The Russian and Georgian Presidents said after talks in St. Petersburg that the conversation was “very frank” and aimed at finding a way to difuse the current tensions between the two countries.
Although the two Presidents tried to maintain a constrictive stance, at a joint news conference after the talks Putin and Saakashvili both put forth some rather sharp statements, as the Georgian leader accused Russia of annexation the Georgian territories in breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia, while the Russian President once again made a reference to the right of those people living in the breakaway regions to self-determination.
The talks, which were initially planned for 8 pm local time on June 13, started at about 11 pm and the following news conference was held after midnight on June 14.
Political Ties/Lack of Contacts
At the news conference Russian President Vladimir Putin noted that relations between the two countries “are not normal,” but he stressed that these talks with Saakashvili were “very useful.”
“We have agreed with Mikheil Nikolayevich [Saakashvili] that both Georgia and Russia should take steps directed at normalizing our relations and towards creating good conditions for the development of interstate links. We have agreed to improve the mechanism of our interactions and we will do this in the near future,” Putin said.
He said that “the political relations between us [Georgia and Russia] can not be considered normal.”
“There is a reciprocal willingness to find a way out from this situation,” Putin said, adding that mutual accusations in the bilateral ties “are caused by a lack of the necessary level of contacts.”
President Saakashvili thanked his Russian counterpart for the meeting and said that dialogue should become a precondition for solving the many problems which have accumulated in Russo-Georgian relations “and which are a source for serious concern by us.”
“Historically, problems in the Caucasus have always been solved correctly and relatively harmlessly when Georgia was with Russia and when tough problems were solved through joint efforts and joint energy. Unfortunately, today there is not this kind of coordination and we are willing to establish this kind of coordination,” Saakashvili said.
He also noted that most of the problems existing in bilateral ties remain unsolved, “but this does not mean that we should not try to solve them.”
“Georgia is ready for constructiveness and for very open dialogue,” he added.
Putin said that during the meeting with Saakashvili he discussed “the toughest problems” related with “the so called 'frozen conflicts.'”
“Naturally, during this brief conversation which took place between us, these problems could not be solved, but I want to stress that we have a desire to work over these [problems] jointly,” Putin stated.
“There are unsolved problems related with the conflicts and aggressive separatism in the Caucasus, which is not in the interest of any party. And naturally we are counting on the position of Russia, which has supported Georgia’s peace plan on resolving the South Ossetian conflict at the OSCE Ministerial Council in Ljubljana [in December, 2005]. And we are counting on other positive steps by Russia and on the personal participation of Vladimir Vladimirovich [Putin] in resolving all of the existing problems, which are obstacles in our relationship,” Saakashvili said.
While speaking about the conflicts, President Putin recalled Chechnya’s case and a referendum held in this Republic under the Russian administration in March, 2003.
“The situation related with Chechnya has ended through the holding of a referendum on the constitution of the Chechen Republic. With this referendum an overwhelming majority of people of the Chechen Republic supported this constitution and confirmed that Chechnya is in the territorial and constitutional sphere of the Russian Federation. So if we want to solve an issue through democratic means, we should ask what the opinion of the people is,” Putin said.
But in a response Saakashvili noted that 300,000 Georgians were forced out of Abkhazia in the early 1990s.
“Of course we should ask the opinion of the people, but if someone says that he has failed to find anyone willing to be with Georgia in Abkhazia it will be natural, because those who have this desire were forced out of Abkhazia. The same goes for South Ossetia,” Saakashvili said.
The Georgian leader stressed that “the major issue” toping the agenda of the Russo-Georgian relations is the unresolved conflicts. He said that Tbilisi is ready for a peaceful dialogue in order to solve these problems “and first of all with the participation of Russia.”
“We fully understand that a major partner in these negotiations is the Russian Federation,” he said.
But at the joint news conference he also spoke out against Russia’s policy of supporting secessionist authorities in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
“The reality is that an annexation of territory of our country is underway,” Saakashvili stated.
