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Georgian President says Russia Must End Support for Breakaway Regions - 2004-02-26

Georgia's president says relations with neighboring Russia are improving, but asserts Moscow must reverse policies that contribute to lingering animosities. President Mikhail Saakashvili made the comments in an address to the U.N. Security Council.

President Saakashvili said he had gone to Moscow earlier this month with his hand extended in friendship, and that hand had been met. Speaking to the Security Council Thursday, the 36-year-old Georgian leader said the visit convinced him that the door to better relations was open for the first time since Georgia regained independence in 1991.

President Saakashvili said his talks with Russian leader Vladimir Putin had managed to move past what he called the poisonous rhetoric of the past. But at the same time, he said he had no illusions that the troubled bilateral relationship would be transformed overnight.

The Georgian leader called on the international community to intervene to resolve the dispute over the breakaway Abkhazia region. He said Georgia is willing to grant the region the highest degree of autonomy.

But he added that a settlement of the Abkhazia question requires that Russia reverse what he called its damaging policies.

"In concrete terms, it will mean ending Russia's policy of providing citizenship to the population of the conflict regions," he said. "It will mean ending the visa-free regime now in place in Abkhazia and the former South Ossetia. It will mean putting a stop to illegal acquisition of property on Abkhazian soil."

Mr. Saakashvili said his government, unlike its predecessor in Tblisi, is willing to crack down on forces that believe a solution to the Abkhazia issue can only be settled through the use of force.

Russia's U.N. ambassador Sergei Lavrov called the Georgian leader's speech constructive, and said he was pleased with Mr. Saakashvili's assessment of his visit to Moscow.

Many Georgians accuse Russia of engineering the breakup of their country by supporting separatists in the Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions in the early 1990s. Russia, on the other hand, accuses Georgia of harboring rebels for the nearby Russian separatist region of Chechnya.