Pragmatism Spurs Russia and Georgia toward Smoother Relations

Article excerpt

Signs of a thaw between Russia and Georgia include the reopening of one border post on the major Caucasus highway and a possible move to resume direct air links. Relations between Russia and Georgia behave been in a freeze since last year's war over breakaway Georgian territories.

The invective between Kremlin leaders and Georgian President Mikhael

Saakashvili continues to fly furiously, even though the gunfire from

last year's brief Russo-Georgian war has died down.

But amid growing rumors that diplomatic rapprochement may be in the

air, experts say some practical necessities are dragging the two

antagonists toward at least a partial settlement of their

differences.

The signs include last week's deal to reopen a single border post on

the major Caucasus highway and a possible agreement to resume direct

air links.

"The prevailing mood in Georgia is that relations with Russia should

be improved, and the government should work more actively toward that

end," says Georgi Khutsishvili, director of the independent Center on

Conflict and Negotiation in Tbilisi.

"The fact that leaders of both countries have a terrible personal

relationship, and keep saying bad things, is not a suitable basis for

state policy. We need to move beyond that," he adds.

Russia and Georgia fought a savage little war last year over the

breakaway territories of Abhkazia and South Ossetia.

Since then, relations have been in a deep freeze.

Both Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitri Medvedev

have made angry - and sometimes very personal - allegations

against Mr. Saakashvili, and the Kremlin appears to have hoped that

he would be unseated in an unsuccessful wave of Georgian opposition

protests that took place earlier this year.

Yet Mr. Medvedev said this month that he favors restoration of

direct air service between Moscow and Tbilisi, and Russia's border

service hailed last week's decision to reopen the Upper Lars

checkpoint, citing the "shared need to resume international traffic

between Russia and Georgia."

Russia's only Caucasus ally, Armenia, has suffered badly from the

cutoff of land transport links. Moscow maintains a cold war-era

military garrison in Armenia, reportedly with more than 1,000 troops,

and has had chronic difficulties resupplying them.

"Russia's ties with Armenia are important, and so it would be of

some benefit to Russia if it could normalize the transport links,"

says Alexei Makarkin, deputy director of the independent Center for

Political Technologies in Moscow.

For his part, Saakashvili has repeatedly accused Moscow of plotting

his overthrow, a charge he renewed in a weekend speech. …