(Reuters) - A mountain pass between Georgia and Russia, closed since July 2006, will reopen next week, Georgia said on Friday, in rare sign of cooperation since the former Soviet neighbors fought a brief war in 2008.
The Upper Lars border crossing through the towering Caucasus mountains is effectively the only land crossing between Russia and Georgia, the others running through the Russian-backed rebel regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
“According to the agreement reached ... movement through checkpoint Kazbegi (Georgia) - Upper Lars (Russia) will resume from March 1, 2010,” the Georgian Foreign Ministry said in a statement. There was no immediate confirmation from Russia.
The statement stressed visas would not be issued at the border. Analysts say the move is more economic than political, benefiting mainly traders from Russia's landlocked economic ally Armenia.
Georgia will continue to issue visas to Russian citizens only at the airport, while Georgians have to apply in advance to visit Russia through the Russian interests section of the Swiss embassy in Tbilisi.
Russia closed the border crossing in 2006 as ties between Moscow and the pro-Western government of President Mikheil Saakashvili soured. War broke out in August 2008 when U.S. ally Georgia launched an assault on South Ossetia after days of fatal skirmishes with rebels and years of escalating tensions with the Kremlin, drawing a crushing Russian counter-strike.
Russia cut air links with Georgia over the war, and Georgia severed diplomatic ties when Moscow recognized the rebel territories as independent states in late August 2008. There were several charter flights between Tbilisi and Moscow over the January holiday period, but full air links have yet to resume.