Georgia and Russia said Thursday they had agreed to re-open their land border to traffic, in the first sign of a thaw in relations after their bitter war last year.
The two countries reached a deal under Swiss mediation to re-open the Upper Lars checkpoint, which was closed in 2006, Georgian Deputy Foreign Minister Nino Kalandadze told journalists in Tbilisi.
It is the only land border crossing that does not go through Georgia’s Russian-backed rebel regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which were the focus of the 2008 conflict.
“The decision to re-open (the border) has been made,” Kalandadze said, adding that Georgia expects the crossing to re-open at the beginning of March.
Russia’s border service confirmed the two sides had reached an agreement.
“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.
Kalandadze said the agreement would allow Georgian citizens and cargo to cross the border and that a formal protocol on re-opening the crossing would be finalised within two weeks.
Despite its closure, Georgia renovated the Upper Lars border crossing this year with 2.4 million dollars (1.7 million euros) in assistance from the United States, which provided the facility with modern offices and search equipment.
Russia closed the Upper Lars checkpoint in 2006 in a move Georgian officials said was politically motivated amid tensions over Tbilisi’s efforts to build closer ties with the West, particularly NATO.
Tensions erupted in August 2008, when Russian forces poured into Georgia to repel a Georgian military attempt to retake South Ossetia, which had received extensive backing from Moscow for years.
Russia later mostly withdrew to within South Ossetia and another rebel Georgian region, Abkhazia, which Moscow recognised as independent states, a move that has so far been followed by only Nicaragua, Venezuela and the Pacific island state of Nauru.
The other two roads linking Georgia and Russia run through South Ossetia and Abkhazia, effectively barring them to international traffic.
The closing of the Upper Lars crossing also dealt a heavy blow to neighbouring Armenia, which relied on the crossing as its only overland route to Russia, the country’s key economic partner.
A spokesman for Armenia’s foreign ministry, Tigran Balaian, said that Yerevan was keen to see the border re-open.
“Armenia will welcome an agreement between Russia and Georgia to resume operations at the Upper Lars border crossing point,” he said.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev hinted at a thaw in relations with Georgia earlier this month, saying he saw “no obstacles” to opening the Upper Lars crossing and resuming direct flights between Russia and Georgia.
Russia cut air links with Georgia during the war, only four months after they had resumed following an 18-month embargo.
Georgia’s flagship airline this week asked Russia to lift the embargo but has yet to receive a reply.
Privately owned Georgian Airways said in a statement that the company had requested the resumption of charter flights between Moscow and Tbilisi for the holiday period of December 26 to January 15 and the resumption of regular flights starting from January 5.
Russian Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov said Thursday that flights would only resume if Georgia can provide security guarantees.
“The Georgian government has to guarantee the safety of our crews and guarantee, for instance, that no drugs or weapons will be found on flights,” the Interfax news agency quoted him as saying.