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Georgian, Russian Leaders Meet in Hopes of Improving Relations - 2003-12-25


In their first meeting in Moscow since the Georgian revolution, Georgia's interim leader Nino Burjanadze and Russian President Vladimir Putin said they hope to open a new chapter in the often-strained relations between their two countries. The two leaders exchanged compliments after their meeting, saying that it is time for relations between the two nations to improve.

President Putin told Ms. Burjanadze that Russia is following developments in Georgia closely, with elections for a new Georgian president less than two weeks away.

Ms. Burjanadze is not a candidate in that election, but her close ally Mikhail Saakashvili is considered the frontrunner.

Mr. Saakashvili spearheaded the mass protests last month that led to the downfall of longtime Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze, after which Ms. Burjanadze was named interim leader.

Russia watched the change in leadership in Georgia with unease, due to what Moscow sees as the new leaders' pro-Western tilt.

Yet even as Ms. Burjandze spoke of overcoming differences with Mr. Putin, she also issued a strong rebuke to the Kremlin's spokesman Sergei Yastrezhemsky.

On Wednesday Mr. Yastrezhemsky said that mercenaries were entering the separatist Russian republic of Chechnya across its unenforced border with Georgia. He claimed that several rebels killed recently in Chechnya carried passports with visas that were issued in Georgia.

In an interview with Russian television, Ms. Burjandadze responded that it was unethical at the very least for such comments to coincide with her arrival in Moscow. She added that the visa in question had been issued in a separatist region within Georgia known as Adjaria, which has closer ties with Moscow than with the Georgian capital Tbilisi.

The issue of separatism has long been the most divisive issue between Georgia and Russia, and was a subject for discussion during Ms. Burjanadze's Moscow visit. Georgia has long accused Russia of providing political and even military support to the separatist regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Both declared their independence after brief but bloody conflicts with Georgian forces in the early 1990s.

Since Mr. Shevardnadze's fall from power, the leaders of both areas have even asked to be incorporated into the Russian Federation, something Moscow has so far declined to do.

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