TBILISI, Georgia — President Vladimir V. Putin on Wednesday ordered the restoration of direct flights from Russia to the mountainous former Soviet republic of Georgia starting May 15 and abolished visa requirements for Georgian nationals, in the latest sign of continued rapprochement between the two nations.
The Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement that the decisions announced Wednesday were made in line with the “principled approach to gradually improving conditions for communication and contacts between the citizens of Russia and Georgia.”
Mr. Putin’s decisions highlighted the highly complex relationship between Russia and Georgia, where many members of civil society, pro-Western opposition activists and lawmakers see the Kremlin as the main threat to the country’s stability and security. The country’s ruling party, however, tacitly supports closer ties with Moscow.
In 2008, Georgia fought a painful five-day war with Russia that resulted in Moscow’s military taking control of the two secessionist regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, or about one-fifth of Georgia’s territory. Since then, Russia and Georgia have had no formal diplomatic relations.
Mr. Putin banned flights between Russia and Georgia in 2019, after anti-Kremlin protests erupted in central Tbilisi, the Georgian capital. Russia began requiring visas of arriving Georgian nationals in 2000, citing a risk of terrorism in the North Caucasus, where it was fighting a war in Chechnya at the time.
Mr. Putin’s announcement on Wednesday was met with criticism from pro-Western officials and lawmakers in Georgia. President Salome Zourabichvili, who serves as the country’s ceremonial head of state, called Mr. Putin’s moves a “provocation” and “unacceptable” while Russia continues waging its war in Ukraine, another former Soviet republic.
She also called on the country’s government to convene a meeting of its security council and discuss introducing visa requirements for Russian nationals, who can currently stay and work in the country without a visa for up to a year.
Ms. Zourabichvili has often made sharp statements criticizing the Georgian government as being too subservient to Russia, but it is the country’s ruling party, Georgian Dream, that has real power over government policy.The party officially says that it pursue a pro-Western policies, but it has also argued for a pragmatic approach in developing ties with the Kremlin.
The relationship with Russia has been a subject of a heated and polarizing debate in Georgia, where many members of the pro-Western opposition argue that the country must impose sanctions on Moscow and be more active in supporting Ukraine.
However, since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Georgia has increased its trade with Russia. It also emerged as one of the key transit hubs for goods shipped between Turkey and Russia, including some from the West. Georgia’s opposition asserts that the trade helps Russia evade some Western sanctions, which the Georgian government denies.
Hundreds of thousands of Russians fled their country in the wake of the invasion of Ukraine and Mr. Putin’s order months later to mobilize troops for the war. Many have settled in Georgia, giving the country’s economy a boost by relocating their assets there.
Georgia’s pragmatic approach to its relationship with Russia has earned praise from Sergey V. Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, who said in January that the decision to refrain from imposing sanctions “commands respect” from Russia.
According to Mr. Putin’s order, Georgian citizens will have the right to enter Russia without a visa and stay there for 90 days.
The Russian Transportation Ministry said in a statement that seven flights would operate between Moscow and Tbilisi per week, and that the planes used would all be Russian-made. The Georgian government said that it would only allow flights by airlines that had not been placed under Western sanctions, according to RIA Novosti, a Russian news agency. Most of Russia’s leading airlines, including Aeroflot, are under those sanctions.
Roman Gotsiridze, a Georgian opposition lawmaker, said in a statement on his Facebook account that Mr. Putin’s decisions on travel and visas had “put Georgia on the same rank” as Belarus, “a friendly state for Russia.”