Georgia-Russia Flights Start - But No Thaw Yet

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Caucasus Reporting Service

Doubts expressed over limited aviation link following 2008 war.

By Lela Iremashvili in Tbilisi (CRS No. 526, 08-Jan-10)

The first direct flights between Moscow and Tbilisi since the Russian-Georgian war of 2008 have been approved by Georgian and Russian officials, though analysts say a substantial improvement in bilateral ties was still a long way off.

Airzena-Georgian Airways gained permission from the Kremlin to operate charter flights between the two capitals, but only for January 8, 9 and 10, so the news does not mean a return to the scheduled connections of the past.

Russia cut flights on August 9, 2008 after Georgia sought to regain control of South Ossetia by force and Russia intervened to protect its allies in the region. Moscow subsequently recognised South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states, ushering in a deep freeze in already cold relations.

Because of the close connections between Russia and Georgia - both Soviet republics until 1991, and before that parts of the tsarist empire - many Georgians have family, friends or business partners in the giant country to their north. But for the last two years, in order to see them they have been forced to transit through a third country, such as Armenia or Ukraine, adding greatly to the cost of the trip.

"I have relatives in Moscow and Perm, whom I haven't seen for several years. If direct flights are restored, I would happily accept their invitation to visit, because transit is just too expensive for me," Marina Kordzaia, a resident of Tbilisi, said.

According to spokesman Nino Giorgobani, Airzena was inspired to suggest the route after recent conciliatory words from the presidents of the two countries, Dimitry Medvedev of Russia and Mikhail Saakashvili of Georgia.

"The idea appeared after Dmitry Medvedev's statement in December that he did not see any particular obstacles to a renewal of a direct air connection between Russia and Georgia, and the answer from Mikhail Saakashvili that it was not the Georgian side that cut the air link with Moscow, and that he was not opposed to its renewal," Giorgobani said.

Giorgi Bokuchava, head of the transport department of Georgia's ministry of regional development and infrastructure, said there were no technical reasons why flights could not be resumed.

"The important thing is the corresponding political decision," he said.

Restoring the flights has been a political wrangle. In December, the Russian deputy prime minister, Sergei Ivanov, said that since the two countries lack diplomatic relations, the Georgian government would have to give a specific assurance about the planes' safety.

The Georgian authorities responded by saying no negotiations were taking place on the subject.

"The authorities of Georgia have not appealed to Moscow for a restoration of flights. This has been, from beginning to end, a private initiative," said Deputy Foreign Minister Nino Kalandadze.

Tbilisi said that diplomatic ties between Russia and Georgia can only be restored if Moscow withdraws its forces from South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Russia has military agreements with the two governments, and guards their borders.

"First of all we need to start with the regulation of questions surrounding the occupied territories. After that we will speak about restoring diplomatic relations and the development of economic relations," said the minister for economic development, Zurab Pololikashvili.

In the circumstances, Georgian diplomatic experts doubted that a restoration of regular flights, let alone a normalisation of diplomatic relations, was a possibility.

"You would like to hope this is not a one-off act but a serious affair, but you cannot believe in it," Irakli Menagarishvili, a former Georgian foreign minister, said.

"The situation in Georgian-Russian relations is very critical, and you need to treat the disease and not just its symptoms ... A restoration of air links between Russia and Georgia does not reflect a general tendency. So far you cannot see any desire to resolve the root causes of the problems in relations."

A political analyst from the Centre for Social Projects, Giorgi Khukhashvili, doubted whether the Georgian and Russian governments were going to return to normal relations in the near future.

"The Russian leadership does not want to talk to the Georgian government; it has its own plan. This situation suits the Georgian government as well, since it allows them to appeal to the people to consolidate against an external enemy - Russia. As a result, the elites of both countries gain dividends, and the interests of both states and people suffer," Khukhashvili said.

The chairman of the Georgian parliament's committee for integration with Europe, David Darchiashvili, said it was wrong for Airzena to restore flights with Moscow.

"The provision of flights between Russia and Georgia is the right of a private company. But if I was its director, then in today's conditions I would never take such a decision. Russia is an enemy country, and against the background of its lack of desire to resolve the existing problems, I would not take such a step," he said.

Lela Iremashvili is a freelance journalist.