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What was on the table for Saakashvili and Putin?

By M. Alkhazashvili
Monday, February 25
On February 21, Vladimir Putin held his last meeting as president with Mikheil Saakashvili on the sidelines of an informal CIS summit which was Dmitry Medvedev’s regional coming out party. But Putin is still the man to deal with, and there are signs that Saakashvili’s government has done some frenetic dealing.

The meeting, first of all, is intrinsically good news, reassuring all involved that there is no permanent impasse in neighborly relationships. The incremental warming of relations comes in the middle of inclement circumstances. Saakashvili made a blustering show of the Russian threat during his reelection campaign, and Moscow was no less gentle in its retorts. The potential meltdown came with the international recognition of Kosovo’s independence.

Yet despite thinly-veiled Russian threats of a retributive recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and aggressive counterstatements from Tbilisi, the crisis point seems to have passed. Following the meeting between Saakashvili and Putin, Bakradze was able to report that Moscow has no plans to formally recognize the independence of the separatist regimes.

As far as Georgia is concerned, that meets the precondition for dialogue and compromise. Russia is more concerned about Georgia’s continuing NATO ambitions.

And so Russia will look, amidst the raft of other denominations of chips on the table, for strategic concessions. Concurrent with the meeting in Moscow, a Russian Foreign Ministry official demanded that Georgia commit to keeping foreign military bases off its soil.

Georgia has certainly offered something, because it is about to get something. Direct air links are set to be restored after Russia collects ‘airline debt’ as face-saving cover, and Moscow officials issued a loose pledge to speed up ‘reconstruction’ on the Lars border crossing. (The border point was closed for ‘repairs’ in 2006; with the other two Russian-Georgian border points within separatist-controlled territory, this effectively locked down the land border.)

The WTO, which Georgia has blocked Russia from joining, may be part of the deal. A real concession on Georgia’s NATO ambitions is less plausible, unless Saakashvili is trying to spin failure to get a MAP at the Bucharest summit into a show of goodwill for the Kremlin.

Some Georgian politicians and pundits accuse Saakashvili of signing away too much to Russia, with hypothetical sacrificial lambs ranging from NATO accession to the state-owned Georgian Railways. But most likely nothing is set in stone. Georgian delegations have walked away empty-handed from numerous Moscow meetings before, and this week’s delicate sub rosa negotiations have yet to produce results for Georgians eager to sell their oranges or visit their families in Russia.