Russia, Georgia “in secret talks” on border reopening – report

Russia and Georgia are in secret negotiations to reopen the only checkpoint on their land border, according to Kommersant newspaper.

The Upper Lars checkpoint was closed by Russia back in 2006. While officially it was explained by a need for reconstruction, the move came soon after a spy scandal between Moscow and Tbilisi.

Several Russian officers were arrested in Georgia in late September of that year and accused of espionage. The Russian military and diplomats said that the charges were ungrounded, but in just a few days Russia stopped issuing visas to Georgians and started evacuating its citizens from Georgian territory. Also, the Russian consumer watchdog banned the imports of some Georgian goods, including wine and mineral water. The closure of Upper Lars – the only legal crossing of the land border – was viewed by many as another episode in the confrontation.

In late 2008, Moscow reported that the construction work at the checkpoint was over, but it was not re-opened due to Tbilisi’s reluctance. In addition, the two countries have completely severed diplomatic relations after the war in South Ossetia. Now the issue is close to a resolution, the Kommersant daily reports.

The newspaper writes that Russia and Georgia have been negotiating the opening of Upper Lars with Armenia as an intermediary. Yerevan is another party interested in the border re-opening as it needs a land route for exporting goods to Russia. Before the checkpoint was closed, almost one third of Armenia’s exports traveled this way.

Apparently Armenia managed to rally Washington’s support on the issue, convincing the US Administration to put pressure on Tbilisi, Kommersant writes. The United States sponsored the construction of the $2.5 million Kazbegi checkpoint on the Georgian side of the border, and convinced the Georgian government to hold negotiations in Yerevan, the newspaper writes.

Reports of the talks surfaced when former Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Nogaideli mentioned that the government was “in secret negotiations with Russia.” The remark was a response to criticism over his resent visit to Moscow, where he met a senior official in the Russian Foreign Ministry.

The exact date for reopening of Russian-Georgian border has not been set yet, but diplomatic sources in both countries confirm good progress in the talks.

“Almost all questions concerning reopening of the checkpoint have been settled. Now a decision to do it must follow. We are waiting for a signal from Tbilisi,” a source in the Russian Foreign Ministry told Kommersant.

Georgian Foreign Minister Grigol Vashadze confirmed on Thursday that Georgia in principle is prepared for a reopening of the border, “taking into consideration the interests of friendly Armenia.”

The only obstacle may be Georgia’s demand to lift the ban on its goods. A source in the Georgian Foreign Ministry said this was a condition for the checkpoint to be opened. Russian sources however haven’t confirmed this information.