Pragmatism spurs Russia and Georgia toward smoother relations

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.

"Russia has tried all possible ways to destroy us, including war, occupation, and espionage," he said.

And he urged Georgians to prepare for a fresh Russian invasion. "Every Georgian citizen should be ready for defense, and every family home should become a stronghold of resistance from enemy attack," he said.

New call for better relations with Russia

But in a tone not heard since the war's end, Saakashvili added: "Georgia can't want to have bad relations with Russia. We're not crazy."

Nearly a million Georgians live and work in Russia, and their remittances are a major source of foreign exchange for economically struggling Georgia. Those "guest workers" have found it increasingly difficult to visit their homeland since Moscow cut diplomatic ties, banned trade and shut down the border amid deteriorating relations in 2006.

Although fears of mass reprisals against Russia's Georgian minority have not materialized, members of that community remain worried.

"You can't alter the geographical map, so the relationship has to normalize at some point," says Nikolai Svanidze, a well-known Georgian-born TV personality in Russia. "Even though things are bad between the two states, we need to do everything to avoid antagonizing relations between our peoples."

But experts say the warming trend can easily be reversed by Russian-sponsored provocations on the disputed borders between Georgia and the breakaway statelets of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, or by events such as last week's destruction of a Soviet-era war memorial in Georgia's second-largest city of Kutaisi.

The monument to Soviet war dead was razed on Saakashvili's orders, officially to make way for a new Georgian parliament building, but it led to furious objections from Russia's foreign ministry, which called it "an act of state vandalism which offends the feelings of every civilized person." Putin immediately announced that the memorial would be reconstructed in Moscow.

The apparently botched demolition killed two Georgians in their nearby home, a mother and daughter, which led to a new spate of bitter anti-Saakashvili street protests by Georgia's opposition.

"There seems to be a group in Georgia's ruling circles who oppose any reconciliation with Russia, and they are able to aggravate the situation by doing things like tearing down that war memorial," says Mr. Khutsishvili. "It was clearly not the appropriate moment to do that, and the tumultuous reaction shows how fragile this process toward normalization can be."

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