22:20 GMT +309 December 2016
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    SAAKASHVILI'S TREND-SETTING VISIT

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    Marianna BELENKAYA, RIA Novosti political analyst

    The recently elected Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili has arrived in Moscow on his first official visit. Before leaving for the Russian capital, he said, "Georgian ministries have drafted a list of problems in bilateral relations to be discussed in Moscow." In his view, the main goal of his visit is to create a positive basis for the future of Russo-Georgian relations. Saakashvili knows that "all problems cannot be solved overnight" but at least the sides can start discussing them.

    Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said, "the desire of the Georgian leadership to normalise relations with Russia entirely corresponds to Moscow's interests."

    "Saakashvili's visit will show if Moscow and Tbilisi will launch a more open dialogue," says Alexei Malashenko, Scholar-in-Residence at the Carnegie Moscow Centre. "Tbilisi has expressed its readiness to take an understanding position on many problems in bilateral relations, including the problem of Russian bases."

    However, some people in the Georgian establishment are suspicious of Russia and have called on the USA to put pressure on Moscow, in particular over the withdrawal of its bases from Georgia and internationalisation of the peacekeeping forces in the zone of the Georgian-Abkhazian conflict.

    Russian Defence Minister Sergei Ivanov said the sides could not agree on the deadline for the withdrawal of Russian bases from Georgia. The situation will not change "until Russia and Georgia sign two bilateral agreements - on the deadline for the withdrawal of the bases and on the procedure of their operation before the withdrawal."

    In the opinion of Malashenko, Moscow and Tbilisi will come to an agreement on the issue of the bases, as long as no one from either side makes any harsh statements. "Saakashvili has a closely knit team, he is a winner and this gives him room for manoeuvre. Tbilisi appreciates Russia's interests in South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Adzharia, but it also wants Russia to respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Georgia. At the same time, Moscow would benefit from an integral Georgia," says the academic.

    He believes that Georgia's relations with South Ossetia and Abkhazia will be discussed in Moscow. "We will see a more substantiated position from Moscow in the next few days and learn how the Russia-US relationship will develop with regard to Georgia."

    It seems clear now that Moscow is categorically against the US military presence in Georgia. As for the other issues, official Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Yakovenko said Moscow expects that "during the working visit of the Georgian President to Russia, the Georgian side will confirm its declared desire to normalise relations with Russia and also show its readiness for practical steps towards this goal."

    When replying to journalists' questions, he also said, "Russia is ready to step up fuel and energy interaction with Georgia, including the delivery of electricity to Georgian consumers."

    In Moscow, Mr Saakashvili will meet with Arkady Volsky, president of the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, Yevgeny Primakov, president of the Russian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and several Russian businessmen.

    In 2003, Russia was Georgia's main trade partner. With its overall foreign trade standing at $1,591.9 million, Georgia's trade with Russia reached $225.4 million, which is 23.7% more than in 2002. But Minister Zurab Zhvania (a potential future premier) considers the current level of bilateral economic relations "unjustifiably low." In his words, Georgia would like to attract Russian investment and views Russia as the main market for its commodities.

    The sides will also discuss energy issues. But the main element of the visit is that Putin and Saakashvili will have a chance to get to know each other better and decide if they can trust each other.

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