Georgia and Russia at Impasse Says New Premier

By Arkady Ostrovsky

TBILISI–Relations between Russia and Georgia have reached a stalemate that jeopardizes Georgia’s efforts to restore stability and its territorial integrity–Zurab Nogaideli–the country’s new prime minister–has told the Financial Times.

Georgia’s 15-month-old government–installed after a popular uprising ousted president Eduard Schevardnadze–is struggling to regain control over the break-away regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia–both backed by Russia.

US President Bush told European leaders this week that Georgia was one of the countries that needed assistance in developing democracy.

But Russia–which still has military bases in Georgia–has strongly opposed Tbilisi’s efforts to establish control over South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Moscow has also used combative language in relation to Georgia–accusing it of harboring terrorists from neighboring Chechnya.

In his first interview since taking office–Nogaideli said a recent visit by Sergei Lavrov–Russia’s foreign minister–had failed to achieve a breakthrough in the relationship between the two countries–which has turned increasingly sour during the past year.

Nogaideli–former finance minister in the government of Zurab Zhvania–who died of carbon monoxide poisoning this month–had said: "For us the most important problem in the relationship with Russia is the resolution of conflicts on our territory. We want to solve the issue of territorial integrity peacefully. But everyone understands that without Russia’s good will–it will be impossible."

Lavrov’s visit was overshadowed by a diplomatic spat after the Russian foreign minister declined an invitation to lay flowers at the memorial for Georgian soldiers who died in a military conflict with Abkhazia in the early 1990s.

However–in an interview on Russian television last weekend–Lavrov indicated that Russia no longer considered Georgia to be under his country’s hegemony. Both Ukraine and Georgia–he said–were "absolutely sovereign–absolutely equal states in the new geopolitical architecture." Georgian politicians said there was a risk that Russia would test its strength against Georgia to compensate for its failings in Ukraine.

One senior official said: "There is a real danger that Georgia will become a foreign-policy Yukos for Russia–designed to demonstrate its strength."

Russia’suffered a humiliating defeat when it failed to influence the outcome of Ukrainian elections last year and its tough stance towards Georgia is seen as part of the Kremlin’s efforts to prove its influence in the former Soviet space.

However–while the official relationship with Moscow has been difficult–Georgia has managed to attract Russian investment. "We find talking to Russian investors easier than talking to the Russian government," Nogaideli said.

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