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Georgia: Saakashvili Ready To Extend 'Friendly Hand' To Putin

Mikheil Saakashvili (file photo) 10 February 2005 -- Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili today said he is ready to mend fences with Russian President Vladimir Putin, provided Moscow agrees to compromise on outstanding issues.

Addressing the inaugural meeting of the Georgian parliament's spring session, Saakashvili today assessed the state of his country, one year into his mandate.

Touching on foreign policy, the Georgian leader described ties with neighboring Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Turkey as "idyllic."

Russia, however, remains a different story. But Saakashvili said that could change -- if Moscow adopts a more compromising attitude on the countries' disputes.

"On these conditions, I am ready to go again to Moscow," Saakashvili said. "I am ready to meet again with [Russian] President [Vladimir] Putin and extend the hand of friendship to him. This hand, unfortunately, has been hanging in the air since we met about a year ago."

Relations between Moscow and Tbilisi have been strained by a number of issues, including what Russia says is Georgia's support of Chechen separatist fighters.

Shortly after his election in January 2004, Saakashvili visited Moscow with pledges to give bilateral ties a fresh start. He offered to set up joint patrols and checkpoints along the Chechen section of Russia's border with Georgia, to ensure that separatist fighters could not use the South Caucasus country as a safe haven.

Relations began to improve, with Georgian security forces discreetly extraditing a number of Chechen fighters to Russia. Last spring, dozens of Moscow businessmen traveled to Tbilisi for the first Russian-Georgian economic forum.

But tensions began to return last summer, when Saakashvili dispatched troops near and in Georgia's separatist republic of South Ossetia, officially to combat local contraband rings.

The move triggered a weeklong series of deadly skirmishes that threatened to reignite the 12-year-old Georgian-South Ossetian war.

Russia, which has supported South Ossetia since it gained de facto independence, blamed Tbilisi for the renewed tension. Shortly afterward, Moscow renewed accusations that Georgia is sheltering Chechen fighters.

Moscow and Tbilisi also remain at odds over the fate of Russia's two remaining military bases in Georgia.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has repeatedly asked Moscow to honor a 1999 commitment to vacate its Georgian bases.

Russia says it will take at least another decade to complete such an expensive and logistically complex move.

The Kremlin fears Georgia, which has set its sights on eventual NATO membership, may one day use the Russian bases to host Western troops.

But Saakashvili today reiterated an earlier pledge that no foreign soldiers will be stationed on Georgian soil once the Russians depart.

"There are certain principles all [Georgian] political forces and parties must agree upon," he said. "These principles are those of Georgia's European integration and the absence of foreign military bases on its territory."

The Georgian president also warned that anyone opposed to those objectives would be prosecuted.

"All those parties that will say Georgia should not move along the path towards European integration, and that it should not seek membership into those European institutions we want to join, all those parties that will say foreign military bases should be deployed on our soil and that foreigners should be allowed to interfere in the development of our country -- either militarily or in any other way -- all those political parties must be automatically outlawed," Saakashvili said.

It was not immediately clear which parties or groupings Saakashvili had in mind.

(Compiled from wire service reports.)

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