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Georgia: Solana Visits Tbilisi To Show EU's Support For New Leaders

The European Union's foreign policy and security chief, Javier Solana, was in Georgia today to discuss ways to enhance ties between Brussels and Tbilisi. It was the first visit of a high-ranking European Union official to Georgia since the opposition drove President Eduard Shevardnadze out of office last November.

Prague, 15 January 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Javier Solana, who arrived in Tbilisi last night on his way to Afghanistan and Iran, met successively with State Minister Zurab Zhvania, President-elect Mikheil Saakashvili and interim President Nino Burjanadze.

Saakashvili -- a former chairman of the Tbilisi City Council and the leader of the National Movement opposition party -- was elected Georgia's new president earlier this month. Final returns released today by the Central Election Commission show Saakashvili, who is due to take office in 10 days, won 96 percent of the vote.

Like the United States and most Western governments, the European Union welcomed the bloodless change of regime in Tbilisi. Brussels hopes the new administration will tackle a number of urgent issues, including stemming rampant corruption, reviving the country's depleted economy, and improving the living standards of Georgia's 4 million citizens.

The EU last month gave Tbilisi 7 million euros ($8.8 million) in emergency food aid and in support for the presidential polls. On 13 January, the bloc decided to allocate another 28 million euros within the next two years to help Georgian authorities reform the judiciary, health sector, and public administration.

Addressing reporters today, State Minister Zhvania described Solana's visit as a show of support for the new Georgian leadership by the EU. "Mr. Solana's visit is in itself a demonstration of support on the part of the EU. You are all aware that this visit was not scheduled. However, despite time constraints, Mr. Solana has managed to come to Tbilisi before [our new president] is sworn in. He has come here, as the EU's foreign policy chief, to express his attitude towards Georgia and the [political] developments that are taking place [in our country]," Zhvania said.

A statement released earlier this week in Brussels said Solana's short visit is aimed at "consolidating high-level contacts between the EU and the new political establishment in the country and to assure Georgia of the EU's continued support." Zhvania today said both sides are interested in further integrating Georgia into European structures.

"We talked about ways to make relations between Georgia and the EU more intense, more active. We noted that this [coming] year would be even more important [for Georgia] if we move closer toward Europe. What it means is that we need to go ahead with economic transformations and reforms. It also means that the Georgians must realize that they are moving along a path that will allow them to achieve greater welfare and security and really feel they are part of Europe," Zhvania said.

Following this month's presidential polls, officials in Brussels raised the prospect of Tbilisi being asked to participate into the "Wider Europe" program, which envisages closer political and economic ties between the enlarged Europe and its neighbors. Yet, these officials warn that neither Georgia nor the other two Southern Caucasus states of Armenia and Azerbaijan currently meets the criteria set by the program and that all these countries must first implement much needed structural reforms. Solana today reiterated that the EU is committed to building closer ties with Georgia and is confident its new leaders will deliver on pre-election pledges:

"There is no doubt that the new government [in Tbilisi] will produce reforms in the economic field, reforms politically [and] reforms in other aspects of [the nation's] collective life, and we would like to support them and to help. It would be very important that reforms on the rule of law, the fight against corruption and [maintaining] good [governance] take place soon and, as I said, we would be very happy -- and willing -- to help," Solana said.

Regarding security issues, the EU envoy urged Russia to pull its troops out of Georgia in line with a commitment made in 1999 at a summit of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

"The position of the European Union is that those agreements that were signed in 1999 in Istanbul have to be complied [with]. Those were agreements of the OSCE, an organization to which the European countries belong, the United States belongs and the Russian Federation belongs. So we hope very much that these agreements will be maintained and complied [with]," Solana said.

Moscow has already vacated two military bases in Georgia but retains hundreds of troops in the predominantly ethnic Armenian region of Samtskhe-Javakheti and another in Batumi, the capital of the southern autonomous republic of Adjaria. Russia's reluctance to withdraw from these two regions has been a major bone of contention with Georgia for the past four years. Moscow insists it will meet the commitments it made before the OSCE. However, it claims it does not have enough money to complete its withdrawal from Georgia for at least another 10 years.

(Correspondent Koba Liklikadze of RFE/RL's Georgian Service contributed to this report from Tbilisi.)