Russian Ambassador Back in Tbilisi

ReutersKovalenko exiting his car after arriving at the embassy in Tbilisi on Tuesday.
TBILISI, Georgia -- Russia's ambassador to Georgia returned to his post Tuesday after a four-month absence, but Moscow and Tbilisi cautioned that there was a long way to go before their turbulent relations returned to normal.

The Kremlin withdrew Ambassador Vyacheslav Kovalenko in early October after Tbilisi deported four Russian soldiers suspected of spying and triggered a furious diplomatic dispute that led Moscow to cut transport links with Georgia.

Some commentators saw the return of the envoy -- ordered back to Tbilisi by President Vladimir Putin last week -- as a sign that the Kremlin might be preparing to lift its sanctions.

In a sign of a possible thaw, Russian and Georgian aviation bosses will meet early next month to talk about reopening air links, Interfax quoted an unidentified Russian official as saying.

But underlying problems remain. Russia is unhappy with Georgia's pro-Western policies, its anti-Kremlin rhetoric and growing defense spending, while Tbilisi believes Russia is backing separatists on its territory.

"Any positive attempt to return Georgian-Russian relations to their normal course can be only welcomed," said Nino Burdzhanadze, speaker of Georgia's parliament and an ally of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili.

"But complex steps are needed for the normalization of the relationship," she said.

Konstantin Kosachyov, head of the State Duma's International Affairs Committee, whose views frequently reflect those of the Kremlin, echoed that view.

"The return of the ambassador is a signal that we are ready for an improvement in relations," Kosachyov said.

"The main thing is to stop the constant rhetoric directed at Russia and the constant blaming of Russia for Georgia's domestic problems.

"As long as the Georgian leadership sees the hand of Russia behind each of its domestic problems then nothing can move forward, that is absolutely clear, regardless of where our ambassador is," he said.

Kovalenko had to return to Georgia via neighboring Armenia because Russia had closed all road, rail and air links.

He kept out of sight of Georgian television crews trying to film his return. The Russian Embassy made no comment. But a Georgian foreign ministry official said: "We believe he is back."

Georgian Foreign Minister Gela Bezhuashvili said Tuesday that he would be unable to meet with Kovalenko until he returned from a trip to Italy, Interfax reported.

"The ambassador's return is a logical step taken by the Russian leadership and we welcome it, but we are waiting for more active steps for Russia to show us that it wants to have full-fledged relations on equal standing," he said.

Even before the spy scandal, Moscow had banned imports of Georgian wine and mineral water, citing safety concerns.

Gazprom also raised the price that Tbilisi pays for gas to $235 per 1,000 cubic meters, the highest price paid by any former Soviet republic.

And Moscow deported hundreds of Georgians it said were living illegally in Russia. A Georgian minister described the deportations as a "soft form of ethnic cleansing."

Georgian and Russian trade negotiators meet in Geneva on Tuesday to discuss one other irritant in their relations, diplomats from both sides said.

Tbilisi has threatened to veto Russia's entry to the World Trade Organization, alleging that Russia is not adequately controlling the flow of people and goods across its border with Georgia.