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Georgia: Saakashvili Seeks Meeting With Putin In Moscow

Saakashvili and Putin at the table in 2005 (file photo) (ITAR-TASS) Georgian Deputy Foreign Minister Merab Antadze is in Moscow to prepare the ground for a possible meeting between the leaders of Georgia and Russia leaders during an informal CIS summit that begins in the Russian capital on July 21. Relations between the two countries took yet another turn for the worse on July 18 when the Georgian parliament voted in favor of demanding the withdrawal of Russian peacekeeping forces from Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili stated afterward that he would not respond to parliament's decision until he had had an opportunity to talk to his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin.

PRAGUE, July 20, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Russian snakes should slither back to where they came from, a parliamentarian told the Georgian legislature this week in a moment of emotional excitement.

The mood in Moscow toward Georgia was scarcely more friendly. Georgian-Russian relations are in free fall.

Since the parliament vote, ritual insults have been flung back and forth across the Caucasus Mountains that divide Georgia from its northern neighbor.

No Wiggle Room

Deputy Foreign Minister Merab Antadze flew into Moscow yesterday with a mission to prepare the ground for talks between Saakashvili and Putin.

On the surface, there doesn't seem much sign of compromise on either side.

Konstantin Zatulin, the director of Russia's Institute for CIS Studies, dismissed the nonbinding Georgian parliamentary resolution as an irrelevance.

"We're not going to follow the lead of people who don't want to bear responsibility for peace in the region," Zatulin said. "There will be no withdrawal of Russian peacekeeping forces until the conflict is over. Until both sides in each concrete case [Abkhazia and South Ossetia] ask us to withdraw the troops because the grounds for their presence no longer exists, of course we will not withdraw the troops. In fact, we can't withdraw them."

Georgian Deputy Foreign Minister Valeri Chechelashvili brushed that aside. Nothing, he said, would stop Georgia doing what it had to do.

"There will be provocations, humiliations, and insulting statements from various sources, but we're used to that and don't pay it any attention," Chechelashvili said. "For us the main thing is to do what needs doing, and that's what we will do."

Doomed To Failure?

With precious little sign of flexibility on either side, what purpose will a visit to Moscow by Saakashvili serve?

Not much, according to Giorgi Tarkhan-Mouravi, co-director of the Institute for Foreign Policy Studies in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi. He argues that Saakashvili's main purpose at this point is keep the lines of communication with Moscow open.

"To tell the truth, I can't really see what realistic demands Saakashvili can make of Russia now," – Tarkhan-Mouravi said. "For that reason I can't see much sense in this visit, unless it's just to show goodwill, to show that he wants talks and cooperation. I think the theatricals are more important here -- PR -- than any expectation of serious results."

But while neither side appears willing or able to make concessions on Russia's peacekeeping role in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, movement may be possible on a cluster of other problems that continue to sour mutual relations.

Russia holds most of the strongest cards on the table, but Georgia, as an existing member of the World Trade Organization, has one ace up its sleeve. If Russia is to achieve its goal of WTO membership, it needs the agreement of all members it is required to negotiate with -- which includes Georgia.

As a quid pro quo, Saakashvili may try to persuade Russia to end its embargo of Georgian wine and mineral water. But Tarkhan-Mouravi says Putin's room for maneuver on this issue may be limited.

"This first requires expert analysis of Georgian wines or Borjomi [mineral water], measures that would show that Russia had taken serious steps," Tarkhan-Mouravi said. "It would show that that Georgian wines really were bad and that the measures had led to an improvement in the quality of Georgian wine, after which things had improved and the embargo could be lifted. But if Russia does this just on the decision of the president, it will show that this was a blatant political measure. I don't think Russia will do this."

Parliamentary Pressure

Which suggests that even if talks do take place, Saakashvili will return to Georgia empty-handed and under pressure to give his support to the parliamentary demand for Russian troop withdrawal.

That, though, would deprive the Georgian leader of one of his few useful cards in his dealings with Russia.

For the moment, at least, he can still present himself as the voice of moderation against the background of an increasingly belligerent legislature.

RFE/RL Russia Report

RFE/RL Russia Report

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