As passengers on the primary direct flight from Russia to Georgia in additional than three years disembarked on Friday, they had been met by protesters cursing their arrival.

Shouts of “Why did you come right here? Your nation is an occupier!” echoed by way of the arrivals corridor at Tbilisi Worldwide Airport. Exterior, a crowd of about 200 hundred demonstrators unfurled a banner saying “You aren’t welcome.”

“I’m solely right here for a trip,” one passenger replied, operating away from a media throng that had gathered to fulfill the flight.

Russia invaded Georgia in 2008, and it wields army management over 20 % of its territory. Graffiti that claims “Russians go residence” is commonplace in Tbilisi, the Georgian capital. A willpower to affix NATO is enshrined within the former Soviet republic’s Structure.

However with the arrival of Azimuth Airways Flight A4851 from Moscow on Friday, the tiny nation of Georgia within the Caucasus Mountains took a significant step towards constructing nearer ties with Moscow. It follows a decree on Might 10 by President Vladimir V. Putin ordering the restoration of direct flights from Russia and abolishing visa necessities for Georgian nationals.

The resumption of flights, and the ensuing protests on Friday, underscore the tensions inside Georgia over its relationship with Russia, and the wariness that many Georgians really feel about shifting nearer to a rustic that it was at battle with 15 years in the past, and that final yr invaded Ukraine, one other former Soviet republic.

The thaw in relations additionally illustrates Moscow’s have to court docket different governments, whether or not by way of pleasant outreach or hardball diplomacy, lining up as many companions as it will possibly as many of the Western world turns towards it.

Victor Kipiani, chairman of the Geocase assume tank in Tbilisi, stated the Georgian authorities is making an attempt to carry out a “balancing act” by making an attempt to maintain its general pro-Western orientation whereas additionally exploiting the financial advantages of being subsequent door to Russia.

“The nation is a prisoner of its personal geography,” stated Mr. Kipiani, who can also be a lawyer. “Within the absence of a formidable safety umbrella, after all the federal government is making an attempt to be extra mushy, cautious, and cautious in its actions.”

Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili of Georgia stated the choice to renew flights was made with the “pursuits of the Georgian folks” in thoughts. He stated that Georgia isn’t liable to dealing with Western sanctions because the authorities would solely allow airways that aren’t topic to sanctions to function within the nation.

As soon as a pro-Western trailblazer that showcased its confrontation with Moscow as an indication of its rising independence, Georgia has abruptly emerged as one of many few former Soviet republics shifting nearer to Russia even after its invasion of Ukraine.

In 2008, Georgia fought its personal five-day battle with its northern neighbor, leaving two of its areas beneath Moscow’s army management. Since then, the international locations have severed all diplomatic relations and don’t have any rapid plans to revive them.

A lot of its friends, together with Kazakhstan and neighboring Armenia, tried to distance themselves from the Kremlin, diversifying their political and financial aspirations by re-emphasizing their ties with the West.

Nevertheless, the federal government in Tbilisi, led by the Georgian Dream celebration for greater than a decade, has confronted the pressing problem of guaranteeing its continued grip on energy. With accumulating voter fatigue, it made the selection to change into extra authoritarian and anti-Western, stated Paata Zakareishvili, a former authorities minister who has since distanced himself from the celebration.

“In the long run, it appeared that solely Russia may assist them protect their rule in that type,” stated Mr. Zakareishvili, now an analyst, in an interview. “Not the West.”

Mr. Putin’s resolution to revive flights to Georgia and elevate the visa requirement for Georgian nationals was “a present” from the Kremlin to the Georgian authorities and a recognition of its drift towards Moscow, stated Armaz Akhvlediani, a member of Parliament and a disenchanted former chief of Georgian Dream.

“This could by no means occur with out sure steps from the Georgian authorities,” Mr. Akhvlediani stated in an interview. “Since 2020, our authorities launched into a path of implicit rapprochement with Russia.”

The federal government, in explaining its resolution, pointed to the financial and social advantages of cooperating with Moscow in some areas. Direct flights between Georgia and Russia can deliver the mountainous nation of three.7 million folks as much as $400 million per yr, based on its economic system minister, Levan Davitashvili. And the visa-free coverage with Russia will permit hundreds of Georgians to see their family members in Russia, the federal government stated.

The financial advantages of Georgia’s proximity to Russia have solely elevated with the battle in Ukraine. After the invasion, hundreds of Russian professionals rushed throughout the border to Georgia, fleeing repression and the specter of being drafted at residence. They’ve injected greater than $2.8 billion into Georgia’s small economic system based on the nation’s central financial institution, and have crammed Tbilisi’s cafes, bars, and barbershops, whereas additionally buying Georgian merchandise.

With the present unemployment price at 17.3 % in Georgia, many Georgians may take into account looking for work in Russia.

Which may assist struggling Georgians searching for revenue, however Mr. Akhvlediani, the lawmaker, stated he additionally apprehensive that it will inevitably elevate pro-Russian sentiments within the nation.

All through its historical past Georgia has been challenged by the necessity to protect its independence within the area that has been the scene of nice energy politics.

Since rising as an impartial nation in 1991, Georgia has oscillated between intervals of fast reform, civil battle, and creeping stagnation. Since coming to energy in 2012, the Georgian Dream celebration has aimed to result in normalcy and stability.

Initially, Bidzina Ivanishvili, the celebration’s founder and casual chief, has voiced robust assist for Georgia’s extensively fashionable aspiration to affix NATO and the European Union.

Nevertheless, the celebration has confronted recurrent accusations from activists, lawmakers and lots of members of the general public that Mr. Ivanishvili, a reclusive billionaire who made his fortune in Russia, was secretly backed by the Kremlin. Regardless of his retirement from frontline politics, he’s nonetheless extensively seen by many Georgians as a shadow ruler who makes all of the essential choices.

“He’s ruling someplace from sky and is liable for nothing,” stated Mr. Akhvlediani, who has labored extensively with Mr. Ivanishvili.

Thomas de Waal, a number one knowledgeable on the area, stated he wouldn’t describe the federal government as overly pro-Russian. “The No. 1 precedence of this authorities proper now could be regime survival,” he stated in a cellphone interview, “and they’re extremely transactional in that regard.”

Over the previous few years, the celebration has alienated lots of its early supporters, significantly these whose primary goal was to take away Georgia’s earlier firebrand ruler, Mikheil Saakashvili.

It has additionally elevated stress on impartial information media retailers, in a single case jailing a distinguished media government, and on the nation’s vocally pro-Western civil society. In 2022, the previous director normal of the principle opposition tv community, Nika Gvaramia, was sentenced to a few and a half years in jail in a case extensively seen as tainted by political agendas.

In March, the Georgian authorities sparked tensions and widespread protests in Tbilisi by making an attempt to introduce a legislation that would designate folks overseas brokers — extensively seen as being impressed an analogous Russian statute. Hundreds of individuals took to the streets, chanting “No to the Russian legislation,” in entrance of the Parliament constructing. After two nights of clashes with the police, the federal government abandon the proposal.

Nevertheless, for a lot of, the mere try and move such laws served as a transparent indication of the ruling celebration’s pro-Russian leanings.

Kristina Siritsyan, one of many passengers, stated she didn’t see the resumption of direct flights as a betrayal by Georgia. “I feel the other,” she stated as she strode previous the demonstrators. “There must be peace and other people have to be pals.”