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Moscow Offers To Reestablish Relations With Georgia

Georgia's President Mikheil Saakashvili recently offered to establish visa-free travel to Georgia for Russians.
Russia has expressed a willingness to restore diplomatic relations with neighboring Georgia, according to a statement posted on the website of the Russian Foreign Ministry.

The offer is an apparent response to an offer by Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili to establish visa-free travel to Georgia for Russians.

The March 2 Foreign Ministry statement says Russia is interested in "strengthening ties between the peoples of Russia and Georgia" and is prepared to introduce a reciprocal visa-free regime for Georgians.

Moscow has previously said it would have no relations with the Georgian government as long as Saakashvili was in power. His term as president ends in 2013.

The two countries broke off diplomatic relations following the August 2008 war over the breakaway Georgian region of South Ossetia, after which Moscow recognized it and another breakaway Georgian region, Abkhazia. Almost all of the rest of the international community considers the regions part of Georgia.

Tbilisi's initial reaction has been one of extreme caution. Deputy Foreign Minister Nino Kalandadze told RFE/RL that the process of renewing diplomatic relations could start only after "Russia begins the process of ending Georgia's occupation."

She added that Georgia "presents no obstacles to the restoration of diplomatic relations, and Georgia has asserted this many times. However, the condition is that the two states have to be able to restore civilized relations, and with 'civilized relations,' Georgia, of course, will not accept the same country being represented by three different embassies on its territory."

Across the political spectrum, opposition parliament deputy Gia Tortladze had a similar reaction to the announcement from Moscow.

"In my view, there is absolutely no way diplomatic relations can be restored until the occupation of Georgia has [ended] and the decision to recognize two of our regions as independent has been reversed," he said.

'Give Peace A Chance'

Moscow-based analyst Aleksei Vlasov of the Center for the Study of the Post-Soviet Space says it would be a mistake to allow the issue of the breakaway territories to block potential progress on the visa question, which could lead to improved relations.

The reaction of some Georgian officials and politicians to this proposal, it seems to me, is a little bit unconstructive because, yes, it is clear that Moscow will never discuss questions related to South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the topic of the movement of citizens between Georgia and Russia is a question that can be settled outside the context of the territories that Moscow has recognized and Georgia hasn't," Vlasov says.

"This means that this goodwill gesture on Moscow's part doesn't have to come to nothing, but could receive a more or less adequate response.

Saakashvili made his initial overture of visa-free travel in a speech to parliament on February 28, saying it was a unilateral initiative intended to "give peace an even greater chance."

But he added that he would continue to work for the "de-occupation" of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

In December 2011, Russia and Georgia ended years of wrangling and struck a deal that opened the door for Moscow to join the World Trade Organization.

At that time, the two sides agreed to allow an independent company to audit trade in the two disputed regions, a model that some observers thought might serve as a future template.

With AFP reporting

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