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Georgia, Russia tiptoe toward partial restoration of ties

TBILISI (Reuters) - Russia and Georgia set out a blueprint for the partial restoration of ties at their first direct talks about bilateral relations since the former Soviet republics fought a five-day war in 2008, the Georgian negotiator said on Saturday.

Russia and Georgia severed diplomatic ties due to the war, which followed years of tension over Moscow's support for two rebel regions and Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili's drive to bring his nation into NATO, and trade all but dried up.

Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, whose coalition beat Saakashvili's long-ruling party in an October 1 parliamentary election, says he wants to mend ties with Moscow while maintaining warm relations with the United States and Europe.

"We defined those issues that we plan to start negotiations about: trade, humanitarian and cultural ties and restoration of regular flights between the two countries," Zurab Abashidze, Ivanishvili's envoy for relations with Russia, told reporters.

At the meeting on Friday, held in Geneva and mediated by Switzerland, the countries agreed to continue talks on regular basis, he said.

The Russian Foreign Ministry said the representatives "exchanged views on possible ways to normalise relations between Russian and Georgia in specific spheres."

Georgia is eager to revive trade with Russia, which banned imports of Georgian wine and mineral water, two of its main products, as tensions increased two years before the war.

Restoration of diplomatic ties is not yet on the agenda, and Russia has made clear it will give no ground on the issue of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, two breakaway Georgian regions it recognised as independent nations after the war.

Russian forces crushed a Georgian assault on South Ossetia in August 2008 and drove toward Tbilisi, pulling back after a cease-fire brokered by the European Union. Each accuses the other of starting the conflict.

Russia and Georgia have held talks in recent years on issues related to Russia's entry into the World Trade Organisation and to the breakaway regions, but not on bilateral ties.

(Reporting by Margarita Antidze; Editing by Steve Gutterman and Jason Webb)