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Georgia: Saakashvili In Moscow, Looking To Start Ties With A Clean Slate

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili today starts a two-day visit to Russia, which both sides hope will pave the way for a breakthrough in bilateral ties. Saakashvili is scheduled to meet President Vladimir Putin and other officials tomorrow for talks that are expected to include the fate of the two remaining Russian bases in Georgia and the situation in Chechnya.

Prague, 10 February 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili arrived in Moscow today accompanied, among others, by Prosecutor-General Irakli Okruashvili, Energy Minister Mamuka Nikolaishvili, and Irakli Chubinishvili, his newly appointed chief of staff.

Georgia's Rustavi-2 television reported Saakashvili's agenda today includes a meeting with Aleksii II, the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, and talks with representatives of the Russian Chamber of Commerce. The Georgian leader is also scheduled to deliver a speech at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO), the university that prepares future Russian diplomats.

The official part of the visit will take place tomorrow when Saakashvili meets President Vladimir Putin. The Georgian leader is also expected to hold consultations with Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, and other Russian officials.

Saakashvili, who acceded to the presidency after ousting Eduard Shevardnadze last November, has vowed to make an improvement in Georgian-Russian ties a priority of his foreign policy. He reiterated his plea yesterday, saying he is ready "to do everything to put an end to the shameful relations" Georgia had for years with its northern neighbor and to press for the signing of a much-delayed bilateral friendship treaty.

Addressing reporters on 5 February in Tbilisi, Saakashvili said he does not expect bilateral ties to improve at once, however. "Our ministries have prepared a list of all thorny issues that exist between Russia and Georgia, and [Putin and I] will go through this list point by point," he said. "I want to say right away that I don't have any particularly strong expectations regarding this visit. I don't expect to perform any miracles in just one day. I don't believe we'll be able to solve all our disputes at once. But we must create a positive trend after all these years during which we've [observed] a negative trend. To create such a [positive] trend will enable us to pave the way for further improvement of relations."

Top Russian officials say the normalization of bilateral ties is also considered a priority for Moscow.

On the surface, relations remain tense, with Tbilisi demanding that Moscow comply with a 1999 international security agreement and vacate its two remaining military bases in Georgia as soon as possible. The bases are located in Akhalkalaki, in the predominantly Armenian region of Samtskhe-Djavakheti, and in Batumi, the capital of the autonomous region of Adjaria.

As it did under Shevardnadze's rule, Russia claims it doesn't have enough funds to complete the withdrawal within the three-year time frame both Georgia and the United States insist upon. However, Moscow recently signaled it could agree to a compromise with the new Georgian leadership.

On 2 February, the Interfax news agency quoted Russian Army Deputy Chief of Staff General Yurii Baluevskii as suggesting the withdrawal could be completed in seven to nine years, instead of 10 to 11 -- as Moscow had earlier suggested.

Both Moscow and Tbilisi expressed their willingness to improve ties shortly after Shevardnadze's ouster. Even before being elected president, Saakashvili said he was ready to work with the Russian government against Chechen separatist fighters Moscow says have been using Georgian territory as a safe haven.

Reacting to the explosion that killed 40 people on Moscow's subway, and which Putin blamed on Chechen separatists, Saakashvili on 6 February made a passionate pledge to cooperate with Russia to rout any separatist fighters who may be hiding on Georgian territory.

"Georgia is ready to provide any possible help to Russia, all it can, to offer all its resources to fight against this plague of the 21st century, which is terrorism. We know perfectly what [terrorism involves], not only for the Russian people, not only for Moscow, but also for the entire region, for all people of goodwill," Saakashvili said.

Saakashvili's comments followed reports that Tbilisi is considering extraditing to Russia dozens of Chechen fighters hiding among civilian refugees in the remote Pankisi Gorge that borders Chechnya to the south. The reports, based on claims made by Georgian rights campaigners, cannot be confirmed. Neither Russian nor Georgian officials have commented on them.

In a move likely to raise eyebrows in Moscow, a Tbilisi tribunal late on 6 February ordered the release of three Chechen fighters who had been arrested a year and a half ago while illegally entering Georgia. Russia has been demanding their extradition for months.

Russian media quoted Georgian administration officials as admitting the court decision -- "made immediately after Saakashvili had vowed to extradite all terrorists to Moscow and while he was getting prepared to visit Moscow" -- had put the Georgian leadership in an awkward situation.

In another hitch, Tbilisi alleged over the weekend that Moscow is increasing the percentage of ethnic Russian soldiers serving in Akhalkalaki and Batumi. The Russian Defense Ministry denies the Georgian claims.

These minor incidents, however, seem unlikely to seriously alter the new spirit of cooperation that exists between the leaderships of the two countries.

Putin last month dismissed the head of the commission that has been unsuccessfully trying to draft a new friendship treaty with Georgia for the past four years. Putin's office gave no explanation for the removal of Boris Pastukhov, but insisted that work on a Georgian-Russian pact will continue.

Georgia also appointed a new ambassador to Russia recently. Speaking to reporters on 6 February, Kote Kemularia made no secret he has been tasked with improving ties with Moscow. "First of all, my task, as I see it, is to work toward giving a positive thrust to our relations [with Russia] and solving any problems that may arise [between our countries], in a spirit of goodwill and with a view to improving mutual trust in any possible way," Kemularia said. "I believe new political realities [in Georgia] -- we have now a new president -- and in Russia make that possible."

During their talks tomorrow, Saakashvili and Putin are likely to discuss Georgia's breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, as well as the uneasy relations that exist between Tbilisi and the pro-Moscow leader of Adjaria, Aslan Abashidze.

Tbilisi has been accusing Moscow of supporting its separatist provinces, and one of the main challenges facing Saakashvili in the future will be to restore Georgia's jurisdiction over Abkhazia and South Ossetia without damaging ties with Russia.

As the Georgian leader was heading toward the Russian capital, Abkhaz and Georgian officials met today in Tbilisi under the aegis of the United Nations. The peace process over Abkhazia had been frozen for months and was officially suspended after the demise of Shevardnadze's administration.

The resumption of talks followed the recent dismissal of Tamaz Nadareishvili, the hard-line chairman of the Abkhaz parliament in exile, whom many considered to be a major obstacle to a peaceful solution to the 12-year-old dispute between Tbilisi and Sukhum.

In another sign of thaw, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Aleksei Fedotov said on 7 February Moscow is ready -- in return for Tbilisi's cooperation over Chechnya -- to reconsider travel restrictions for Georgians and make them as simple as those that currently exist for residents of Adjaria, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia. Easing of visa restrictions has been a major Georgian demand.

Commenting on Saakashvili's visit, Russian newspapers today agree that despite existing problems, there is room for improvement in bilateral ties. Georgian Deputy Foreign Minister Kakha Sikharulidze gave a similar assessment on 7 February, saying relations between Tbilisi and Moscow have not only recently grown warmer, but have shown "a tendency to turn into friendly ties."