Putin Says Georgia Air Deal Close

President Vladimir Putin said Thursday that Moscow and Tbilisi were close to agreeing to reopen air links that were severed after a spy spat in 2006.

"On a number of issues we see a trend toward improvement," Putin told reporters ahead of a meeting in Moscow with his Georgian counterpart, Mikheil Saakashvili. "Our aviation authorities have agreed on removing their differences and settling payments."

Putin's comments came after the Transportation Ministry said earlier in the day that it had agreed to lift its blockade on air traffic with Georgia, in place since 2006, but not until Georgia meets prior obligations.

Flights between the neighboring countries will resume after Georgia fulfills obligations it assumed in negotiations between the Federal Air Navigation Service and Georgia's Economy Ministry, the Transportation Ministry said Thursday on its web site. Georgian airlines have to repay debts to the Russian air traffic control service, the statement said.

"Negotiations continue," said Andrei Pryanishnikov, a spokesman for the Federal Air Navigation Service. He declined to elaborate.

Russia cut road, rail, air and sea links with Georgia, as well as halting postal services and blocking money transfers, in October 2006. The dispute erupted when Georgia arrested four Russian servicemen a month earlier and accused them of espionage.

Relations between the two countries have soured since Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili was swept to power in the so-called Rose Revolution in 2003, vowing to lead Georgia into NATO and the European Union.

"For me to say that the issue is resolved would be incorrect," said Irakli Taktakishvili, head of Georgia's Transport Administration.

"We'll just have to wait and see what happens when Saakashvili and Putin meet. Only the two presidents can decide this."

Sofia Nikolaishvili, owner of the VIP-Travel agency in Tbilisi, said her business would "at least double" if air traffic is resumed between Russia and Georgia.

Bloomberg, AP