TBILISI, March 25 — Passenger flights resumed on Tuesday between Russia and its ex-Soviet neighbour Georgia after Moscow ended a ban on air links imposed 18 months ago at the height of a spying row.
Georgian officials said they hoped the move would be followed by a relaxation of visa restrictions and the end of a ban on sales of Georgian wines and mineral waters in Russia.
"We are hoping for simplification of the visa regime and for Georgian products to be allowed on the Russian market," Development Minister Ekaterine Sharashenidze told journalists at Tbilisi airport where the first passenger plane in many months took off for Moscow.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Georgia's Mikhail Saakashvili agreed to resume flights when they met last February. But many other tensions remain in the relationship, principally Georgia's drive to become a member of the US-led military alliance, NATO.
And there was little sign of a quick warming in relations when Russia's first deputy prime minister, Sergey Ivanov, quoted by the Itar-Tass news agency, said on Tuesday that Georgia would have to repay 3 million US dollars in air control fees.
"It's very important that flights have been resumed," said Zoia Morchiashvili, a passenger departing on an Georgian Airways flight to Moscow. "My family and relatives live here. Communication is very important."
Moscow cut air, sea and postal links with Georgia in October 2006 after a spying row triggered a sharp deterioration in relations between Moscow and Tbilisi's pro-Western government.
Russia also halted Georgian wine and mineral water sales, which were crucial exports for the Caucasian country. It also doubled Tbilisi's gas bill to $235 for 1,000 cubic metres in 2007.
Apart from two charter flights linked to religious holidays, the only other flights between the two countries since October 2006 have been aircraft deporting Georgians deemed by Russia to be illegal immigrants.
Travellers flying between Moscow and Tbilisi have had to take alternatives routes through other cities such as Kiev, Baku or Istanbul.
Russia says Tbilisi's policies in the region are aggressive and it is failing to be a good neighbour to Russia. Georgia said the Kremlin was punishing it for its push to join NATO and the European Union.
The small Transcaucasian country says Moscow is propping up its breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and using them to try to stymie Tbilisi's push to join NATO.
Following his disputed re-election in January, Saakashvili said he would work to improve ties with Moscow, and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov of Russia subsequently attended his inauguration ceremony in Tbilisi.