Georgian Leader Seeks to Mend Fences with Russia’s Putin

MOSCOW (AFP)–Georgia’s new President Mikhail Saakashvili sought to mend fences with Russia during his first-ever meeting with President Vladimir Putin–and reassure his powerful neighbor about Tbilisi’s recent rapprochement with Washington.

"I came to befriend you," the 36-year-old Saakashvili told Putin at a Kremlin meeting Wednesday.

Saakashvili became Europe’s youngest leader after winning an election in January following the peaceful overthrow of veteran president Eduard Shevardnadze–

"Russia is a great power and we are a small country–but one with its own interests–its own pride–and its own history–which is tied to the great Russia."

Putin also struck a cordial tone–telling Saakashvili–"We have especially warm feelings toward Georgia?an important partner for Russia."

But despite the friendly rhetoric–Saakashvili faces an uphill struggle–as ties between Russia and Georgia have grown ever more complicated–with the two neighbors viewing each other with increasing distrust.

Moscow accuses Tbilisi of harboring rebels from the separatist republic of Chechnya–and posing a security threat to Russia. It is also wary of the United States’ new military presence in the Caucasian republic–which is crossed by a new US-backed oil pipeline whose construction Russia opposed.

Georgia–meanwhile–is pressing Russia to shut its two remaining Soviet-era military bases within the next few years. But Moscow is demanding massive monetary compensation–arguing that the process could drag on for a decade.

Putin and the ousted Shevardnadze were barely on speaking terms by the time the Georgian leader was ousted–but Moscow also took a skeptical view of the Saakashvili-led "rose revolution" that saw the aging leader’s peaceful overthrow in November 2003.

Saakashvili has spoken openly of a bid to bring Georgia back into the European fold–and to establish close ties with the United States.

His energetic style has created a stir in Russia–forcing it to scramble to figure out a new approach.

The confident Saakashvili did not mince words in an interview with the Izvestia daily–pressing Moscow to actually do something to improve ties–rather than pay lip service to the relationship.

"There are tendencies towards goodwill [for Georgia]–but these have to be expressed in some concrete action," Saakashvili said.

The Georgian leader said he would like to see Putin visit Tbilisi later this year to sign a framework agreement on how to resolve disputes over the Russian bases–and perhaps organize the joint policing of separatist regions in Georgia–and other issues.

Saakashvili offered on Tuesday–to allow the Russian military to help patrol border areas where Chechen rebels are suspected of hiding–and said Moscow should not feel threatened by US military cooperation with Tbilisi.

But the tensions run deep.

Many Georgians accuse Russia of engineering the break-up of their country by supporting separatist rebels in the regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in the early 1990s.

Yet the biggest current challenge for Saakashvili is how to reconcile the interests of Russia and the United States–rivals for influence over Georgia–which is on a transit route for the export of oil from the Caspian Sea to Western markets.

Russia has so far responded cautiously to the overtures.

"We expect Georgia not only to repeat their wish to normalize relations with Russia–but to show a willingness to take practical steps in this direction," foreign ministry spokesman Alexander Yakovenko told ITAR-TASS Tuesday.

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