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Russia-Georgia border open, but hostility remains

By Tom Esslemont
BBC News, Verkhny Lars

Georgian-Russian border at Verkhny Lars
The border post is set against a dramatic backdrop

Though a momentous event, there was little fanfare at the opening of Georgia's new border checkpoint.

Police officers lined up for the cameras, before quickly and dutifully taking their positions in their metal traffic booths.

And what a photo opportunity. At nearly 1,000m (3,300ft) altitude the snow-capped mountains of the Caucasus make a stunning backdrop for the checkpoint, known as Verkhny (Upper) Lars.

But in reality, Georgia and Russia are not celebrating.

Russia closed the border in 2006 at a time of worsening relations.

The new checkpoint might be state-of-the-art - it cost more than $2.5m (£1.6m) to rebuild after its closure in 2006 - but its opening appears unlikely to do anything to resolve the deep differences between the Georgian and Russian governments.

map

Russia has said it will not talk to Georgia as long as President Mikheil Saakashvili remains in office.

The Georgian Deputy Foreign Minister, Alexander Nalbandov, said Georgia would not consider talking to Russia again until it had withdrawn its military from two breakaway territories, South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Thousands of troops have been stationed there since the Georgia-Russia war in 2008, a war which was the culmination of years of deteriorating relations.

Back to business

Back at the Georgian town closest to the border, Stepantsminda, the mood was mixed.

Anecdotally, it is said that many people have dual Russia-Georgian citizenship in this town of 2,500.

In days gone by, the town thrived off passing trade as people crossed back and forth to the Russian market town of Vladikavkaz.

Nona Sujashvili
When they closed the border our town suffered very much. Now we hope we can get back on our feet
Nona Sujashvili
Georgian resident

"What is the point in crossing there and back? We have relatives in Vladikavkaz, that's all. Anyway, we have to get a visa to cross the border - it takes 25 days," said Vazha Chopikashvili, a 50-year-old resident.

It is unclear how many Georgians will be granted Russian visas, given the poor relations between the two countries.

Nona Sujashvili, another resident, said she was optimistic because of the opportunity for passing trade.

"When they closed the border four years ago our town suffered very much. Trade fell away. Now we hope we can get back on our feet," she said.

Though passing trade may help local communities in the long run, this border crossing is actually being reopened more for the benefit of Armenia that that of anyone else.

Landlocked Armenia does not have its own border with Russia - and its economy is suffering one of the sharpest declines in growth in the former Soviet Union.

Negotiations took place in the Armenian capital Yerevan, paving the way for the opening. Georgia says it is "helping its friend" by opening the crossing.

Now that it is open the road through the Caucasus mountains may provide vital stimulus to Armenia at a time of need. But it will take longer for the ill-feeling between Georgia and Russia to die down.



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