Russia's President Vladimir Putin unleashed criticism towards Georgia after the EU-Russia summit in Lahti, Finland on October 20, saying that Tbilisi is preparing to solve secessionist conflicts through the use of force. But he also said that the Georgian leadership’s proposal to hold bilateral talks with Russia to defuse tensions is a positive signal.
Speaking at a news conference after the summit, Finnish Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency, said that apart from energy issues, “relations between Georgia and the Russian Federation were touched upon extensively” during the meeting between the EU leaders and Putin.
“Here, the EU expressed its concerns at the escalation of tension,” Vanhanen said in his opening remarks at a joint news conference with Putin and José Manuel Barroso, President of the European Commission.
Although Putin said nothing about Georgia in his opening remarks, there were two questions asked during the news conference about Georgia.
In answering, Putin noted that “we have spent quite a lot of time discussing” the situation in Georgia.
“My colleagues asked me to comment on the latest developments between Russia and Georgia. My answer to both them and to the media is very simple: that the problem does not lie in the relationship between Russia and Georgia. The problem is between Georgia and Abkhazia and [between] Georgia and South Ossetia,” Putin said.
He said that Russia-Georgia relationships will “normalize,” as soon as Tbilisi improves relations with Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
“And to our great regret, and great concern, the way this situation is developing, it is heading towards a disaster, towards bloodshed, because the Georgian leadership is seeking to restore its territorial integrity through military means - and they are quite open about that,” he added.
Putin emphasized that both Abkhazians and Ossetians “are small nations in the Caucasus.”
“In [South] Ossetia, you have a population of only about 70 000, but you have 40 000 refugees. In Abkhazia, the population is only about 150 000, which is an entity much smaller than Georgia itself. So that is the tragedy that is the trouble; that is what you need to be afraid of, and avoid: bloodshed in the area,” he said.
Putin once again mentioned the South Ossetian side’s allegations that they were victims of a “genocide” by Georgia in the 1920s and late 1980s.
He also said that it is the responsibility of parties involved in the conflicts to solve disputes and “Russia can not assume this responsibility.”
"We need cautiously to try to restore trust and build a common state. This is what are calling for, this is what we want," Putin said.
When asked about his response to President Saakashvili’s offer to hold bilateral talks to defuse tensions, Putin replied that Moscow is “quite satisfied with the signals manifesting Tbilisi’s readiness to improve our relations.”
“I believe that the initiative to worsen relations did not originate from Russia. That was done, in my view, in order to create a favorable political and information background for the potential solution of the Abkhaz and South Ossetian problems through force,” he added.
Officials in Tbilisi responded to Putin’s remarks in Lahti immediately.
“This is an attempt to misinform the international community,” Georgian Foreign Minister Gela Bezhuashvili said.
He said that Tbilisi considers peaceful means as the sole way to solve secessionist conflicts.
Bezhuashvili also said that Georgia was extensively discussed during the EU-Russia summit, which is in itself already a huge success.
Meanwhile, the Guardian reported that unlike energy issues, the EU leaders failed to speak with one voice when Georgia was raised at the summit with Putin.
“The energy discussion was fine, because Europe spoke with a united voice. When it came to Georgia there were different views, with the Baltic States speaking out. Putin turned very sarcastic," the Guardian quoted a unnamed observer of the summit as saying.