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Georgia/U.S.: Summit Signals Support For Georgia On Eve Of G8 Meeting


Mikheil Saakashvili (file photo) (RFE/RL) Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili left for Washington, D.C., today for a three-day visit that will culminate with a meeting with U.S. President George W. Bush on July 5. Georgia's relationship with NATO, as well as discussions on the country's territorial integrity and energy independence, are expected to be high on the agenda. Some analysts are suggesting that the timing of the meeting, scheduled just ahead of the upcoming Group of Eight (G8) summit in St. Petersburg, is intended to send a signal to Russia.

WASHINGTON, July 3, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- The scheduled meeting will not be the first time President Bush has met with Saakashvili just ahead of a trip to Russia.


On his way to Moscow in May 2005, Bush traveled to Tbilisi in what Saakashvili characterized as "an unprecedented gesture of support" for democracy and independence throughout the region.


This time around, the meeting between the two presidents on July 5 is significant in light of the G8 summit that will follow, according to Zeyno Baran, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.


"This is an important symbol, in a way, that before going to St. Petersburg that Saakashvili comes here and the frozen conflicts are on the G8 agenda even though Russia did not want it to be," Baran said.


Georgia is directly involved in two such "frozen conflicts" -- those of the breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.


And Baran says that Saakashvili is eager to build on the friendship he forged with Bush during their meeting last year.


"For the Georgians, the key thing was to make sure that Saakashvili has face time with Bush, given that [Russian President Vladimir] Putin and Bush have had that, you know, close relationship. I think Saakashvili really primarily wanted to talk to Bush, remind Bush that, you know, he exists, that he's a friend, and that there are certain things that he still needs America's help with, especially on the frozen-conflicts issue," Baran said.


Frozen Conflicts


However, others see the talks as a sign that the United States might avoid applying much pressure on Russia in regard to frozen conflicts during the G8 summit. According to Cory Welt, deputy director of the Russian and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Bush administration officials may believe they have done enough to publicize the issue by arranging the meeting with Saakashvili.


"It does look that they are going to be able to talk about it, but with the probable understanding from the Russian side that, 'yes we'll talk but no, we're not going to do much about it.' I think that was good enough for the White House," Welt said.


The issue of energy security will be also be a key topic in Washington and St. Petersburg. Welt believes that during this week's meeting, Bush will encourage Georgia to continue resisting the temptation to privatize its gas-pipeline system.


The United States has already provided financial support that can help Georgia avoid resorting to such a sell-off -- the $295 million compact with the U.S. Millennium Challenge Corporation announced last year includes money for the rehabilitation of the country's pipeline system. However, according to Welt, the issue of privatization keeps coming up "because presumably very attractive offers are made."


Analyst Baran agrees that Bush will encourage Saakashvili to withstand pressure from Gazprom and other Russian companies to sell.


"I think the American message is, 'keep doing the right thing.' Yes, it's been difficult winters with pressure from Russia. And, yes, Gapzrom will probably increase the price. But even if you sell your network, you know, you'll never be safe," Baran said.


For his part, Saakashvili is expected to try to enlist Bush's support for accelerating Georgian entry into NATO. Georgian officials have been seeking a NATO Membership Action Plan, but may settle for "intensified dialogue" instead, according to Welt.


"I think that they want to make sure, or try as best as they can, to get White House support for the raising of Georgia's status with regard to NATO," Welt said.


Saakashvili's handling of domestic political issues is not expected to figure prominently on the meeting's agenda. However, Welt comments that it would be "wise" for the Bush administration to "quietly" discuss internal political developments. Among them Welt mentions Georgia's upcoming local elections, which he says constitute an important step in the development of Georgia's democracy.

Universal Principles?

President Putin at a Kremlin meeting in April (epa)

PUTIN SPEAKS OUT: During a January press conference, Russian President Vladimir Putin said there is a need for "universal principles" to settle "frozen" conflicts in the CIS. His comments came against the background of impending talks on the future status of Kosovo, which many predict will grant it a form of "conditional independence" from Serbia and Montenegro. As an ally of Serbia, Moscow has consistently opposed the idea of Kosovar independence. Putin's remarks suggest he may be shifting his position, but only if the principles applied to Kosovo are also applied to frozen conflicts in the former Soviet Union. If Kosovo can be granted full independence, he asked, why should we deny the same to Abkhazia and South Ossetia? (more)


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