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Russian President Putin, Georgian Counterpart  Discuss Abkhazia, Other Regional Issues - 2004-02-12

Georgia's new president, Mikhail Saakashvili, says he's pleased with the results of his first visit to Russia as the leader of Georgia. The 36-year-old Georgian met President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday to discuss various issues.

Mikhail Saakashvili says he thinks a "period of thaw" is beginning in relations between Georgia and Russia after his meeting with President Putin.

Both leaders expressed satisfaction with the talks, saying it is time for the two nations to overcome difficulties in their relations.

The discussion focused on the issues of terrorism and separatist conflicts, especially in Georgia's region of Abkhazia, which declared its independence from Georgia after a war in 1993.

The leaders agreed to restart stalled peace talks aimed at resolving the issue. Georgia has long accused Russia of supporting not just Abkhazia but a second region, South Ossetia, that has also broken away from Georgia.

For its part, Moscow says Georgia gives refuge to separatist rebels from the Russian breakaway region of Chechnya, which shares a mountainous border with Georgia.

On this issue, Mr. Saakashvili said the two countries had agreed to conduct joint patrols of the border area.

Problems between the two countries festered for years under former Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze, who was ousted in popular protests led by Mr. Saakashvili in the so-called "Rose Revolution" last November.

Mr. Saakashvili said he came to Moscow to turn a new page. The Georgian leader told Mr. Putin: "I've come here to become your friend," adding, "I do hope we will become friends." He said though Russia is a great power while Georgia is a small state, Georgians have their own interests, pride, self-respect and history that is closely connected with Russia's. Mr. Saakashvili expressed hope the two nations will solve their problems, perhaps not right away but step-by-step.

Mr. Saakashvili is a U.S.-educated, 36-year-old lawyer who became Europe's youngest elected head of state after winning an election early last month.

His youthful energy and optimism have struck a chord in Russia, but tensions do remain between the two countries.

One of the major issues in dispute is the presence of two Soviet-era military bases that Russia still maintains in Georgia. Mr. Saakashvili wants them closed, but Russia wants to keep them there. And Russia is wary of the new Georgian president's perceived Western tilt, especially toward the United States.

Mr. Saakashvili says he wants good relations with both countries.