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Russia-Georgia Relations Remain Tense

Relations between Russia and Georgia remain tense several weeks after Georgian forces killed two Russian military officers in the Georgian separatist region of Abkhazia.

Mikhail Saakashvili was elected president of Georgia by an overwhelming margin in January 2004 following a popular movement known as the "Rose Revolution" that forced the resignation of the incumbent, Eduard Shevardnadze.

Since coming to power, Mr. Saakashvili's main domestic policy has been fighting corruption. And in a speech to the United Nations General Assembly last month, the Georgian president said his country has made progress in that area.

"Corruption is the lowest among transition economies around the world and one of the lowest in Europe according to the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development," Saakashvili said. "Our country has taken its place alongside some of the most developed economies in the world, like Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Singapore, Hong Kong, Iceland, after the World Bank and the International Financial Corporation ranked Georgia as the 18th easiest and best place to do business because of institutionalized transparency and lack of corruption."

The Georgian leader said a few years ago, his country was ranked 140th. Many experts, including Ronald Suny from the University of Chicago, say Mr. Saakashvili has made great strides in fighting corruption.

"He eliminated much of the corruption in the police, quite drastically. He went after certain figures, oligarchs you might call them, wealthy people and brought them into line. He did it in an interesting way. They made deals with many of these people -- you now pay a certain amount that becomes revenue to the Georgian state and then you can go on and do business," says Suny.

Georgia Moves West

On the foreign policy front, Mr. Saakashvili has focused his attention on moving Georgia away from Russia and toward Europe. His first goal is to make Georgia a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO. Negotiations are already underway.

Robert Legvold, from Columbia University, says Tbilisi's pro-western approach did not start with Mr. Saakashvili. "It originated with [Eduard] Shevardnadze who in the last two years -- really three years of his power -- had committed Georgia to movement into NATO and if possible, progress toward the European Union. Saakashvili has come in with the reputation and indeed the affected posture of an absolute westernizer with no particular interest in retaining close ties with any of the rump portions of the former Soviet Union or with Russia. And instead has made a wholesale commitment to movement toward NATO membership and eventually into the European Union."

Many analysts, such as Olga Oliker from the RAND Corporation, say Georgia's move toward the West is a very contentious issue between Mr. Saakashvili and Russian President Vladimir Putin. "Saakashvili's very clear pro-western bent which I think is interpreted, in many ways correctly, in Russia as an anti-Russian bent. It doesn't need to be that way; you can be pro-U.S. and have a good relationship with Moscow, as any number of other countries have done. But that certainly has not been Mikhail Saakashvili's intent or his behavior," says Oliker.

For his part, Robert Legvold says the relationship between the two presidents is unique. "Uniquely hostile. I believe that the relationship between Russia and Georgia is the only, almost unmitigated hostile relationship within the post-Soviet space involving Russia."

Separatist Politics

Another major issue between Moscow and Tbilisi is that of Abkhazia and South Ossetia -- two regions within Georgia bordering Russia. Ronald Suny, from the University of Chicago, says it will be difficult to resolve that contentious issue. "Given that there are these two regions, Abkhazia and [South] Ossetia which have separated themselves from Georgia de facto, if not de jure, it's the Russians who, because of their support of those separatist regions, have prevented the Georgians from reintegrating them," according to Suny. "Now it must be said that the Abkhaz and many, many Ossetines like that Russian support and they don't want to be reintegrated into Georgia. And so Saakashvili has got a dilemma: how to find a modus vivendi, some way to bring those regions back under Tbilisi's rule."

Relations between Moscow and Tbilisi remain tense and over the past few months have been exacerbated by various incidents. In August, Georgia said two Russian military planes entered its airspace, with one aircraft dropping a missile that did not explode. Russia denied both claims. And just last month, Georgian forces killed two Russian military officials.

"The Russians are saying they were carrying out anti-terrorism exercises and the Georgians are saying, 'What on earth were you doing carrying out anti-terrorism exercises in our country?' These are issues; these are problems," says Olga Oliker from the RAND Corporation.

The United States has always been a strong ally of Georgia. But Ronald Suny from the University of Chicago says it has exerted pressure on President Saakashvili to ease tensions with Russia. "Some months ago the crisis with Russia came to a real head when Georgians arrested a number of Russian officers. And they thought that maybe they could use American backing. But [Russian President Vladimir] Putin called Bush and after all these guys also have a relationship -- and the United States has a very important relationship with Putin and Russia -- and ultimately, Saakashvili said, 'Well, as a gesture to our friends in Washington, we will surrender these guys,' and they released those guys," says Suny.

Experts say the key question is can Georgia count on American support if Tbilisi continues to take actions Russia considers provocative.