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Moscow-Tbilisi: Problems Remain, Despite Cordial Tone
/ 12 Feb.'04 / 10:49
Giorgi Sepashvili, Civil Georgia

Both Saakashvili and Putin say talks were frank
Friendly rhetoric, which prevailed among the Russian and Georgian officials, after the first ever talks between Mikheil Saakashvili and Vladimir Putin on February 11, increased their expectations that the Georgian President’s visit to Moscow might be a turning point in relations between the troubled neighbors.

“My hand of friendship, which I’ve extended [to President Putin], was not ignored,” Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili told reporters after the four-hour long talks with his Russian counterpart. “We could find a common language, I have no problems with this,” Saakashvili added.

“Mikheil Saakashvili is a politician and partner with whom we can talk frankly,” deputy chief of the Kremlin administration Sergei Prikhodko told reporters after the talks between the Russian and Georgian Presidents. The Kremlin official added that results of talks increase hopes that the breakthrough will be made in relations between the two countries.

"I will tell you frankly, I came here to befriend you. Russia is a great power. We, of course, [represent] a small country. But we have our own interests, pride and history. We really hope that we will be able, if not to settle all [bilateral] issues at once, at least to progressively achieve some results," Saakashvili said at the start of talks with Putin.

Georgian President said that cooperation over joint protection of borders to prevent movement of armed groups “was one of the main results” of his visit. The sides also agreed to sign a framework agreement, which is supposed to regulate relations between Georgia and Russia in every aspect, by this fall. Working over the implementation of Sochi agreement, which refers to Abkhaz conflict resolution and cooperation in military sphere has also been reached by the sides. 

It is anticipated that the joint working groups will be set by the sides to work over the each direction, right after the formation of the new cabinet of ministers in Georgia.

The Georgia’s new leader said he would like to see Putin visit Tbilisi later this year so the two countries could sign a framework agreement. “I am sure the document will be ready by this fall and I hope Mr. Putin will arrive in Tbilisi to sign it,” he added. Two countries have failed to reach agreement over the framework agreement since 1994.

The deputy chief of Kremlin administration said that the two Presidents also agreed to push forward implementation of the Sochi agreement, signed by Georgia’s ex-President Shevardnadze and Vladimir Putin last March. The agreement particularly envisages setting up joint working groups over restoration of railway link via breakaway Abkhazia, return of internally displaced persons and rehabilitation of power facilities in the conflict zone.

“The two leaders will instruct the working groups to resume implementation of the agreement. We think that the progress will be made in this regard very soon,” Sergei Prikhodko, the Kremlin official said.

Russia’s one of the main concerns regarding Georgia is related to the terrorist threat. Moscow wants guarantees that rebels from Chechnya won't be able to find a shelter in Georgia, like it was couple of years ago, when the armed Chechen groups set up a hideout in Georgia’s Pankisi gorge. Russia also worries over the increased U.S. involvement in Georgian affairs.

Mikheil Saakashvili told reporters that Georgia and Russia agreed over joint measures to increasing control over the borders. Commander of the Georgian Border Guard Department Valeri Chkheidze unexpectedly left for Moscow on February 11 to hold talks with his Russian colleagues over the cooperation in protecting troubled Chechen section of the Russian-Georgian border.

President Saakashvili also said that the Georgian border guard chief would also discuss possible simplifying visa regime between the two countries. Russia imposed visa requirements on Georgia in 2002, under pretext to prevent the Chechen rebels’ movement from Georgia into Russia.

“The visa regime should be at least simplified, I don’t think that Chechen militants were queuing up at the Russian embassy in Tbilisi looking forward to receive visas,” Saakashvili said.

Despite the cordiale tone that prevailed during the Saakashvili’s visit it seems that no progress was made on the basic question that troubles bilateral relations: the Abkhaz and South Ossetian conflicts and Russia’s remaining two military bases in Georgia.

Georgia’s new leader tried once again to allay Moscow’s fears and reiterated that no military bases of the third country will be deployed in Georgia after Russia closes down its bases in Georgia.

The 1999 OSCE Istanbul Treaty clearly prescribed the Russian and Georgia sides to reach agreement on the issue before 2001. However, Russian and Georgian officials have failed to narrow the gap on deadlines for closure of the bases in Batumi and Akhalkalaki since then. Tbilisi says that Moscow’s proposal that at least 10 years will be necessary to pull out its troops is unreal and insists to disband military bases within 3 years. Recently Moscow has indicated that it might slightly soften its position and pull out troops within seven, or nine years.

“This should not be a tradeoff issue between the two countries. The issue has already been resolved and decided by the Istanbul summit,” Saakashvili said.

He also noted that both sides agreed, “These issues [military bases and conflicts in Georgia] must not be the main one in our relations.” “We might have problems in this regard but these problems should not spoil overall relations between the two countries,” Saakashvili add. 

During the visit to Moscow, Georgian President also held talks with the Russian Foreign and Defense Ministers, as well as with Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov. “The talks with the ministers were very fruitful and really enjoyed. They were on a good mood and that’s a good sign,” Saakashvili told reporters.
 
Georgian President and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov mainly discussed cooperation in the military sphere; however, as Ivanov said after the talks, “the issue of Russian military bases has not been discussed.” He said that the issue “is too important” and can not be decided on the Defense Ministry level. Russian Defense Minister said that the sides agreed that the Russian side would assist Georgia in training of the officers in the Russian military academies.

With the Russian Prime Minister Mikheil Kasyanov, Georgian President mainly discussed the economic cooperation. The issue has also been discussed with the Russian President.

Before the talks Putin told Saakashvili that Russia is “always ready to meet half-way with Georgia on practically all issues.” However, he hinted on the economic leverage Russia has over Georgia, particularly in the energy sector. Putin reminded that Russia continued to provide gas and electricity to Georgia, despite Tbilisi’s debts.  Putin added that Russia remains one of Georgia's largest trading partners, accounting for 16 percent of its foreign trade.

Mikheil Saakashvili told Georgian reporters on February 10 just before arrival in the Russian capital, that he has little hope that this visit would bring a breakthrough in main controversial issues that heat up debates between Tbilisi and Moscow. “However, I hope that at least the positive trends will increase in bilateral relations after my visit,” Saakashvili added.

It seems that Saakashvili has made a progress in this regard. During a live interview with Mikheil Saakashvili on February 11, the Moscow-based Ekho Moskvy radio station conducted a poll among its listeners. According to the results 70% of listeners believed that Saakashvili sincerely wants to improve Russo-Georgian ties, while rest 30% thought that Georgia’s new leader is unfriendly towards Russia.

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