- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 23, 2009

TBILISI | Georgia and Russia appear about to reopen their border and end a four-year trade blockade - a step welcomed by many in the region, but one that some fear could lead to new ethnic clashes nearly a year and a half after a brief war.

Russia cut off all transit with Georgia in 2006, amid souring relations between the Kremlin and Georgia’s pro-Western government. On Dec. 10, however, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev announced in Moscow that he saw “no obstacles” to reopening the Zemo Larsi checkpoint and resuming direct flights between the two countries. The next day, a spokesman for Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili welcomed the move.

The checkpoint is the only legal land passage through the Caucasus Mountains. Before the embargo, it coursed with trade and transit. But, in the ethnically mixed region that surrounds the checkpoint, fears have spread that reopening the border could tip demographic balances and expand one of the area’s long-standing ethnic conflicts.

The Zemo Larsi checkpoint lies on the highway from Tbilisi to Vladikavkaz, capital of Russia’s Autonomous Republic of North Ossetia. On the Georgian side, much of the highway runs just a few miles from the de facto border of South Ossetia. The breakaway former Georgian enclave first declared independence in 1992 and voted for independence in a referendum in 2006, but remained unrecognized as such until the August 2008 war. Since then, Russia, Nicaragua and Venezuela have recognized South Ossetia.

During and since the war, thousands of ethnic Georgians fled South Ossetia.

The Georgian towns along the highway and elsewhere in the border region have historically been ethnically mixed. Now, many Georgians fear that ethnic Ossetians could use the reopened border to leave and settle in the mixed towns under Georgian control in an attempt to expand South Ossetia’s territory.

Representatives of Georgia’s Christian Democrat party have declared opening the border dangerous.

“I don’t know what our government is thinking with this. Whatever comes from this, it can only be for Russia’s benefit - and that probably means more war,” said Mari Abashidze, a resident of the Georgian capital, Tbilisi.

Under an agreement with the South Ossetian government, Russia has more than 3,000 troops based in the republic, only 30 miles from Tbilisi.

Other Georgians welcome a reopening.

Nazi Sujashvili, an ethnic Georgian, has lived in the border town of Kazbegi, where the checkpoint is located, for 35 years. She said hundreds of the region’s residents “depended [economically] on the highway” before it was closed, and since the border’s closure, the regional economy has totally collapsed, causing an exodus of Georgian and Ossetian residents alike.

“There weren’t problems here [between Georgian and Ossetian villagers] in the past, so I don’t see why there would be if the Ossetians come back, unless there is some sort of provocation,” she said. “And in terms of these types of provocations, we never really know.”

Despite the risks, the Georgian government has been upbeat in statements about the potential to improve relations and economic ties with Russia, once Georgia’s largest trading partner. Georgia, a former Soviet republic, had been a major supplier to Russia of agricultural products and wine.

The border closing had even more dire consequences for landlocked Armenia, Russia’s only ally in the region, which used the Zemo Larsi checkpoint to import Russian goods.

Armenia has lobbied heavily to reopen the crossing, hosting the first direct negotiations between Georgian and Russian officials in Yerevan, Armenia’s capital.

According to a Western diplomat close to the negotiations, who spoke on the condition that she not be named because of the sensitivity of the talks, Russia initially offered to open the border only for Armenian goods, but later agreed to the transit of Georgian products as well.

In his announcement, Mr. Medvedev said “there should not be any problems” regarding importing Georgian goods to Russia.

“Products imported to the territory of Russia legally should be received and sold like other products. The question is how to assist this process. Try to do it through legal methods,” Mr. Medvedev said.

Russia justified its 2006 ban of Georgian goods by citing concerns about health and counterfeiting,but most analysts said the real reason was opposition to the Saakashvili government, which came to power after the “Rose Revolution” against a more pro-Moscow regime.

The Bush administration provided strong support to Georgia, including military aid, which may have tempted the Tbilisi government to bombard the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali, in August 2008. Russia, which had peacekeepers stationed in Tshkinvali, then sent additional troops and armor into South Ossetia and Georgia proper.

The Obama administration, which has sought to “reset” the U.S. relationship with Moscow, has supported reconciliation between Georgia and Russia. The U.S. Embassy in Georgia released a statement in September saying it hopes the “two countries will be able to resume commercial and tourist links in the future.” The same month, the U.S. finished a $2.4 million project to modernize the checkpoint on the Georgian side.

“Hopefully, we can go back to the way it was, when we could go there, and they could come here. When there was no conflict, when we were friends, before politics screwed it all up,” Ms. Sujashvili said.

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