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Georgia, Russia To Open Mountain Pass March 1

TBILISI (Reuters) -- Georgia has said a mountain pass with Russia, closed since 2006, would reopen next week, and President Mikheil Saakashvili predicted normal relations would "one day" resume after their 2008 war.

The Verkhny 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.

Russia closed the crossing in mid-2006 as relations soured between Moscow and Georgia's pro-Western government, climaxing in a five-day war in August 2008 when Russia crushed an assault by U.S. ally Georgia on South Ossetia.

In a rare sign of cooperation between the ex-Soviet neighbors, Georgia's foreign ministry said in a statement that the Verkhny Lars checkpoint would reopen to vehicle traffic on Monday, March 1. There was no immediate comment from Russia.

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.

In his annual address to parliament, Saakashvili predicted normal relations would resume, but Georgians would not submit to becoming "provincial vassals."

"I have no doubt that one day we will have open air links with Moscow, normal cooperative relations," he said.

"Yes, it won't be a flight for 37 roubles, but believe me it's much better to pay market price to fly to Moscow and go as free Europeans, than to pay a low price and have the status of provincial vassal."

The Georgian Foreign Ministry stressed that visas would not be issued at the border crossing. Analysts say the decision to reopen it 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.

A number of charter flights between Tbilisi and Moscow over the January holiday period has fueled hope that full air links will resume.

Georgian businesses have suffered from an effective trade embargo by Russia since 2006, including a ban on two of Georgia's main exports -- its much-loved wine and mineral water.