the spirit of its relationship to the West and that they shouldn't affect the country's bid to join the European Union.
But it hasn't convinced Brussels.
'We regret Georgia's decisions to restart flights to and from Russia,' EU spokesman Peter Stano said in a May 16 press briefing. The move 'raises concerns about Georgia's EU path and Georgia's commitment to align with the EU decisions in foreign policy' that it had already undertaken when it signed an Association Agreement with the body in 2014, Stano added.
Passengers on the inaugural flight were greeted by a media scrum and hundreds of protesters.
Georgian officials have complained that they are facing a double standard compared to other Western-friendly countries that still have direct flights to and from Russia, including Armenia, Azerbaijan, Turkey, and Israel. Moscow unilaterally canceled direct flights to Georgia in 2019 in retaliation against anti-Russian protests that year. At the time, the EU and U.S. criticized Russia for the move.
Now, criticism of Georgia for accepting the flights amounts to a 'demand that Russia sanction Georgia again,' in the words of parliamentary speaker Shalva Papuashvili.
Georgian officials have argued they are only allowing unsanctioned airlines to carry out the flights and so they are not violating Western sanctions. But EU officials say that misses the point, and that the situation has changed since 2019: the EU banned all flights to and from Russia in response to the war in Ukraine and expects its partner countries to do the same.
'Each country in the EU accession process, or aspiring to become part of it, is expected to progressively align with our foreign policy decisions and actions,' Stano told RFE/RL in e-mailed comments. 'In the case of countries with a clear [EU] perspective, we expect real concrete actions.'
WATCH: Hundreds gathered at the main airport in Tbilisi on May 19 to protest the return of direct flights from Russia.
Copyright (c) 2018. RFE/RL, Inc. Republished with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Washington DC 20036