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Georgia: President, On Charm Offensive In Russia, Vows To Befriend Putin

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has moved a step further in his attempts at securing a rapprochement with Russia. The young Georgian leader, who has repeatedly said he wants to open a new era in bilateral ties, today met with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin and vowed to seal a friendship with his host. The Russian leader has welcomed Saakashvili's offers but says he now expects the Georgian leader to put his pledges into action.

Prague, 11 February 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, on his first official visit to Moscow, today held talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin in a bid to help repair damaged bilateral ties.

Speaking at the start of the four-hour meeting, the newly elected Georgian leader said one of his purposes in accepting Putin's invitation to come to Moscow was to "befriend" the Russian leader.

"I will tell you frankly, I came here to befriend you. Russia is a great power. We, of course, [represent] a small country. But we have our own interests, pride and history. Of course our history is linked with [that of ] the great Russia, we all perfectly know that. We really hope that we will be able, if not to settle all [bilateral] issues at once, at least to progressively achieve some results," Saakashvili said.

Saakashvili, who spearheaded last November's street protests that paved the way for the resignation of President Eduard Shevardnadze, has made improvement of relations with Georgia's northern neighbor a top priority of his foreign policy.

Referring to the passionate plea for better ties the Georgian leader made yesterday before students of the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO), Putin today hailed what he said could be the beginning of a new era in bilateral relations. "Esteemed Mr. President, we've taken note of the statements you've made in Georgia and abroad and of the speech you delivered yesterday before [MGIMO] students. Those are all very positive signals oriented toward reviving relations between Georgia and Russia," Putin said.

The two leaders then met behind closed doors to review a wide range of security issues that include the situation in Chechnya, the fight against terrorism and organized crime, and peace negotiations in Georgia's breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. They also discussed ways to boost political, economic, and cultural ties between their respective countries.

Kremlin officials told Russian news agencies before the talks one of the main topics to be examined would be the fate of Russia's two remaining Soviet-era military bases in Georgia. Tbilisi insists that Moscow must comply with a 1999 international security agreement and vacate troops from the Akhalkalaki and Batumi bases within the next three years. Russia, in turn, argues it lacks financial resources to do so and requires at least seven years to pull out of Georgia.

However, both sides have recently signaled they could reach a compromise over the issue. Russian Army officials now suggest the withdrawal could be completed much more rapidly while the Georgian side seems ready to temper its demands.

Pressed by a Russian journalist to elaborate on that issue, Saakashvili yesterday stopped short of setting any deadline for the Russian pullout. "The sooner [the withdrawal is completed], the better," he told the Moscow's Ekho Moskvy radio station in a live interview.

Russia's "Kommersant-Daily" yesterday speculated that any deal on the bases was unlikely until Georgia gives Russia a firm pledge to not allow U.S. or NATO troops on its soil.

The United States two years ago launched a multimillion-dollar program to train Georgian elite army troops in antiterror techniques and last month said it would further expand its military ties with Tbilisi with a view to ensuring the security of a major oil pipeline linking Azerbaijan to Turkey through Georgia.

In a bid to allay Moscow's concerns, Saakashvili yesterday said no foreign troops would enter Georgia after the two Russian bases are vacated. "No third country will enter these bases to fill the vacuum," he told Ekho Moskvy.

During that same interview Saakashvili reiterated his pledge to cooperate with Moscow against Chechen separatist fighters. In the past, Russia has accused Shevardnadze's regime of lending support to Chechen separatists and allowing armed militants use Georgia's mountainous terrain as a rear base for guerrilla operations against its troops in Chechnya.

Saakashvili, who has blamed his predecessor's alleged leniency towards Chechen separatists for the deterioration of Russian-Georgian ties, has promised to help Moscow restore peace in the North Caucasus. Russia's ITAR-TASS news agency today quoted Kremlin officials as saying Russia welcomes Saakashvili's pledges, but expects him now to take "concrete steps" in that direction.

In comments made to Ekho Moskvy yesterday, Saakashvili said he would examine with Putin ways to enhance cooperation along the Russian-Georgian border. "I am a former border guard myself and I know what I am talking about," the Georgian leader said, pledging to do his utmost so that Russia feels its southern border is secured.

Saakashvili said Russian-Georgian cooperation could also include joint patrols, joint checkpoints, and exchange of information and personnel.

News reports said Georgia's border-guard chief, Valeri Chkheidze, was expected in Moscow later today to sign a cooperation agreement with his Russian counterpart. Saakashvili also said during his visit his administration would assist Russian law enforcement agencies in finding any suspected "terrorists" that may be hiding in Georgia.

The Tbilisi-based Caucasus Press new agency today reported Georgian Prosecutor-General Irakli Okruashvili -- who was among the delegation that accompanied Saakashvili in Moscow -- met with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Ustinov and asked him to extradite two suspects in a corruption case involving a former energy minister.

Okruashvili reportedly assured his interlocutor that he would, in return, hand over two Russian citizens currently in Georgian custody, including one of the 13 Chechen separatist fighters arrested a year and a half ago on border violation charges.

Addressing Georgian reporters yesterday, Saakashvili said a major objective of his Moscow visit was to convince Russia's public and decisio -makers that Georgia no longer posed a security threat to its neighbor. Another aim, he added, was to convince Russian businessmen to invest in Georgia.

"Today I met with Russia's leading businessmen. For the first time I heard them express their great interest [in Georgia]. Shevardnadze never met with such a large number of solid businessmen. [The Russians] are now interested. They feel that things may change and that they may soon have an opportunity to invest [in Georgia]. This is a good thing although it might take us several months before we can prove -- through our efforts to fight corruption and ensure peace, stability, and [economic] development -- that Georgia is a good country for investments," Saakashvili said.

The Georgian leader's public relations operation has apparently brought fruit. Many MGIMO students yesterday attended Saakashvili's lecture carrying a rose in their hands -- a reference to the "revolution of the roses" as the peaceful ousting of Shevardnadze is commonly described by the new Georgian leaders.

Ekho Moskvy yesterday conducted a poll among its listeners while Saakashvili was on the air. Results show the Georgian leader managed to convince 70 percent of his listeners that he was sincerely looking forward to improving ties with Russia.

By comparison, a survey conducted last month by Russia's VTsIOM polling institute indicated that, at the time, only 20 percent of the respondents would have described Georgian-Russian relations as “good.” Another 60 percent perceived relations as "cool" or "tense."