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Georgia's President Aims to Revitalize Relations with Russia - 2004-02-10

Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili is making his first official trip to Russia since taking office last month, calling for a revitalized relationship with Moscow built on mutual openness and cooperation.

President Saakashvili made establishing friendly, neighborly relations with Moscow a priority of his administration, and pledged to visit Russia early in his term, as a sign of goodwill.

The leader of Georgia's Rose Revolution began his visit by addressing students of the Moscow State Institute of International Relations.

Mr. Saakashvili told the students that relations between Moscow and Tbilisi demand "a radical review." He characterized relations at present as unacceptable, and said there is no option but to improve them.

Mr. Saakashvili said he came to Moscow to offer a hand of friendship. He described Russia as Georgia's partner, not its enemy.

Russian officials are also making friendly statements. Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Yakovenko welcomed Mr. Saakashvili to Moscow. Mr. Yakovenko said Mr. Saakashvili's visit demonstrates Russia's intentions to restore friendly relations with Georgia.

At the Center for Policy Studies in Russia, researcher Andrei Frolov said although the visit is clearly important for Mr. Saakashvili, the talks are equally important for President Putin. "Russia needs Georgia, because to my mind there are two main goals: the first is political and maybe military support for Russia's operation in Chechnya, and [the] second one is Tbilisi's positions on oil pipes from Azerbaijan to Turkey because it's a strategic oil pipe," he said.

Mr. Frolov said President Saakashvili will need to return to Georgia with President Putin's seal of approval as regards the legitimacy of his new government, as well as pledges of continued Russian deliveries of oil, gas and electricity.

Mr. Saakashvili's talks in Moscow are expected to encompass the whole range of issues that have marred relations ever since the former Soviet republic of Georgia won its independence more than 10 years ago.

One of the major issues in dispute is the status of two Russian military bases in Georgia. Russia has said it may need up to 10 years to complete the withdrawal, a time frame Georgia rejects. The base issue is expected to be a key topic during Mr. Saakashvili's scheduled talks Wednesday with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Other issues include Georgian anger over Russian sympathy for separatists in some parts of Georgia, and Russian concern about the use of Georgia's volatile Pankisi Gorge region by Chechen rebels. Russia is also wary of increased Western influence in the region through the pipeline project and through U.S. training of Georgian soldiers.

Mr. Saakashvili has said both nations face a period of long, hard work to settle their differences and rebuild their relationship, and he warns against any expectations of an immediate breakthrough. Analyst Andrei Frolov also held out little hope of major progress this week, but said the fact the two sides are even talking about improving relations is a good first step.