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Putin Not Worried About US Presence in Georgia - 2002-03-01

Russian President Vladimir Putin says the presence of U.S. military advisers in neighboring Georgia is no cause for alarm. His remarks Friday were more low key than the alarm expressed by other senior Russian officials that followed the reports that American troops will be training an anti-terrorism force in Georgia.

Speaking at a news conference in the Central Asian republic of Kazakhstan where he was attending a meeting of the Commonwealth of Independent States, Mr. Putin said the plan to deploy American forces in Georgia is, "no tragedy."

Referring to American troops now deployed in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan as part of the American war on terrorism, Mr. Putin said "why should they be in Central Asia and not in Georgia?"

The Russian president's decidedly calm tone contrasts with the serious expressions of concern from other senior Russian officials including Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov who said Wednesday that Russia did not want American troops in Georgia.

On Thursday, lawmakers said the parliament might call on the government to recognize the independence of Georgia's breakaway provinces in relation for allowing American troops on its soil.

Mr. Putin explained the initial negative reaction from officials in his government as being due to the fact that move came as a surprise.

The Russian president said the Americans had told him of the plans but Georgia had not.

Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze, who is attending the same meeting, defended his government's action saying it should have come as no surprise to Russia. The Georgian leader said it was no secret that his country had asked for help from the United States. And that such aid was authorized under the terms of an existing military cooperation agreement between the two countries.

While Russia has long maintained that the remote Pankisi Gorge region has become a haven for Chechen separatists linked with Osama bin Laden they have also made it clear they would prefer to deal with the situation themselves.

The Georgian Defense Ministry announced Friday that American troops are expected to arrive in the country later this month.

The Pentagon says American forces will provide training and unspecified equipment to restore order in the Pankisi Gorge where Chechen rebels with links with Osama bin Laden are reported to have bases.

Washington says U.S. forces will not take part in any military activity themselves.