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Russia/Georgia: Friendship Still Strong, Despite Frosty Politics

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili at a Georgian wine festival, Kyiv, Ukraine, in May (ITAR-TASS) MOSCOW, June 12, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Marina and her friends are celebrating a birthday party in one of the dozens of Georgian restaurants that dot Moscow. They have just raised a toast to Georgia, wishing it a blossoming future and a long friendship with Russia.

Their table is decked with delicious food and musicians are playing their favorite Georgian songs. Just one thing is missing: Georgian wine, banned in Russia since late March.

"We miss Georgian wine. We miss Georgian culture. I enjoy going to such restaurants and listening to Georgian bands that come to Russia," Marina says. "We all grew up together and absorbed all this, Moldovan, Georgian, Ukrainian music and culture. For us this is a piece of our motherland."

Marina, a 40-year-old English teacher, is not the only one in Russia to miss popular Georgian wine. This restaurant has lost many diners since Russia in March banned the import of Georgian and Moldovan wines on the grounds that they allegedly contain dangerous pesticides.

Wine And Water Bans

In mid-May, Russia extended the ban to two popular Georgian mineral waters, Borjomi and Nabeglavi, citing poor quality.

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili is set to meet his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in St. Petersburg on June 13. The meeting comes at one of the lowest points in relations between the two countries.

But many observers, both in Georgia and Russia, view the embargo as political retribution for Georgia's efforts to distance itself from Russia.

This is indeed a potentially devastating blow to Georgia's economy, which relies heavily on wine exports. Russia is by far Georgia's largest wine market and represents more than $100 million a year for Georgian producers.

Sour Relations

So who is to blame for the chill?

Sergei Agafonov, the deputy editor of one of Russia's most popular weeklies, "Ogonyok," says that Putin and Saakashvili have both aggravated tensions by trading harsh words. But Russia, he says, is more at fault than Georgia.

Georgia is looking for new wine markets outside Russia

"Of course one can't say that one party is 100 percent guilty, but I think that Russia bears more responsibility for all this than Georgia. Let's not forget what happened in Abkhazia, and how the situation developed in [South] Ossetia," Agafonov says. "The way they relate to Georgia here is also frankly unpleasant, even for those who live here, because one should not talk like that to one's neighbors and cause provocations because of trifles."

While Moscow resents Georgia for turning its back on Russia, Tbilisi is riled by Moscow's continued support to separatist leaders in the Georgian breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Russia's Near Abroad

But at the root of all problems, Agafonov says, lies Russia's persistence in treating former Soviet republics as its own backyard.

"Russia used to see itself as a power that controlled the Caucasus. This [influence] is now fading, but to admit this objectively and say, 'alright, let's forget about it,' there needs to be a certain will and maybe a different generation of politicians. Those who are now in power grew up in the old system, so naturally the desire predominates to somehow regain this lost position [and] shut out strangers," Agafonov says.

Marina and her friends care little for politics and are not interested in discussing the Russian-Georgian political crisis over dinner.

Nina, a colleague of Marina, says political squabbles will never be able to cast a shadow over the warm ties that unite Russians and Georgians.

"One can't say who's right and who's wrong," she says. "No one is right or wrong here, neither Georgians nor Russians. That's simply the way it turned out. Economics governs everything, economics and politics. But ordinary people love Georgia just as they used to love it, Georgians, their culture, their cuisine. It doesn't change anything. Temporary political chills cannot harm a friendship of many centuries."

A few steps away stand Givi, a 65-year-old Georgian singer, and his two musicians. Givi, who has been living in Russia for the past 10 years, says he is saddened by the overly negative coverage of Georgia on Russian television. But despite everything he agrees that the historical Russian-Georgian friendship is still going strong.

"I can't understand what's happening in government, and why. Some changes are obviously taking place in the high echelons, but I don't feel it among the people. People love us, respect us, they come to listen to Georgian songs. We talk, we hug, we kiss, we love each other!" Givi says.

Givi hopes that the upcoming meeting between Putin and Saakashvili will result in some kind of political truce, or in the least the end of the embargo on Georgian wine.

Givi badly misses Georgian wine. But things could be worse, he says with a smile -- there is not yet a ban on Georgian music.

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