Georgia Sees an End to Embargo

TBILISI, Georgia -- A nearly 16-month embargo on travel and trade between Georgia and Russia could end as early as this month, Georgian Foreign Minister Davit Bakradze said.

Bakradze said a recent flurry of negotiations between the two sides had been increasingly productive and that, although heedful of the complexity of the situation, he hoped that the dispute would end within weeks.

"Let me be very cautiously optimistic, but we're close to that," Bakradze said in an interview Monday. "And I do hope that it may even happen in February. Let's see. It's still very much a question under discussion."

Russia closed the border following the October 2006 arrest and subsequent expulsion of four Russian military officers, whom the Georgian government accused of spying. The dispute came amid increasing tensions as Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili steered his country in a defiant course toward the West.

In Moscow, Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei Kravtsov would not comment on the negotiations over what he called an "unfortunate" embargo.

"We welcome any efforts from the Georgian side to solve the problem," he said.

Mikhail Alexandrov, who advises the State Duma on Georgia affairs, confirmed that the embargo could be lifted soon.

But Alexei Ostrovsky, chairman of the Duma's CIS committee, said no agreement was in sight.

"We have made a long list of issues that Georgia needs to resolve before the embargo can be lifted, and we have seen no concrete action on Georgia's part to solve these problems," Ostrovsky said.

Bakradze's remarks were the most optimistic by government officials on either side in recent memory. But there have been signs of easing tensions since Georgia's snap presidential election on Jan. 5. After months of no senior-level contacts, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov attended Saakashvili's inauguration in Tbilisi, and he said Moscow was ready to move from words to actions on improving relations. He did not elaborate.

Bakradze noted that more high-level meetings were planned, including Saakashvili's scheduled attendance at informal CIS talks in Moscow on Feb. 22.

"Certainly, there's been a marked cooling of the rhetoric since the new government was formed," said Jonathan Kulick, an analyst at the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies in Tbilisi. "The talk and position of the Georgian government for domestic consumption has not been at all combative but more open to reconciliation with Russia."

Masha Lipman, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center, said it was hard to gauge Moscow's attitude. She said the Kremlin was distracted by the March presidential election and was sending mixed foreign policy signals across the region. "The election, of course, is a nonevent. Everyone knows what will happen and who will win," Lipman said. "But the actual transfer or redistribution of authority at the top has intensified all sorts of signals."

On the unseasonably cold streets of Tbilisi, ordinary Georgians seemed divided about the prospects for a speedy resolution to the dispute, which has hurt the economy.

Georgy Magalashvili, a 42-year-old taxi driver, shot a smile when asked whether he thought the border would soon be opened. Taxi drivers, who have benefited from Saakashvili's anti-corruption reforms, are staunchly loyal to the president. "I definitely believe that it will be open very soon," he said from behind the wheel of his pristine Toyota Corolla. "You'll see."

Others were less confident. Iya Maskharashvili, 34, a desk clerk at a hotel in the upscale Vaka neighborhood where Georgia's new rich come to flaunt their Western clothes and German cars, expressed doubt that the border would reopen anytime soon. A native of Abkhazia, she and her husband fled the separatist region more than a decade ago amid fierce fighting and worked for a while in Moscow.

She said she did not trust the Russian or Georgian governments. "It's very difficult to believe that Russia will agree to the normalization of this process," she said. "The Russians always lie."

Bakradze, the foreign minister, said that, despite the pain of the trade embargo, it has helped Georgia develop its economy. Western companies and governments have been pouring resources into the country, fueling a construction boom that is transforming Tbilisi. "This trade embargo ... helped us to reorient to Western markets and to other markets more aggressively," he said.

Russia remains the primary source of foreign investment in Georgia.

As for the ongoing negotiations, Bakradze said the initial dispute had been sparked by purely political motivations and therefore required a purely political solution.

"We just need a political deal and a political decision," he said. "Once the decision is there, then everything will be resolved within the next few days because there will be no problem."

Staff Writer David Nowak reported from Moscow.