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21 Feb, 2008 16:22

Russia & Georgia: frosty relations thawing?

The Russian and Georgian presidents say they expect relations between the two countries to improve in the foreseeable future. President Putin has met Georgian leader Mikhail Saakashvili for the first time since the latter was re-elected.

Relations between Russia and Georgia have been difficult since a diplomatic row broke out in late 2006.

Russia put restrictions on Tbilisi, including on trade and on transport.

However, Thursday saw Russia saying it will resume flights between Moscow and Tbilisi if Georgia agrees to pay the bills for air navigation services.

“I know that our aviation authorities have agreed on principle to solve the dispute. I mean, first of all, settling the debts, which will allow us to resume flights between our countries,” Putin said.

“I think that we are beginning to solve the problems of delivering Georgian goods. I think the question is more psychological, but it’s very important for us from the political point of view. There is a whole range of other disputed issues we are bound to settle,”
Mikhail Saakashvili said.

Putin and Saakashvili have also been addressing the issue of the status of Georgia's breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

The meeting comes ahead of a summit of the Commonwealth of Independent States in the Russian capital.

Earlier today Putin met Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin.

Voronin says he hopes the two countries can find a solution to the issue of Moldova's breakaway republic of Transnistria, which seceded after the fall of the USSR. Putin on his part has confirmed Russia's readiness to settle the issue.

The Russian leader has also met the Tajik President, Emmomali Rakhmon, and assured him that Russia will aid the country after a severe winter in the country.

The past few months have been the coldest in Tajikistan for 25 years and have put the country on the brink of an energy crisis.

Bone of contention  

Russia and Georgia have seen their fair share of rows since the break-up of the Soviet Union but none perhaps quite as bad as the scandal that broke out in late 2006.

It began when Georgia arrested four Russian servicemen on suspicion of spying. What erupted was a full-blown war of accusations, harsh rhetoric and very little dialogue.

On September 27 Georgia announced the arrest of four Russians. They were held in custody and later expelled from the country.

In return, Russia suspended all rail, road, sea, air and postal links to Georgia. It recalled its ambassador, stopped issuing visas and expanded its ban on Georgian wine and mineral water to include all Georgian agricultural produce.

The following month more than one hundred Georgians, said to be illegally living in Russia, were deported on a cargo plane.

Relations remained tense, despite several meetings and the return of the Russian ambassador to Georgia to his post at the beginning of 2007.

However, an almost divine breakthrough came later that year as the Georgian Patriarch came to visit his Russian counterpart and with him came resumed direct flights from Moscow to Tbilisi and back, although, these were only operational for the Easter period.

But then another incident came crashing down – this one in the form of a missile on the de-facto border of Georgia and South Ossetia.

Although the missile didn't blow up, what did result was a lot of finger-pointing. Georgia blamed the incident on Russian jets, accusing them of violating airspace.

Russia retaliated and said that Georgia had dropped the missile in order to discredit Moscow.

But now both sides say they're willing to resume ties.

“The current problems can be overcome given both states have the political will for this. Russia has it,” said Vyacheslav Kovalenko, Russian Ambassador to Georgia.

The current meeting between President Putin and Mikhail Saakashvili is another attempt to make relations between the two countries warmer.