By Michael Mainville (AFP)

Agence France Presse
March 1 2010

DARIAL GORGE, Georgia -- Bitter regional rivals Georgia and Russia
reopened their only usable land border crossing on Monday, restoring
a vital transport route that had been closed since 2006.

The reopening of the crossing -- known as Verkhny Lars in Russia and
Darial Gorge in Georgia -- is expected primarily to benefit Armenia,
which had relied on it for trade with Russia, its key economic partner.

The crossing reopened at 7:00 am (0300 GMT) with a brief pre-dawn
ceremony. Afterwards, border police sat in roadside booths waiting
for travellers but none arrived.

Over nine hours after it opened, not a single person had crossed
through the checkpoint, local deputy customs chief Zurab Sokhadze
told AFP, with the lack of travellers apparently due to the visa
regime between the states.

The checkpoint runs through a narrow pass in the Caucasus Mountains,
about 170 kilometres (105 miles) from the Georgian capital Tbilisi,
amid craggy snow-covered peaks.

It is the only land border crossing that does not pass through
Georgia's Russian-backed rebel regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia,
which were the focus of the 2008 Georgia-Russia war.

Moscow and Tbilisi late last year reached a deal under Swiss and
Armenian mediation to reopen the checkpoint.

Georgian deputy foreign minister Nino Kalandadze said that the opening
"does not mean warming" in ties with Moscow and that Georgia's consent
"was motivated exclusively by our will to give a helping hand to our
neighbour Armenia."

"The opening of the crossing will not have significant economic or
political consequences for Georgia," Kalandadze said.

"But it is a positive fact that the differences between Georgia and
Russia did not impede the opening."

An EU official expressed hope that the opening bodes well for regional

"If a border is closed, there is no interaction, period. With the
border open, there is discussion, and that's important," said Robin
Liddell, a member of an EU delegation that visited the Georgian
checkpoint on Monday.

A spokesman for Russian border guards, Alexander Solod, confirmed
that the corresponding checkpoint on the Russian side had opened,
the ITAR-TASS news agency reported.

The crossing will be open to citizens of countries of the Commonwealth
of Independent States (CIS), a grouping of ex-Soviet states, as long
as they do not require visas for either Russia or Georgia.

Georgian and Russian citizens will need visas, which they can obtain
from the respective Swiss embassies in Tbilisi and Moscow, where the
two countries maintain interest sections.

In Stepantsminda, a small Georgian town near the border, residents
said the opening would make no difference to their lives due to the
visa restrictions.

"It does not do us any good. We can't go without visas.... This has
nothing to do with us, they are only doing this for Armenia," local
resident Tina Gujaraidze, 53, told AFP.

Russia closed the checkpoint in July 2006 in a move Georgian
officials said was motivated by tensions over Tbilisi's efforts to
build closer ties with the West. Moscow has said the crossing was
closed for repairs.

The two ex-Soviet neighbours fought a brief war in August 2008 over
South Ossetia and tensions have been high between them ever since.

Armenia's borders with its neighbours Azerbaijan and Turkey have been
closed for years and the small South Caucasus country is dependent
on trade with Russia.

Russia also cut air links with Georgia during the 2008 war. Several
charter flights were allowed to operate between the two countries in
January, but full air links have not yet been restored.

From: Emil Lazarian | Ararat NewsPress