The messenger logo

Officials optimistic on Georgian-Russian relations, despite Moscow criticism of Jan 5 election

By Anna Kamushadze

Thursday, January 10

Moscow wants to see better relations with Georgia but expects “real steps” from Tbilisi toward achieving this, Russian ambassador to Georgia Vyacheslav Kovalenko said on January 9.

The same day, Prime Minister Lado Gurgenidze said at a cabinet meeting that Georgia is ready to begin negotiations over the lifting of Russia’s ban on Georgian wine imports.

“In Russian society the attitude towards Georgia is very positive and friendly and Russia wants to normalize relations with Georgia,” Kovalenko told journalists after meeting Labor leader Shalva Natelashvili yesterday, adding that Moscow “expects concrete steps and actions” from Georgia toward this goal.

Kovalenko said Russia wanted to see Tbilisi back up strong words with positive action.

“We’ve heard a lot of speeches and we want these to be followed by concrete actions,” the ambassador declared.

He did not specify exactly what Georgia was expected to do.

The Russian ambassador’s comments come a day after Mikheil Saakashvili, the presumed winner of the January 5 presidential election, declared on a political talk show on that Georgia would be ready to resume dialogue with Moscow should he be officially declared president.

“I am ready to stretch out my hand again to Russia. We will invite [Russian President] Vladimir Putin to the inauguration ceremony and try to begin relations with Russia with a clean slate,” Saakashvili commented.

He also said that while the Russian embargo on Georgian wine and mineral water—in place since spring 2006—dealt a heavy blow to Georgia, alternative markets had been found and the economy recovered.

Moscow banned wine import from both Georgia and Moldova in 2006, citing sanitation concerns. Georgian winemakers have had trouble exporting wine since the embargo was enforced, as Russia formerly bought most Georgian wine exports.

At a cabinet meeting yesterday, Prime Minister Lado Gurgenidze said that Georgia was ready to begin negotiations with Russia on lifting the embargo.

“We should decide on the format…with which to resume the dialogue on lifting the embargo on our [wine and mineral water] production and its return to the Russian market,” Gurgenidze said.

On January 7, Russia’s chief sanitation officer Gennady Onishchenko suggested that Moscow may be prepared to launch negotiations with Georgia on lifting the embargo. He specified that negotiations would have to be similar to those with Moldova, which included Russia inspecting production facilities. Moldova resumed wine exports to Russia in November, a year after the President Putin officially announced the lifting of the ban.

Also yesterday, Petre Tsiskarishvili, Minister of Agriculture and Food, invited Onishchenko to inspect Georgia’s wine and mineral water production facilities. He also said that the Agriculture Ministry would soon outline a plan on how negotiations with Russia would proceed, according to the Black Sea Press news agency.

The optimistic talk of wiping the slate clean in Georgian-Russian relations, however, was belied by Moscow’s vocal criticism of the January 5 presidential election as undemocratic.

The Russian Foreign Ministry released a statement on January 6 that drew attention to reports of violations on polling day and condemned the presidential race as tainted by “widespread use of administrative resources, open pressure on opposition candidates and severe limitations on their access to financial and media sources.”

The statement also dismissed as “superficial” an initial assessment on Sunday by Alcee L. Hastings, a US congressman and coordinator of the OSCE short term observation mission, that Georgian democracy has taken a “triumphant step.”