|Saakashvili and Putin in the Konstantinovsky
Palace, June 9. Kremlin photo
Russia has pledged to gradually lift its trade embargo against Georgia and respect Georgia’s territorial integrity, President Saakashvili said on June 10 – a day after he met with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, in St. Petersburg on the sidelines of an informal CIS summit.
“Russia has undertaken commitments to lift those restrictions, which have been imposed on Georgia, step-by-step. Russia has undertaken them and I hope it will honor them,” President Saakashvili told Georgian emigrants in a Georgian Orthodox Church in St. Petersburg.
Georgia’s ambassador to Russia, Irakli Chubinishvili, who, along with Foreign Minister Gela Bezhuashvili, sat in on the meeting between the two presidents, said the meeting had been positive and constructive.
“President Putin said that there was no political reason any longer to maintain economic sanctions against Georgia," Chubinishvili told reporters on June 10.
"It will be a difficult working process and at this stage it is very difficult to speak about the dates,” he added.
“Understanding that sanctions lead us to deadlock has appeared even here [in Russia]," Foreign Minister Bezhuashvili said after the meeting and added: "It is clear to everyone that there are no winners from these sanctions.”
Russian officials, however, were less upbeat after the meeting, saying that the lifting of sanctions was dependent on what they called “the atmosphere” and Tbilisi's willingness to take unspecified practical steps.
Russian presidential spokesperson Alexei Gromov, quoted by RIA Novosti and Interfax news agencies on June 9, said that Putin had emphasised “developments and the atmosphere of bilateral relations” as pre-conditions for lifting both the trade sanctions and visa restrictions on Georgian citizens.
Georgia' stategic alignment with the west was also raised during the meeting. In February 2007, Russia's Ambassador to Georgia Vyacheslav Kovalenko said that Moscow wanted Georgia to be a neutral state as a precondition for improving ties.
Foreign Minister Gela Bezhuashvili, however, said on June 9 that the Georgian side made it clear during the talks that Tbilisi was intent on following the path of Euro-Atlantic integration.
“The path and the choice of Georgia can not be questioned," he said. "We will continue the course which has been chosen by our people.”
South Ossetia, both sides reported afterwards, was also discussed. Each, however, had a different interpretation.
The Russian president’s press office reported after the meeting that Putin had reiterated that Moscow adhered “to the principle of state territorial integrity.”
“The fact that Russia reiterated having no plans to revise borders and that it didn't question Georgia’s territorial integrity," President Saakashvili said, "is most important for us." "It was especially important in the light of recent statements that were open to interpretation, which had been voiced by certain officials in the past two months.”
Russian presidential spokesperson Alexei Gromov, however, stressed that Saakashvili had voiced support for a “more active [Russian]involvement in the resolution of the South Ossetian conflict.”
Pre-Talks Banter Sets the Scene
Whilst cordial, the Russian and Georgian presidents seemed intent on gaining the pyschological upperhand while speaking to the press shortly before their tete-a-tete meeting.
President Putin, opened the exchange by expressing regret over, as he put it, “electricity problems” in Georgia. “I know that, unfortunately," he said, "now there are problems with supply of electricity and we hope Georgian electricity technicians will solve the problem soon.”
Georgia, unusually, had been blacked out for a few hours late on June 8, after a high-voltage power line was damaged. A constant electricity supply is one of President Saakashvili's more tangible results since coming to office.
Saakashvili re-focused the banter, telling his counterpart that he wished for "friendly relations based on mutual respect and respect of territorial integrity and based on mutual respect of each others' interests."
Putin, however, picking up on a comment by the Georgian president that he had "been closely watching your participation and your statements made at the G8 summit" was in a combatative mood.
He said it came as no surprise to him that Georgia would have a strong interest in Russia’s position vis-a-vis Kosovo’s future political status.
“I had no doubt that you would pay attention to our position in discussions about fundamental principles of international law," he said. "You know that we have always based our position on the necessity to follow the fundamental principle of the territorial integrity of the state.”
“Unfortunately," he said, "there are attempts to ignore this fundamental principle. Of course it creates problems for us in the post-Soviet space. I think we will be able to return back [to discussion] of this issue during our conversation now and also tomorrow [at an informal CIS summit].”
Speaking with journalists from G8 countries on June 1, Putin reiterated that the Kosovo case would set a precedent and added that “there are no arguments in favor of a position that the Kosovo case differs from the situations in South Ossetia, Abkhazia or Transdnestria.”