Georgia, Russia enter key crisis talks

Georgia Materials 1 November 2006 13:38 (UTC +04:00)

(AFP) - Georgia's foreign minister was due in Moscow for meetings with his Russian counterpart in the first high-level talks between the countries since long-simmering tensions exploded into open diplomatic conflict in September.

But as accusations continued to fly from all sides, there was little indication of an imminent breakthrough in the crisis, which has seen Russia cut off all transport ties with Georgia and deport hundreds of Georgian citizens, reports Trend.

Georgian Foreign Minister Gela Bezhuashvili is due to meet his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov during the two-day Black Sea Economic Cooperation Organization summit which opens in Moscow on Wednesday, according to state news agency RIA Novosti.

A Kremlin source told the Interfax news agency that a meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Bezhuashvili was considered on the eve of his arrival, but ultimately rejected.

"We always welcome any dialogue, so the arrival of the Georgian foreign minister in Moscow is a good signal, but a single contact will not solve the problem," said Igor Ivanov, the head of Russia's security council, who is also due to meet Bezhuashvili.

He said the success of the talks would depend entirely on what Georgia brings to the table, saying that it was up to Tbilisi to solve a crisis it had caused.

"We consider that the tensions that have arisen are the result of the policies of the current Georgian authorities. If (they) change their policies, then of course the atmosphere of our relations will change."

Georgia's minister for the conflict settlement, Merab Antadze, who is also due to take part in the negotiations, said Tuesday that new initiatives to settle the Abkhazian and South Ossetian conflicts would be presented at the meetings, but he gave no details, ITAR-TASS reported.

While the brief arrest of four Russian officers accused of spying was the immediate cause of the current conflict, tensions have been high since Georgia's US-educated President Mikheil Saakashvili began a bid to wrench his country out of Moscow's orbit by joining NATO and the European Union.

Georgia has long been irked by what it sees as Russian support for breakaway Georgian regions South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

The Kremlin counters that Saakashvili is planning military action to bring those regions under his control.

Since the September spy scandal there has been an almost constant flow of accusations and denials from both sides in a battle to win over the international community.

In the latest round, South Ossetia on Tuesday accused Tbilisi of plotting to assassinate the region's leadership, citing the killing of four Georgian "saboteurs" in the region by local forces earlier in the day. Speaking to journalists at Tbilisi airport before his departure for Moscow late Tuesday, Bezhuashvili responded by calling the claim "disinformation."

"Someone is trying to exacerbate the situation in the region," he said, adding that "it's not in our interests" to do so.

Meanwhile, Saakashvili kept up his verbal attacks on Tuesday by comparing Russia's actions towards Georgians since the September spy scandal to 18th-century Tsarist sanctions against Jews.

"There is striking similarity and cold consistency between policies of now and 250 years ago. It seems that old habits die hard," he said during a visit to Israel.

Since the arrest of its officers in September, Moscow has deported hundreds of Georgian citizens, cracked down on Georgian-owned businesses and won approval of a UN Security Council resolution ordering Georgia to pull its troops out of Abkhazia.

Moscow has also cut transport ties, postal deliveries and money transfers to Georgia through the Russian postal system, compounding earlier Russian bans on imports of Georgian wine and mineral water, the country's two main exports.