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Georgia: Minister Says Tbilisi To Seek Common Ground With Russia

  • Robert McMahon

Georgian leaders have sought to use the opening of the UN General Assembly debate to promote a new relationship with Russia. In his assembly address, President Mikheil Saakashvili said rapprochement with Russia would be a central part of Georgia's ongoing transition efforts. In a later interview, Georgian Foreign Minister Salome Zourabichvili told RFE/RL that her government wants to highlight the common interests the two sides have in establishing border security and resolving the unsettled status of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

United Nations, 28 September 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Georgia is hoping to forge new cooperative ties with Russia that could help trigger a resolution of two long-standing conflicts.

That was the message from Georgian officials during the first week of the high-level debate at the UN General Assembly. In contrast to previous autumns at the UN, Georgian officials stressed the importance of engaging Russia, rather than focusing on criticism of Moscow's actions in support of separatists in Georgia's South Ossetia and Abkhazia regions.

President Mikheil Saakashvili highlighted Georgia's interest in setting up a joint antiterrorism center with Russia and expanding joint border patrols. But his first call was for Russia to close its two remaining military bases in Georgia.

Although the statement was not new, it was important that the president delivered it on the podium of the General Assembly, Georgian Foreign Minister Salome Zourabichvili said.

"We want to move from this old domination relationship to a new cooperative relationship and then we should cooperate militarily on the issues that are real issues and we think that terrorism is one of the real issues. So let's talk about it, let's not talk about unilateral preventive strikes, if they have any information that there is any crossing of our borders, but let's exchange information and deal with the problems," Zourabichvili told RFE/RL.
"We want to move from this old domination relationship to a new cooperative relationship and then we should cooperate militarily on the issues that are real issues and we think that terrorism is one of the real issues."

In an interview on the sidelines of the General Assembly debate, Zourabichvili repeated Georgian assertions that the Pankisi Gorge has been cleared of any terrorists. She said Georgia is eager to enforce the same sort of controls on all its borders, stressing that insecurity undermines the reformist government's efforts at economic development.

Zourabichvili told RFE/RL that any short-term change in Russia's support of separatists leading South Ossetia and Abkhazia is unlikely. But in the aftermath of the Beslan attacks, Georgian leaders hope Moscow will start to recognize the unrecognized entities as security risks.

"You cannot have and fuel instability and let instability grow and black holes when you are concerned about what might happen on the other side of the border and it's not that far and if armaments come in our black holes they might go out tomorrow in other directions," she said

At the UN last week, Saakashvili proposed a new plan for resolving the separatist conflicts. It includes monitoring of the Roki Tunnel connecting South Ossetia and Russia by the Organization for Security and Cooperation and Europe. It also calls for the deployment of UN observers along the border between Abkhazia and Russia. The plan also promises the "fullest and broadest form of autonomy" for the two republics.

Zourabichvili said Russian officials usually regard proposals to internationalize conflict-resolution plans as a signal of mistrust against them. But she said Moscow should realize that any lasting solution to the problems in Abkhazia and South Ossetia will require international help.

"Those citizens of those regions that wanted to be separatists and things will need international guarantees, will need economic international help for rehabilitation. It's not only us as a central authority, but it's also for the sake of a durable solution that we will need this international environment for the solution," she said.

The leaders of the self-styled governments of the two entities rejected Saakashvili's latest offer for broad autonomy, insisting they were already independent.

In the case of Abkhazia, Zourabichvili said, any meaningful discussions with separatist leaders will come after the self-proclaimed republic's presidential elections set for 3 October. "The Abkhazians are in a transition period," she said. "They are going to have new elections and nothing will really happen until we have the new people, not that they will be very different but at least they will be in charge."

As for Georgian-Russian discussions, Saakashvili and Russian President Vladimir Putin met at the summit of Commonwealth of Independent States in Kazakhstan earlier this month and talked by phone shortly afterward. Zourabichvili expressed hope it was the start of a constructive new phase of dialogue.