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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Saakashvili Sends a 'Positive Signal'

APSaakashvili lighting a candle at a Georgian Orthodox church in Moscow before meeting with Putin in the Kremlin on Wednesday. He said he prayed for the talks to go well.
Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili began the second day of his first state visit to Moscow with a prayer for a successful meeting with President Vladimir Putin.

By Wednesday evening it looked like his prayer might have been answered. Saakashvili's talks with Putin and other senior Russian officials ran overtime, and he announced that a cooperation agreement between Georgia and Russia could be signed this fall.

"To tell the truth, I have come here to make friends with you," Saakashvili told Putin at the beginning of talks in the Kremlin. The scheduled one-hour meeting finished four hours later.

"I hope that all the questions that have been raised between us will be solved -- perhaps not immediately, but gradually," Saakashvili said.

Putin responded that Moscow is ready to make compromises and reminded Saakashvili of the economic leverage Russia has over Georgia.

"We are always ready to meet half-way with Georgia on practically all issues," Putin said.

He then ran through a list of concessions and goodwill gestures that Russia has made toward Georgia, including the continuation of gas and electricity supplies despite Tbilisi's mounting debts, which stand at $160 million. Putin noted that Russia remains one of Georgia's largest trading partners, accounting for 16 percent of its foreign trade.

Putin, with a broad smile, told Saakashvili that his offer to renew the friendship between the two countries is "a positive signal."

"We have special, warm feelings for Georgia and Georgians. A lot of things unite us spiritually and historically," he said.

In his turn, Saakashvili said that "the common people in Georgia have a very positive attitude toward Putin personally and toward the Russian people." He said he had prayed at a Georgian Orthodox church that morning that their meeting would be a success.


Sergei Chirikov / AP

Putin greeting Saakashvili in the Kremlin on Wednesday. Putin called the Georgian leader's offer of friendship "a positive signal."

After meeting for four hours behind closed doors, the two leaders left it to Putin's foreign policy aide, Sergei Prikhodko, to brief reporters on the outcome of their talks.

Prikhodko said Saakashvili had impressed the Russian side as a leader with whom they could have "objective conversations."

He also said Putin and Saakashvili agreed to renew the work of intergovernmental groups on a wide range of issues, including energy supplies, the return of refugees and the reopening of railroad transportation between the two countries via Georgia's separatist region of Abkhazia.

He said Unified Energy Systems and Gazprom -- Russia's electricity and gas monopolies -- plan to expand their presence in Georgia.

Prikhodko said it is "not normal" that the intergovernmental groups, which draft and implement cooperation deals, have remained inactive for "many years."

Equally stalled was the drafting of a framework cooperation agreement. But Saakashvili claimed a breakthrough after a meeting later Wednesday with Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov. He told reporters that no obstacles to the accord remain and invited Putin to sign it this fall in Georgia.

During the public part of their meeting, Saakashvili and Putin did not mention any of the thorny issues that have strained ties between their two countries. These include Georgia's military cooperation with the United States, Russian allegations that Georgia is harboring Chechen rebels, Russia's refusal to quickly shut down Soviet-era military bases in Georgia and Russia's support for separatists in Abkhazia.

Saakashvili on Wednesday discussed these issues with Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov and Igor Ivanov -- in talks that ran overtime and forced him to cancel his reservations on an evening flight to Tbilisi and charter a plane for 3 a.m. Thursday, NTV television reported.

During his meeting with Kasyanov, Saakashvili conceded that it will take "more than one day to get rid of ... the hostility in relations" and stressed that Georgia's location makes it an important player in the region.

"We are a small but very important country," said Saakashvili, who recently mused that if his mountainous republic's territory was ironed out it would be the same size as France.