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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Ties With Georgia Improve During War

The beginning of the North Caucasus campaign last fall was accompanied by an acute crisis in already-cool Russian-Georgian relations. But a meeting in late January between acting President Vladimir Putin and Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze appeared to show that the military campaign has, in the end, brought about an improvement in the strategically important relationship.

Last fall's crisis was caused when Georgia vehemently rejected Russia's demands to station its border guards on Georgian territory along the Chechen frontier and when Russia refused to admit to violations of Georgian airspace and the accidental bombing of a Georgian village, said Yury Gavva, press attach? at the Georgian Embassy in Moscow.

At their meeting in Moscow, "it seems as if he [Shevardnadze] convinced Putin that this is not the way to conduct policy with Georgia," Gavva said this week.

Since then, Interior Minister Vladimir Rushailo and a high-ranking Federal Security Service, or FSB, delegation have visited Georgia and reached substantive cooperation agreements, he said.

Georgia, which has been increasingly Western-oriented in the past five years and has talked about joining NATO, is crucial to Russia's continued presence in the Transcaucasus region, where its traditional security and economic interests are increasingly contested by the West. Georgia's resentment of its former colonial power grew dramatically after Russia was seen as backing separatists in the coastal Georgian province of Abkhazia, which has been de-facto independent since a 1992-93 war.

But while negotiations over Abkhazia's status have been stalled for years, the sides now appear to be talking.

In an interview Monday on ORT, Putin described Georgia as a "friendly state" and said he did not object to Western interests in Georgia. "The Western countries now support Georgia actively," he said. "So good, thank God, because Georgia is a friendly state to us."

Last Sunday, Russia extradited 20 Georgian citizens who were detained on suspicion of murder, banditry and kidnapping, Interfax reported. Some of them, who reportedly trained in Chechnya, are accused of taking part in a 1998 assassination attempt on Shevardnadze.

Putin said the training in Chechnya of the Georgian terrorists involved in the attempted assassination was a "fact proven by the FSB" and acknowledged by Georgia.

Many pro-Western Georgian politicians and Georgian media have in the past accused Russian secret services of being behind the assassination attempt.

Shevardnadze also has changed his tone, by praising the role of Russian peacekeepers in Abkhazia and Putin's understanding of the situation. "Despite all the criticism of Russian peacekeepers, on the whole, they are fulfilling their mission," Shevardnadze said this week in a radio address. "No one knows what would happen if they weren't there."

But true to what has developed into a stick-and-carrot policy toward Georgia, Russia has not dropped its proposal to require Georgians to get visas, which was made last fall amid accusations that Georgia was helping Chechen terrorists. Many Georgian citizens work and own businesses in Russia.

Many Georgians fear Chechens as Russians do - in part because Chechen commander Shamil Basayev reportedly fought on the Abkhaz side against Georgia - and quietly support Russia's military campaign. Georgians also hope that because of Chechnya, Russia will be more likely to support Georgian territorial integrity and help bring Abkhazia back into Tbilisi's fold.

A senior Russian Foreign Ministry official said last year that Putin was the first Russian leader to have a coherent policy toward Georgia: Russia would not object to Georgia's integration into Western economic structures but had to prevent its NATO membership at any cost.

Alexander Rondeli, a leading Georgian foreign policy expert, said in a telephone interview that "the positive signs" generate some optimism, "but the inertia is not easy to break."

He said relations will be tested again in the spring if Chechen fighters are pushed into Georgia when the snow melts in the mountains.