“We will never allow someone to take our territories and Vladimir Vladimirovich has said several times that Russia has no intentions of this kind. Russia is a huge country with a huge territory. Georgia is a small country, a beautiful country and we have no land to give to anyone; no one will be able to get even a single meter of the Abkhaz or South Ossetian territory... Everybody should understand this; we have nothing to give. We have a very principled position in this regard,” he said.
Saakashvili also accused Russia of directly governing these secessionist regions.
“Officials from [Russia] are appointed there - for example in South Ossetia - and they govern these territories – and I can list the names of these officials but I am sure the Russian side knows them better. In international law this is called nothing other than annexation,” the Georgian President said.
“Naturally, we will use all legal instruments available – the first being dialogue and Russia’s participation,” he added.
When asked whether the two President’s positions became closer over conflict resolution issues, Vladimir Putin replied: “I have recently been in Sochi [a Russian resort town on the Black Sea coast] and from there one can get to [Abkhazia] by walking. It is not a problem.”
“I think Vladimir Vladimirovich has just confirmed once again the territorial integrity of Georgia, because from Sochi you can reach Abkhazia and Abkhazia is Georgia,” Saakashvili responded.
During the news conference Putin emphasized that economic relations between the two countries are moving “in a very positive direction.”
“Russian investments in Georgia’s economy increased fivefold in 2005. Russian businesses show interest in investing in Georgia’s chemical, mining, and food industries,” Putin said.
He also stressed that the Georgian citizens temporarily living and working in Russia transfer between USD 1.5 billion to USD 2 billion annually back to Georgia. He denied speculations about Russia’s plans to restrict these money transfers to Georgia.
“This is much more than any other kind of assistance from a third country,” he added.
He also said that Russia is interested in providing a guaranteed energy supply to Georgia, as 30% of Georgia’s energy generation facilities and 30% of its energy distribution facilities belong to the Russian giant United Energy Systems (UES).
President Putin said at the news conference that issues related with Russia’s ban on the import of Georgian wine was not discussed during the talks, but he said that the problem will be solved as soon as issues related with the falsification are solved.
“Russian investors are very interested with the wine production in Georgia. So we are interested in receiving products of a high quality. I am grateful to the Georgian President because he has undertaken very vigorous steps towards restoring order in this sector and we should do the same here [in Russia]. There is too much falsification – 60%. If we manage to tackle this problem, than there will be no questions about access of products to the Russian market,” Putin said.
In May President Saakashvili accused Russia of being a safe haven for criminal suspects wanted in Georgia. At the joint news conference after talks with Putin, Saakashvili once again reiterated Georgia’s concerns in this regard.
“If any official or unofficial structures of the Russian Federation want to give shelter to our criminals, we will export them to Russia with great pleasure. We do not need them,” Saakashvili said.
Among those former Georgian officials who are on Interpol's international wanted list is Aslan Abashidze, ex-leader of the Adjara Autonomous Republic. Abashidze gave up power in Adjara in 2004 and left for Russia as a result of protests and after the central authorities in Tbilisi provided security guarantees. President Saakashvili’s administration even pledged that it would not seek Abashidze’s extradition.
When asked about the Abashidze case, President Putin said that Georgia’s decision to issue an arrest warrant on Abashidze was “strange.”
“I did not know that Abashidze was wanted. This is strange, because during those developments in Adjara [in 2004], the Georgian side requested that we not hinder his [Abashidze’s] arrival to the Russian territory and I remember talks between us about this issue at that time. I feared that our Georgian partners would demand his extradition, but we were told: 'do not worry, we will not demand extradition.' If this has happened anyway then we will hold separate consultations about this issue,” Putin said.
Speaking with a group of Georgian reporters after the news conference President Putin gave no clear answer as to whether he has accepted President Saakashvili’s invitation to visit Georgia, or not. He told reporters details should be agreed at the level of the Foreign Ministries.