BENEATH the wooden balconies of Tbilisi’s charming Old Town, the faux-medieval signs offering wine tasting are as likely to be in Russian as in Georgian or English. Even some of the graffiti is in Cyrillic script. After the Russia-Georgia war in 2008 (pictured), Russian tourists stayed away, so visitors tended to be addressed in English. But now they are back, and so is their language.

A new generation of Georgian political leaders is equally pragmatic when dealing with Russia itself. The two countries still have no diplomatic relations. But their officials hold regular bilateral talks. And practical initiatives are easing trade, travel and transport between the two. “This government is bending over backwards not to antagonise Russia,” says Ojars Kalnins, a Latvian politician and diplomat.

This is very different from Georgia’s approach under the former president, Mikheil Saakashvili. He relished provoking Vladimir Putin, reportedly calling him “Lilli-Putin”, and was unabashed about his admiration for America, which in turn regarded him as a democratic beacon in a region of autocrats. But tensions with Russia increased, culminating in a five-day war which Georgia lost. In his final years in office Mr Saakashvili was seen as increasingly authoritarian, and in parliamentary elections in 2012 his party was beaten by Georgian Dream, a movement led by the country’s richest man, Bidzina Ivanishvili, an idiosyncratic billionaire.

So is Georgia slipping away from the West and back into Russia’s orbit? Not quite. “The confrontational tone that was dominant during the Saakashvili era has been replaced by a muted tone. But the content itself is not very different,” says Salome Zurabishvili, a former foreign minister under Mr Saakashvili and now an independent MP. Georgia is still keen on Europe, and aims to join the European Union. On the key issue of borders, it remains firm. Backed by the EU and NATO, the government views the Russian-sponsored breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as occupied Georgian territory.

EU officials welcome the Georgian government’s “pragmatic but principled” approach to Russia. They hope that calmer rhetoric and better trade and transport links will improve the atmosphere and the chances of resolving the border dispute. But Georgia’s conciliatory efforts are not being reciprocated by Russia. Instead Abkhazia and South Ossetia are being integrated more into Russian structures, crossing points have been closed and last year Russia moved the latter’s de facto border farther into Georgian territory.

Meanwhile, Georgia is still inching closer to the EU. Officials describe it as one of the countries most likely to be admitted to the club, thanks to political reforms, like improving minority rights. In 2016 an “association agreement”, easing trade between the EU and Georgia, came into force. In March 2017 the EU gave Georgians visa-free access. Further progress, though, will be harder; EU environmental standards and worker protections, for example, will be painful to meet.

Some also worry that the ruling Georgian Dream is stifling opposition. After the election in 2012, Georgia was praised for its first peaceful political transition since independence. But dozens of officials from the previous government were then arrested, often being charged with abuses of power. They include a former prime minister, Vano Merabishvili, who is still in prison. “Georgian Dream has consolidated power, but we don’t see many checks and balances,” says Vano Chkhikvadze from Open Society Georgia Foundation, a human-rights group.

Particularly worrying is the murkiness that surrounds Mr Ivanishvili, still the country’s most powerful man even though he stepped down as prime minister in 2013. Before entering politics he was a shadowy presence, known for an exotic taste in pets—rumoured to include kangaroos, zebras and penguins—and lavish philanthropy. He paid for homes for residents of his home village, and for Tbilisi’s flamboyant new cathedral; he also occasionally swooped in with cash gifts for struggling intellectuals. He still pulls strings from his futuristic palace overlooking Tbilisi, and his generosity has boosted his popularity and power. Ministers are said to fall and rise by his favour.

Some suggest that Mr Ivanishvili is allowing elected Georgian Dream politicians greater control. If so, the country could be entering a new phase. Today the Georgian government lacks an overarching ideology. Faced with the challenge of dealing with Russia, while convincing voters that the reforms that might let Georgia into the EU are worth the effort, it could do with some vision—something Mr Saakashvili, for all his flaws, never lacked. “He was crazy creative,” says Ms Zurabishvili. Georgia is better off without crazy; but a bit more creativity could be welcome.