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Russia Calls Dispute Ahead Of Georgia Visit 'Artificial'

17 February 2005 -- Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov says he hopes his visit to Georgia will not be hindered by his rejection of an invitation to visit a monument related to a separatist conflict.

Georgia has downgraded the trip from an "official" to a "working" visit tomorrow because Lavrov will not lay a wreath at a monument dedicated to Georgians who died fighting separatists in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Both regions have close Russian ties.

Lavrov, speaking to Russian journalists in Armenia today, said Russia has a role as a mediator and it would be too "emotionally loaded" for him to make such a gesture.

He added that the conflict "cost the lives of innocent people on all sides."

Georgian Foreign Minister Salome Zurabishvili criticized the decision as unfriendly and inappropriate.