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Hopes Fade For Russia-Georgia Flight Deal

One of this month's Georgian Airlines charter flights after landing at Moscow's Domodedovo airport.
MOSCOW/TBILISI (Reuters) -- Russia has said it would consider restoring direct flights to Georgia, severed by war in 2008, only if Georgia first requested it, but Tbilisi said it would not.

Many Georgians with strong family ties with Russia have been forced to make expensive stopovers in Kyiv or Yerevan to reach Russia since Moscow severed air links in August 2008 as it moved to crush an assault by U.S. ally Georgia on rebel South Ossetia.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said in December he saw "no problem" in restoring air links, lifting visa requirements for Georgians and opening the only land crossing between Russia and Georgia proper through the Caucasus mountains.

There followed three charter flights by private carrier Georgian Airways over the Orthodox festive season in early January, but Russia said it wanted the Georgian government to ask first before it would consider restoring regular flights.

"This question should be considered between our countries on the level of aviation authorities," said Russian Transport Ministry spokesman Timur Khikmatov.

"If they want this, then let them come out with an initiative for talks between the two countries."

The lack of direct flights comes on top of a damaging rupture in trade since the 2003 Rose Revolution swept Mikheil Saakashvili to power, promising NATO accession for the ex-Soviet republic of 4.5 million people on Russia's southern border.

Wine And Water

Russia banned Georgia's wine and mineral water -- two of its major exports -- on health grounds in 2006, costing Georgia 3 percent of GDP that year, according to official estimates.

Direct flights were banned, but resumed briefly in 2008. Russia remains a huge untapped market for Georgia.

Georgian Airways said today that Russia had refused permission for three more charter flights in January, and had not responded to a request by the company for regular flights.

A spokesman for the Georgian government's transport department said it was up to Russia to make the first move.

"We have not sent any request to resume regular flights between Georgia and Russia, as it was not our decision to halt flights," spokesman Georgy Bokuchava told Reuters.

"The Russians did it, and it's up to them to address us with an offer to resume flights."

Russia says it wants nothing to do with Saakashvili, and the changes mentioned by Medvedev -- including lifting the ban on Georgian wine -- would require the approval of the Russian government headed by former president Vladimir Putin, still the country's preeminent politician.

"Russia has no particular interest or need to make a gesture in Georgia's direction," said Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of "Russia in Global Affairs." "Medvedev's comments were easy PR."