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Georgia: Moscow Watches Warily As Saakashvili Comes To Power

Moscow is reputed to be wary of Georgia's new president, Mikheil Saakashvili, a U.S.-educated lawyer who is openly pro-Western in his views. Since Eduard Shevardnadze's forced resignation in November, Tbilisi's relations with its powerful neighbor have gone on a roller-coaster ride of mutual accusations and promises to cooperate. How will Saakashvili's presidency affect Moscow's long-term ambitions in the region?

Moscow, 5 January 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Speaking yesterday following his landslide victory in Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili vowed to turn years of enmity with Russia into stronger, cooperative ties.

"One of the main priorities of Georgia's new leadership is to establish much closer, warmer, and friendlier relations with the Russian Federation. The first steps in that direction have already been made. Naturally, we have our own national interests, and Russia, as a superpower, has its own national interests, but we will certainly find common ground to normalize our relations and begin a new era in our relations," Saakashvili said.

But it is still unclear how Saakashvili's election will affect relations between Tbilisi and Moscow. Observers are watching for signs from the capitals, and say it will take compromise and diplomacy on both sides to bring Georgia back from the brink of economic and separatist chaos.

Georgia has accused Russia of using its geographical and economic weight to heat up regional separatism in Adjaria, South Ossetia, and Abkhazia, thereby weakening Tbilisi and its bid to join pro-Western forces.

Moscow, on the other hand, has been accusing Tbilisi of supporting separatism in Chechnya, and went as far as bombing bordering mountains it suspects of harboring armed militants.

So far, Moscow has not officially commented on Saakashvili's election. But Saakashvili has indicated that he is ready to pursue what he called "unusual solutions" to settle the Abkhaz conflict, with the participation of the United Nations and of Russia.

Andrei Piontkovskii is a Russian political scientist who served as a political adviser to a recently created U.S.-Russian government-level working group on cooperation in the CIS.

He points out that Moscow's actions overall have contradicted whatever pacifying statements it has made in the run-up to yesterday's poll. "The [Russian] president makes politically correct statements, saying, 'We are in favor of Georgia's integrity' -- and it would be strange if he didn't say that, considering [separatist] Chechnya," he said. "But when you look at the practical steps -- giving out passports in Abkhazia, all the statements made by these leaders in Moscow -- this, of course, is all working de facto in favor of Georgia's falling apart."

Following the forced resignation of longtime leader Eduard Shevardnadze in late November -- a move that came with the tacit approval of both Russia and the United States -- a flurry of diplomatic activity resumed, with Moscow once again sparring on the side of Georgia's autonomous regions.

Leaders of separatist South Ossetia and Abkhazia -- which both fought Georgian forces in the early 1990s -- and the leader of self-governing Adjaria met in Moscow just one week after Shevardnadze's fall. Moscow quickly softened its visa policy towards Adjaria, angering Tbilisi. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov then declared that Russia would need 11 years to close its military bases in Georgia, further ruffling feathers.

But Russian President Vladimir Putin then invited acting President Nino Burdjanadze to Moscow in December, a move that was perceived as a gesture of goodwill. Burdjanadze described her talks with Putin as open, sincere, and a step toward overcoming hostility.

Analysts in Russia say that while much attention has been focused on Tbilisi's stance toward Moscow, the Georgia-Russia question has much to do with behind-the-scenes Kremlin battles as well.

Piontkovskii says that conflicting attitudes in Russia reflect the fact that Moscow has not yet decided what it wants. He says the Kremlin's policy on Georgia underwent major shifts in the weeks surrounding Shevardnadze's ouster.

The analyst says the Kremlin camp favoring cooperation between Russia and Georgia suffered a blow when a key proponent, presidential chief of staff Aleksandr Voloshin, resigned in early November. Since then, Piontkovskii said, the Kremlin pendulum has swung back in favor of more "imperialistic"-minded forces.

"It ended in favor of the supporters of a confrontation with the West, and in favor of those people who are now often described as dominating the post-Soviet sphere, who speak in the name of a Russian imperialist policy," Piontkovskii said.

Piontkovskii says these forces are powerful because they bring together elements from Russia's entire political spectrum -- from the socialist-inspired Motherland bloc, led by Dmitrii Rogozin, to the pro-market liberal Anatolii Chubais.

Chubais, an influential politician and head of Russia's electricity monopoly -- on which Georgia is heavily dependent -- spoke out earlier this year in favor of a so-called "liberal empire," in which Moscow would use its economic power to wield influence in the former Soviet sphere.

Supporters of a more forceful policy on Georgia can be found in a number of Moscow think tanks, like the Commonwealth of Independent States Institute. Headed by Konstantin Zatulin, a long-time Rogozin ally, the institute has lobbied for a more dominant Russian position in the South Caucasus nation.

Mikhail Aleksandrov, an analyst with the institute, says the pro-dominance camp has yet to gain decisive influence in the battle for the Kremlin's Georgia policy. "The government has this line where it makes concessions [to Georgia]," he said. "But there are forces in parliament -- like Motherland, for instance, and inside the [pro-Kremlin] Unified Russia party that won the [Duma] elections -- that press for a tougher course of action. But for now they don't have the means to weigh in on [foreign-policy] decision making."

Aleksei Malashenko, a Caucasus analyst with the Carnegie Endowment, agrees that the Russian leadership is still split on how to handle Georgia. "Two-thirds of the [Kremlin]'s position would be [based on] reason, the willingness to cooperate -- and I think that Putin is ready for this," he said. "And one-third is what we've seen during the Duma elections -- an imperial [attitude]."

Malashenko said the 14 March presidential elections in Russia may determine how the Kremlin's policy will evolve. While Putin is sure to win, he says, it is still unclear "which of the forces standing behind Putin will win with him."

But observers on both sides agree that a key first step in judging Russian-Georgian relations will be the drawing up of a cooperation and friendship agreement.

Georgian political analyst Soso Tsesaskarishvili told RFE/RL's Russian Service last week that regional tensions have escalated to the degree that positions must be laid down in writing in order for mutual trust to be created. "Until the relations between Russia and Georgia are explained and cleared up on paper through the signing of a framework agreement on cooperation and friendship -- only after that can we take care of potential regional problems and relieve the tension once and for all," Tsesaskarishvili said.

For his part, Mikhail Aleksandrov of the Commonwealth of Independent States Institute says Moscow will seek guarantees from Tbilisi that Georgia will remain in Russia's sphere of influence. He says these could include promises to allow Russian military bases to remain on its territory and giving a pledge of neutrality by promising not to join NATO.

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