Georgian leader wants better ties with Russia

Georgian leader Mikhail Saakashvili wants to improve relations with Russia, he said on Monday after winning the former Soviet state's presidential election which his opponents say was rigged.

Relations between Tbilisi and Moscow have been strained to near breaking point during Saakashvili's first four years in office as he steered Georgia towards the West and NATO membership. Russia supports two Georgian rebel regions and has cut trade and transport links.

"The first step for us is to be looking for new opportunities in order to improve pretty damaged relations with Russia," he told Reuters in an interview.

He did not give further details on how relations could be mended but said: "We are certainly willing to take our part of the burden to improve our relations."

Georgia straddles the South Caucasus, which hosts a major pipeline pumping oil from the Caspian Sea to Europe and where both Russia and the United States are battling for influence.

Georgia's central election commission has named Saakashvili, a 40-year-old U.S. educated lawyer, as the winner of Saturday's presidential election with more than 52 percent of the vote, about double his nearest challenger, Levan Gachechiladze.

Gachechiladze is head of an opposition coalition which accuses Saakashvili of corruption and economic mismanagement and has called for street protests to contest the election.

Saakashvili called the election to restore his credibility after angering his Western allies by crushing street demonstrations with riot police in November.

Western monitors said the poll contained flaws, but that they were not serious enough to impact a competitive election.

"We can have free and fair elections, good elections, clean elections and with basically a very competitive environment. It (the result) could have gone the other way around," he said.

During the election campaign Saakashvili said he wanted to retake two rebel regions which broke away in wars after the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union and now receive support from Russia.

On Monday Saakashvili, a staunch U.S. ally who swept to power in a peaceful 2003 revolution, ruled out military conflict.

"This is the last thing Georgia needs now -- to be involved in any kind of military confrontation," he said. "Hopefully nobody else in this region wants these adventures either."

Georgian and Russian soldiers face each other across Georgia's borders with the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The Russians have a peacekeeping mandate but both sides accuse the other of provocations.

Georgia has accused Russian war planes of flying over its airspace this year, dropping bombs on its territory and using helicopters to attack villages. Russia denied the accusations.

Russia's foreign ministry said in a statement that the vote was biased towards Saakashvili.

Georgians also voted on Saturday in a referendum on whether they wanted to join NATO -- expected to be strong "Yes" vote -- in a poll that may draw further Russian criticism.

"It's another chance for NATO to look more seriously at this region," Saakashvili said, adding that Georgians clearly wanted to join the alliance. ( Reuters )

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