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Georgian President's Russian Trip Helps Mending Soured Ties

Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili wound up on Wednesday his two-day working visit to Russia, which helped mending already soured bilateral ties.  

"A spell of thaw is beginning in relations between Russia and Georgia," Saakashvili told a press conference after Wednesday meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov and Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov.


During their meeting, President Putin called Georgia an important partner of Russia and expressed Russia's readiness to come to a compromise with the Caucasus neighbor on all disputed issues.


Saakashvili ensured Putin that all issues and controversies in their bilateral relations will be resolved "not at once but gradually."


Relations between Russia and the former Soviet republic have been soured by such issues as Russia's attitude toward Georgia's three restive regions of Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Adzharia, Chechnya and the withdrawal of Russian troops from Georgia.


Russia maintains close ties with Georgia's breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Saakashvili, who has vowed to unify the nation, urged Russia to exert influence "from a position of strength."


Saakashvili expressed his optimism on the prospects for the resolution of the Abkhazian conflict.


During their four-hour talks the two leaders agreed to resume working groups that would discuss refugee return, renewal of rail connections that run through Abkhazia and other issues around the conflict.


Russia has accused Georgia of sheltering rebels from Russia's breakaway republic of Chechnya and of being a transit route for foreign mercenaries and extremist funds earmarked for the Chechen rebels.


Saakashvili denied that the two countries have differences on the security in the Chechen sector along the Georgia-Russian boarder.


He said that Russia and Georgia have agreed to enhance "joint protection" of their border.


Russia has so far withdrawn two of its four military bases in Georgia under the Istanbul accords but the two neighboring countries remain at odds over when the remaining bases should be closed down.


Russia insists that the entire process of troop withdrawal and redeployment will take about 10 years because of fund shortage. Some Russian official recently hinted at a shorter withdrawal period but that still fall short of Georgia's request that Russia should shut its bases within three years.


Saakashvili said that the issue should "not be an object of bargaining," and should not shadow the bilateral ties.


He ruled out the possibility that Georgia would house the military bases of other countries on Georgian territory following the closure of Russian military bases.


Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov ensured Saakashvili that Russia has no intention to increase its military presence in Georgia.


Saakashvili told the press conference that Georgia has reached with Russia an agreement on simplifying visa regulations.


However, he did not specify when this could come into effect.


(Xinhua News Agency February 12, 2004)

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