Saakashvili Says Russia Set to Lift Sanctions

ReutersMikheil Saakashvili said Russia now recognized that its sanctions had failed.
TBILISI, Georgia -- Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili said Wednesday that Russia was willing to start lifting some of the economic sanctions it imposed on Georgia last year, recognizing they were counter-productive.

Moscow clamped a virtual economic blockade on Georgia in October, cutting off rail, air and trade links after the country briefly arrested four Russian army officers and accused them of leading a spy ring.

Russia's measures, which included rounding up and deporting hundreds of Georgians living in Moscow, caused an international outcry and led to Western accusations that Russia was trying to punish its former Soviet vassal for pursuing NATO and EU membership.

Saakashvili said in an interview that President Vladimir Putin had "mentioned the necessity and the willingness of Russia to lift step by step some of those sanctions" when the two leaders met in St. Petersburg last month.

"Now they're talking about the resumption of air traffic," Saakashvili said.

"We are still in the initial stage but I think we will get there soon. We are talking to different levels of the Russian administration about letting our products back. Well, I would say that I'm cautiously optimistic."

Saakashvili said Russia now recognized that its sanctions had failed to bring Tbilisi to heel and instead made it stronger and more independent.

"I don't know many other countries that have lost 70 percent of their export market within a week and still had almost 10 percent growth rate that year," he said.

"So in many ways we paradoxically should thank Russia for helping create a modern Georgian economy because those sanctions really forced our producers, our business colleagues to diversify," Saakashvili added.

Moscow has sharply criticized Georgia's pro-Western course, with government-controlled media lampooning Saakashvili as a dangerous demagogue bent on causing conflict. Saakashvili said he had "no intention to be the main troublemaker in the region" and wanted good relations with Russia.

But he warned hard-liners in Moscow against stirring up trouble in the volatile Caucasus region ahead of Russian presidential election next March.

"This would be very reckless and irresponsible behavior," Saakashvili said. "Countries in this region are much more organized now. It's much more difficult to play around with them."

He said Moscow should remember that "the biggest problems in the Caucasus are on the Russian side" and that "messing up their neighbors will aggravate their own problems."

Saakashvili has made NATO membership a top priority for his government, modernizing the Georgian military and sending its troops to serve in Iraq and Kosovo to help in its bid. He said he had received strong support from the United States and most European allies for Georgia's bid to join.

"We hope to get a membership action plan in the months to come and then ... it will become irreversible," he said.

Western nations should not fear Moscow's reaction because NATO membership was not in itself a recipe for bad relations with Russia, Saakashvili said.

"We should engage Russia based on principles -- the principle is that everybody has the right of choice. Everybody needs and wants to be free."