Good relations between Tbilisi and Moscow are dependent upon Georgia ceasing its anti-Russian rhetoric, Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, said after talks with his Georgian counterpart, Gela Bezhuashvili, in Madrid on November 30. Bezhuashvili, however, said that Tbilisi's rhetoric was to be expected in the face of current Russian policy towards Georgia.
The meeting, which took place on the sideline of an OSCE Ministerial Council meeting, was the first high-level contact between the sides since Tbilisi accused Moscow of backing an alleged attempted coup in Georgia. Tbilisi had accused the Russian intelligence services of using “some local opposition groups” and the financial and medua resources of business and media tycoon Badri Patarkatsishvili to undermine the Georgian government. Russia said in response that the accusation was “a fairy tale” aimed at internal consumption ahead of elections. The Russian Foreign Ministry also said that “blatant Russophobia” was the cornerstone of the Georgian authorities’ election campaign.
Before the meeting in Madrid, the Georgian foreign minister told reporters that he expected tough talks. He said he specifically planned to ask his Russian counterpart: “Isn't it time to re-open the borders and restore normal economic relations?”
Russia imposed economic sanctions on Georgia last year by cutting transport links and banning the import of Georgian products, including wine and mineral water.
“We hope that bilateral relations will be normalised, but we expect reciprocal moves from the Georgian side as well,” Lavrov said. “The Georgian side should stop thinking that all its troubles come from Russia."
Georgian Foreign Minister Gela Bezhuashvili, however, said that rhetoric wasn't the main problem existing between the two countries. He said such rhetoric was a result of Russia’s unfriendly stance towards Georgia.
“There is nothing anti-Russian in Georgia. This is ‘anti’ only towards the policy which Russia pursues towards Georgia," Bezhuashvili said. "Democratic society in Georgia can not tolerate and we can not stop speaking out against the unfairness that is taking place. If they are capable of managing their rhetoric, it does not at all mean that they have civil society. We have civil society, which demands from us that we react to unfairness.”
He, however, added: “There are of course some issues on which we should tone down rhetoric. But I can not agree with my [Russian] colleague that this [current rhetoric] is the major hindering preventing a resolution of major problems.”
Speaking at a news conference in Madrid, Lavrov said that Tbilisi "would do better to work on resolving the [Abkhaz and South Ossetian] conflicts, instead of trying to undermine existing agreements.”
Lavrov was referring to calls made at the OSCE Ministerial Council on November 29 by the Georgian foreign minister for changes in the current negotiating and peacekeeping formats in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
“The current conflict resolution frameworks no longer reflect realities on the ground,” Bezhuashvili said. However, he added: “While we do not reject these frameworks, now is the time for the international community to show a flexible but resolute approach.”
He insisted that “fundamental changes in the legal basis, and in the negotiation and peacekeeping formats” were needed.
Meanwhile, Russia’s decision to open polling stations in Georgia’s breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia for the Russian parliamentary elections is the latest point of contention between the two countries.
Lavrov, however, has dismissed Georgian protests, saying that Russia would ensure “that Russian citizens, wherever they are, can exercise their right to vote.”
He then complained that while Russia had fully observed its commitments to withdraw from two military bases in Georgia in November, Tbilisi continued to ignore its commitments under a Russo-Georgian agreement to start talks on the establishment of a joint anti-terrorist center in Batumi.
“That agreement was a package, and we did our part by withdrawing Russian forces a year ahead of schedule,” Lavrov said. “But other provisions of the agreement have been shelved.”
Speaking at the OSCE Ministerial Council, Bezhuashvili welcomed the withdrawal from Batumi and Akhalkalaki military bases, but he claimed that the Gudauta military base in breakaway Abkhazia was still occupied by Russian troops.
The Russian side claims that it closed down its military base in Gudauta in 2001 as envisaged by the OSCE Istanbul Treaty, but we doubt it and we want regular international monitoring of the base.
Nicholas Burns, the U.S. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, backed the Georgian foreign minister's contention at the OSCE Ministerial Council. Speaking on November 29, he said that the U.S. welcomed progress made in closing Russian bases in Georgia, but added: “We believe the last remaining presence at the Gudauta base can be resolved soon with creativity and political will."