Kremlin Congratulates Saakashvili

ReutersMikheil Saakashvili
President Vladimir Putin congratulated Georgia's president-elect, expressing hope that long-troubled relations between the two countries can be now be improved.

Putin's statement, issued by the Kremlin late Wednesday, was Moscow's first acknowledgment of Mikheil Saakashvili's victory in the Jan. 5 election, which Saakashvili called last fall amid violent opposition protests.

"Accept my congratulations in connection with your re-election to the post of president of Georgia," Putin said, according to a terse Kremlin statement. "I would like to hope for the constructive development of relations between our countries in the upcoming period."

The congratulations were a marked contrast to the statement issued by the Foreign Ministry the day after the vote, which said "the election campaign can hardly be called 'free and fair.'"

Over the weekend, Saakashvili also sounded a conciliatory note toward Russia, saying he regretted that bilateral relations had been spoiled during his first term in office.

Ties between Moscow and Tbilisi have been thorny for some time, troubled in particular over Georgia's accusations that Russia is undermining its sovereignty by supporting separatists in two breakaway regions. In 2006, Georgia arrested and expelled several Russians it accused of espionage; Russia retaliated by cutting off all transport and most trade links and expelling ethnic Georgians living in Moscow and other Russian cities.

Putin's congratulations could take the steam out of opposition efforts to force a recount in the vote -- which it insists was tarnished by fraud. Tens of thousands of people demonstrated Tuesday in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, pressing for a runoff.

Official results showed Saakashvili with more than 53 percent and his main challenger, Levan Gachechiladze, winning about 25 percent of the vote.

Javier Solana

U.S. President George W. Bush called Saakashvili to congratulate him Monday, and U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters in Washington on Tuesday that allowing dissenting voices would be important to supporting Georgia's fledgling democracy.

The European Union, meanwhile, urged Saakashvili to talk with his opponents. EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said in a statement that it was now important to create the right conditions for spring parliamentary elections.

Solana, who congratulated Saakashvili on his win, last week said Georgia's election had been "truly competitive," although allegations of irregularities should be cleared up thoroughly.

Saakashvili is due to be inaugurated next week.

AP, Reuters