Russia, Georgia Agree To Reopen Border Gate

TBILISI (RFE/RL)–Georgia and Russia said on Thursday that they have agreed to reopen early next year their main border crossing that served as one of Armenia’s few commercial conduits to the outside world.

Western news agencies quoted Georgian Deputy Foreign Minister Nino Kalandadze as saying that the agreement heralding a thaw in the extremely strained Georgian-Russian relations was reached during Swiss-brokered talks on Wednesday.

“The decision to reopen [the border] has been made,” Kalandadze told journalists in Tbilisi, adding that Georgia expects the Upper Lars crossing to reopen at the beginning of March. A formal protocol to that effect will be finalized within two weeks, she said, according to the AFP news agency.

Russia’s border service confirmed the information. “Delegations from both sides came to a shared understanding of the need to resume international traffic between Russia and Georgia, which is planned to begin from March 1, 2010,” the border service said in a statement quoted by the RIA-Novosti news agency.

Armenia was quick to welcome the announcements. “As we have repeatedly stated, we will be happy if the Russian and Georgian sides reach such an agreement,” a spokesman for the Armenian Foreign Ministry, Tigran Balayan, told RFE/RL.

The Upper Lars crossing served as Armenia’s sole overland route to the former Soviet Union and Europe until it was controversially shut down by the Russian authorities in June 2006, at the height of a Russian-Georgian spy scandal. Moscow attributed the closure to the start of infrastructure repairs on the Russian side of the checkpoint.

The Armenian government has since repeatedly called for the reopening of the checkpoint and received corresponding assurances from the Russians. The latter signaled their readiness to allow renewed traffic through the mountainous Russian-Georgian frontier when they held indirect negotiations with Georgian officials in Yerevan in late October.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said earlier this month that he sees no “particular obstacles” to reopening Upper Lars and resuming direct flight services between Russia and Georgia. Moscow’s refusal to deal with Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili should not hurt “the centuries-old friendship” between the two peoples, he said.

For their part, Saakashvili and other Georgian leaders have made clear that they are not against resuming Georgian-Russian commercial ties despite the fact that the two nations remain in a de facto state of war. Foreign Minister Grigol Vashadze said last month that cross-border commerce would be beneficial for all interested parties.

Upper Lars is the only land border crossing that does not go through Georgia’s Russian-backed breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The other two roads linking Georgia and Russia run through South Ossetia and Abkhazia, effectively barring them to international traffic.

Armenian exporters of agricultural produce were particularly reliant on the Upper Lars gate during summer and autumn months. They have had to re-route their deliveries through the more expensive and time-consuming rail-ferry services existing between Georgia and Russia and Ukraine.

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