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Russia-Georgia Relations Remain Strained

Russian President Vladimir Putin met his Georgian counterpart Mikhail Saakashvili this week in an attempt to improve relations that have become severely strained over economic and political issues. The two men insisted they want to change matters, but neither seemed ready to compromise.

The two presidents smiled for the cameras after their two-hour meeting on the sidelines of an economic forum held in Russia's second city, St. Petersburg.

President Putin acknowledged that Russia's relations with its southern neighbor are not the best, but he said the two sides are trying to develop them in a more positive way.

The Georgian leader responded by saying that Georgia is a small country, and it is best left alone, and that no one will get even a meter of the Ossetian or Abkhaz territory.

This was a reference to the most contentious issue dividing Moscow and Tbilisi, which is the future of the two separatist regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Both broke away from Georgia after fighting brief wars more than a decade ago. Russia now has a military presence in each, officially as peacekeepers enforcing cease-fire agreements.

But since coming to power after the so-called Rose revolution more than two years ago, Mr. Saakashvili has made a priority of regaining control over the two breakaway regions.

The South Ossetian and Abkaz leaders reject a return to Georgia and have even asked to be annexed by Russia.

South Ossetian leader Eduard Kokoity recently said he will pursue a civilized route for the people of the mountainous enclave, which he says is to maintain close ties with Russia.

There are occasional flare-ups of fighting in the region, with Georgia often accusing Russian troops of blocking villages where mostly ethnic Georgians live.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov responded to this recently, saying Russia will resist what he called provocations and that Russia's military presence is to maintain peace in both regions.

At the St. Petersburg meeting, President Putin told Mr. Saakashvili that the territorial issues must be handled in accordance with the people's interests, not political expediency or historical peculiarities."

Georgia complains that smuggling of goods through South Ossetia has dealt a strong blow to its economy.

Tbilisi also accuses Moscow of imposing an economic blockade after Russia banned the importation of all Georgian wines and mineral water, its primary exports. Russia has long been Georgia's biggest market for both, and the economic impact of the move is considerable.

Officially, the ban was declared after Russian health officials say they detected traces of chemicals in the Georgian products.

But Georgia responds that the move was entirely political, especially as Russia took similar action against nearby Moldova, which is also trying to distance itself from Moscow politically.

Not long ago, the wine and water ban was the subject of street protests in Moscow, where some protesters were detained for holding an illegal rally. A similar demonstration in Georgia's capital Tbilisi involved Georgians dumping Russian vodka down a toilet they had placed in front of the Russian embassy.

Deteriorating economic conditions have added new pressure on Mr. Saakashvili in Georgia, where rallies against his rule have been taking place in recent weeks.

Sometimes these demonstrations have led to scuffles with police. This man complains that Georgians have no life under Mr. Saakashvili's government. Some protesters also oppose the Georgian leader's pro-Western policies.

Mr. Saakashvili has long talked of having Georgia enter the European Union and the NATO alliance someday, echoing a similar goal by neighboring Ukraine, which also has strained relations with Russia.

While such action is likely to be years away, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned recently that such a NATO expansion would have colossal geopolitical consequences, and that Russia would respond according to its own interests.