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Georgian President Demands To Know Opponents' Stand On Russia

Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili
Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili
Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has challenged his political opponents to disclose their views on relations with Russia, while also underlining his commitment to strengthening Georgia's ties with NATO and the European Union.

Saakashvili's comments, made in a speech at a military base near the border with South Ossetia on February 25, have been interpreted by some as being intended for Georgian billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili.

Ivanishvili has said he will participate in parliamentary elections due in October and wants good relations with both Russia and the West.

Saakashvili said Georgian citizens legally had a right to want good relations with Russia but should not try and conceal this point of view from others.

"You can have relations with Russia's leaders and government members and you can think that it is more important than NATO and European Union membership, but you have no right to hide this stand [on Russia] from people," he said.

"You have no right, as the saying goes, to sit on two chairs simultaneously. The discussion, which is connected with the future plans of our country and which directs us toward the implementation of these plans, is so important that it is our obligation to spell it out clearly and transparently for our people."

Saakashvili also warned of the possible cost of an alliance with Moscow, saying that "Russia's current leaders, do not need neighbors, they want to have obedient vassals."

With a Russian presidential election due on March 4, Saakashvili also took a swipe at those in Georgia who might support the leading candidate Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

Saakashvili said supporting Putin is "neither good nor moral" even if it was still "legal and permitted" in Georgia.

Putin is practically assured of victory in the upcoming election, which would return him to Russia's top post for another six years after previously serving as president from 2000 to 2008.

Georgian-Russian relations have been at a low ebb since a brief war between the two countries in 2008 over Georgia's breakaway region of South Ossetia, after which Russia quickly recognized it and another Georgian breakaway region, Abkhazia.

Saakashvili's personal relations with Russia's leaders are also extremely strained. Toward the end of the 2008 conflict, with Russian troops advancing well into Georgian territory, Putin threatened to "hang" Saakashvili by the balls.

At the start of this month, Putin's successor, President Dmitry Medvedev, praised the capabilities of Russian military bases in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, saying the bases were "strong enough to effectively protect the interests" of the two regions.

Russian news agency Interfax quoted Medvedev as saying that "even crazy Saakashvili understands that."

In his speech to Georgian troops on February 25, Saakashvili also said that "NATO and the European Union are the only ways to strengthen Georgian statehood for our future generations."

Georgia has sought strong ties with the EU and NATO and has sent troops to join international coalitions in Afghanistan and Iraq.

With agency reporting

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