TBILISI, Georgia (AP) — The opposition leader who won Georgia's parliamentary election wants to restore ties with Russia, where he made his billions as a businessman. Bidzina Ivanishvili said Wednesday, though, that his first foreign trip as prime minister will be to the United States.
Ivanishvili may be anxious to fend off accusations that he intends to take Georgia back under Russian domination, and also to reassure the Americans that he is serious about deepening a relationship that was forged under his predecessor.
President Mikhail Saakashvili, whose party was defeated in Monday's parliamentary election, turned the former Soviet republic into a U.S. ally. The Kremlin, however, has refused to have any dealings with him since Georgia and Russia fought a brief war in 2008.
Diplomatic relations remain severed, which has complicated travel between the two neighboring countries and separated families. Georgia has a population of 4.5 million, and as many as 1 million Georgians live and work in Russia.
Particularly for Georgians old enough to have been educated in the Soviet Union, when Russian was taught in schools and they were all citizens of the same country, the rift has taken an emotional toll.
The economic consequences also have been painful for many Georgians. Trade between the two countries has been cut since Russia banned imports of Georgian wine, mineral water, vegetables and fruits in 2006 as tensions rose. Ivanishvili has promised to work to reopen the vast Russian market to Georgian products.
But Saakashvili remains Georgia's president for another year, so no major changes are expected immediately.
"There is a hope that after Georgia's 2013 presidential election some warming up is possible in the trade and economic sphere, transport, and possibly humanitarian field," said Alexei Pushkov, who heads the foreign affairs committee in the Russian parliament.
Restoring diplomatic ties will be much more difficult because of a dispute over South Ossetia and Abhkazia, the two Georgian separatist provinces at the center of the 2008 war. Russia has recognized their independence and still has thousands of troops stationed on what most of the world still considers Georgian territory.
Russia has made clear it has no intention of changing its stance. "It's hard to expect a radical improvement in the political sphere because of the problem of Abkhazia and South Ossetia," Pushkov said.
The lack of diplomatic ties and Russia's tough visa requirements make it difficult for Georgians to travel to Russia unless they have immediate family living there.
Valentina Kevlishvili, a 60-year-old Russian married to a Georgian, wants to go to Russia to visit her father. She and her husband applied for visas at the consulate of Switzerland, which represents Russia's interest in Georgia.