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Georgia: Powell To Visit Tbilisi, Moscow To Seek Progress On Georgia

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell departs tomorrow on a three-day trip to Georgia and Russia. Powell is set to attend the inauguration of incoming Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili in Tbilisi.

Washington, 23 January 2004 (RFE/RL) -- When U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell meets with his Russian counterpart, Ivan Ivanov, next week, Georgia is likely to be on his mind.

Powell will stop in Tbilisi on his way to Moscow to attend the inauguration of incoming Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili on 25 January. The visit will give him a chance to reassert U.S. support for the troubled Caucasus country's transition after the fall of Eduard Shevardnadze. The former president, who led Georgia since 1992, was toppled in a peaceful revolution in November.

"The Russians have said it will cost $500 million to relocate.... [and] will take 11 years. I think it's more like $5 million and 11 weeks."
Speaking about Powell's trip, State Department spokesman Adam Ereli told a briefing yesterday, "We are optimistic about the future of Georgia as witnessed by the recent elections. The secretary will want to discuss ways in which we can be helpful to Georgia's continued democratic and economic development."

Ereli added that Georgia is likely to be a topic of discussion when Powell meets with Russian officials in Moscow. Washington has recently rushed to assist Tbilisi as it deals with a crushing financial situation and navigates its way through tricky diplomatic waters with Moscow, which still has troops on Georgian soil.

The U.S. has reallocated its aid to Georgia to meet some emergency requirements, such as providing funds to help pay for civil servants, particularly the police and military.

But Powell's best chance of achieving progress in Georgia may come in Moscow, according to David Phillips of the Council on Foreign Relations. Phillips, a former senior U.S. diplomat, tells RFE/RL that the issue of Russia's two military bases in Georgia is likely to be at the top of the agenda when Powell sits down with Ivanov on 26 January.

"Apparently, the Russians have said it will cost $500 million to relocate [the bases]. They also say it will take 11 years. I think it's more like $5 million and 11 weeks," says Phillips. "There's no need for there to be any foreign troops on Georgia's soil. And the U.S. is ready to pay reasonable costs. It's time to close those bases and for the Russians to go home."

Russia and the United States are both trying to assert their influence in Georgia, a fractious Black Sea state of 4.5 million people seen as a key link to Central Asian energy resources and as occupying a strategic position between the Middle East and Europe.

A U.S.-educated lawyer, Saakashvili has sought to forge close ties with Washington but at the same time hopes to repair relations with Russia. Besides the issue of its military bases, Moscow suspects that Chechen guerrilla fighters have used Georgia as a haven from which to attack Russia.

On 21 January, Saakashvili told the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, that Georgia's future democratic success is vital to forging similar progress in the post-Soviet world.

"The success of my country is absolutely essential for really the governments operate in post-Soviet states. That is why it is a unique opportunity not to miss."

Saakashvili's inauguration schedule highlights the problems he faces. While due to travel to several provincial towns, he will not be able to go to coastal territory Abkhazia or inland South Ossetia. Both broke with Tbilisi after violent conflicts in the early 1990s.

However, Saakashvili is expected to visit the port city of Batumi on the morning of his inauguration for a marine and military parade. Observers say the visit could be tense since it is the capital of Adjaria, a republic that also exercises autonomy in relations with the capital.

Phillips says that while he believes relations between Adjaria and Tbilisi have recently improved following the region's payment of back tax receipts to the capital, Georgia faces an uphill struggle in the coming months.

He says Georgia now has the chance to move beyond its current status as a virtual failed state and achieve democratic and economic progress. But he says that won't be easy.

There's going to be a brief honeymoon in Georgia, and then the Georgians are going to have to settle down and start implementing meaningful reform. That's when international assistance is going to be especially important, and that's when the Georgians have to show they're serious by really moving ahead with the anticorruption campaign and economic and politic reforms."

Saakashvili has vowed to press ahead with radical economic and anticorruption reforms to transform Georgia into a successful democracy.