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New Georgian leaders seek Kremlin support
MOSCOW - For the first time since Eduard Shevardnadze’s resignation Vladimir Putin has received a representative of the new Georgian authorities in Moscow. Nino Burdzhanadze came to seek Moscow’s support for Mikhail Saakashvili in the forthcoming presidential elections in Georgia, which probably explains why she did not press for the withdrawal of Russian military bases from her country. Vladimir Putin invited Nino Burdzhanadze to Moscow during their brief meeting in Baku, where both attended Geidar Aliyev’s funeral recently. In truth, however, the invitation seems to have been made at Burdzhanadze’s own request. Many journalists saw the acting president of Georgia approach Putin herself in Azerbaijan and start talking earnestly with the Russian leader. Upon returning to Tbilisi Burdzhanadze announced that she had received an invitation to pay an official visit to Moscow. In the run-up to the presidential elections in Georgia, such a visit in itself is far more important than the outcome of any talks she holds in the Russian capital. The summit is expected to give credence to the new Georgian authorities and to show that, despite all the misgivings, once the devout Westernizer Mikhail Saakashvili becomes president of Georgia, his government will improve relations with Russia. No-one, therefore, had any great expectations of Thursday’s meeting between Putin and Burdzhanadze, though both sides admit that there are plenty of problems in the relationship between the two states, ranging from the conflict that flared up after Russia moved to simplify the visa regime for residents of Georgia’s breakaway Ajaria, to the withdrawal of Russian military bases from Batumi and Akhalkalaki, on which the Georgian authorities have been insisting since Shevardnadze’s resignation. At the same time, Burdzhanadze admitted in advance that nothing interesting would happen in Moscow, and when asked about the withdrawal of bases she replied: ''During the first meeting it would not be correct to speak of details, however important. Far more important is to reach an agreement, so that the existing expert group agrees before May on the timetable for the withdrawal of Russian bases. The unresolved issue concerning the bases hampers our relationship. If need be, a framework agreement may be prepared within several weeks.'' Before the talks began Putin and Burjanadze emerged in front of the cameras but only exchanged a few formal greetings. ''I think it is a good sign that at the brief meeting in Baku we agreed to continue contacts and you found the time to come to Moscow for consultations,'' the president said, welcoming Burdzhanadze in the Kremlin. ''Georgia is experiencing a complex moment in its history as it approaches the elections,'' Putin noted. ''We, of course, are not indifferent to how these processes go in Georgia. We appreciate the fact that you felt able to come to Moscow, to exchange views on bilateral relations and the prospects for their development,'' the Russian leader said. For her part, the acting president of Georgia expressed her gratitude to Putin for his invitation to visit Moscow. ''I very much value this opportunity, especially at this complex moment in the history of Georgia and Russo-Georgian relations,'' Burdzhanadze said. She expressed hope that their meeting and Putin's subsequent meetings with Georgia’s leaders ''will help resolve all the problems which have built up between our states''. ''We hope we really can start a new page in our relations, which will meet the interests of both the Georgian and Russian peoples,'' Burdzhanadze said. After her tete-a-tete with Putin, the acting president of Georgia headed for a meeting with the Russian defence minister, Sergei Ivanov, where the issue of bases was again raised. It will take at least 11 years to withdraw Russian bases from Georgia, the press service of the Russian Defence Ministry quoted Ivanov as saying during his talks with Nino Burdzhanadze. ''Sergei Ivanov reiterated that the Russian position on this question has not changed. The point is that, according to calculations drawn up on the basis of Russian legal enactments and international experience, it will take at least 11 years to withdraw them (the bases). This is connected with the need to obtain land and build military housing compounds on Russian territory,'' a statement by the Defence Ministry press service read. During the talks Ivanov also stressed that the implementation of these measures would require a large amount of funding, which could only be included in the Russian budget after the achievement of accords with Georgia and their incorporation in a bilateral international treaty. In accordance with the joint Istanbul declaration of 1999, Russia undertook to reduce its armaments and military hardware in Georgia to 153 tanks, 241 APCs and 140 artillery systems by no later than 31 December 2000. For its part, Georgia undertook to allow Russia to keep, on a temporary basis, the armaments and military hardware envisaged under the treaty at military bases in Akhalkalaki and Batumi. Russia met its commitments, but problems connected with the conditions and tenure of these military bases are still outstanding, the Defence Ministry press service said. Speaking in front of the cameras, Burdzhanadze and Ivanov stressed the importance of improving relations between the two states and stepping up cooperation between their military agencies. Other meetings held by Georgia’s acting president in Moscow were just as closed to the press. For instance, Federation Council chairman Sergei Mironov, after his meeting with Burdzhanadze said only: ''We have agreed with Nini Anzorovna that we would not answer journalists’ questions.'' Despite the veil of secrecy, the two sides have failed to curtail the now familiar public attacks on each other. On Wednesday evening, just before Burdzhanadze’s arrival, the Kremlin aide Sergei Yastrzhembsky, addressing a news conference in Moscow, called Georgia ''a public thoroughfare for terrorists'' and claimed that all the passports of foreign nationals found among a group of guerrillas killed in Chechnya in November contained Georgian visas. ''He could at least have waited until my meeting with Vladimir Putin,'' was Burdzhanadze’s reaction. ''At that meeting many things may become clear, including the visa issues. To say that Georgia is a public thoroughfare is, at least, unethical.'' On Thursday Tbilisi struck back, recanting its earlier apologies for having allowed Boris Berezovsky, placed by Russia on the international wanted list, to arrive freely in Georgia last month. According to the acting secretary of the Georgian Security Council, Jemal Gakhokidze, London had sent an official confirmation that Berezovsky was travelling on valid documents, therefore he could not be arrested.
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