MOSCOW/TBILISI (Reuters) - A Georgian Airways charter plane landed in Moscow from Tbilisi on Friday, the first direct flight between Georgia and Russia since the two countries fought a brief war in 2008.
Georgian Airways plans to fly to Moscow between January 8 and January 10 under a deal with Russia over the festive season, raising hopes of a full resumption of regular flights between the ex-Soviet neighbors.
“Georgian Airways is ready to restart regular flights but we are waiting for Russia,” company spokeswoman Nino Giorgobiani told reporters at Tbilisi airport before flight A9-1930 took off with 84 passengers on board.
Smiling passengers, mostly Georgian, were met by cheering relatives and friends at Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport.
“I hope this flight is not the last one,” said Georgian traveler Zurab Ardanakhishvili.
“I hope it’s a sign of warming ties between the politicians of both countries. I would like to repeat: between politicians,” he told Reuters.
Georgian passenger David Ramishvili said the fact Friday’s flight was half-full shows “ties (between Tbilisi and Moscow) are still sour.”
Georgia and Russia have also agreed to reopen a key land crossing, and a senior Russian bishop said on Thursday the head of the Russian Orthodox Church would travel to Georgia to encourage closer relations. He did not specify when.
There was no sign, however, of Tbilisi and Moscow restoring diplomatic relations, severed by Georgia in August 2008 over the Kremlin’s decision to recognize the two breakaway Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states.
The recognition followed a five-day war in which Russia crushed a Georgian assault on pro-Russian South Ossetia, which like Abkhazia threw off Georgian rule in wars in the early 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said last month he saw no obstacle to resuming flights, granting visa-free travel to Russia for Georgian citizens and lifting an import ban on Georgia’s much-loved wine.
Moscow has ruled out talks with Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili.
A Georgian Airways spokeswoman said the company was negotiating to run more flights on January 16, 20 and 24.
“It’s great that there are flights because we have many friends and relatives in Russia and we couldn’t see them without flying through other countries,” said Georgian passenger Nana Samadalashvili.
In the past year many travelers to and from the Russian and Georgian capitals had to go through Yerevan in Armenia and Kiev in Ukraine to reach their destination.
The company had planned flights on December 29 and 30 but canceled them, saying Russian permission had come too late. Moscow blamed Tbilisi for the canceled flights.
Writing by Matt Robinson and Amie Ferris-Rotman; editing by Andrew Dobbie