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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Georgia May Leave CIS Over Wine Row

APMikhail Saakashvili
TBILISI, Georgia -- A top official from Georgia said on Tuesday that Moscow's ban of the country's wine exports meant there was little point in belonging to the Russia-led organization that groups ex-Soviet states.

Nino Burjanadze, the parliament speaker and an ally of President Mikhail Saakashvili, said Russia should treat Georgia as an equal.

Relations between Georgia and Russia have been rocky for years despite both being members of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). Tbilisi has accused Moscow of undermining Georgian sovereignty by supporting rebel regions along the Russian border.

"If we are the only country [in the CIS] with which Russia has a visa regime, [and] from which it is illegal to send citrus fruits, tea and wine to the Russian market ... then what sense is there for Georgia to remain in this organization?" Burjanadze said to the parliament.

"We are ready for constructive cooperation and friendship with Russia, but only if this friendship is two-sided and relations are equal."

Moscow, which accounts for 10 percent of Georgian wine exports, said it imposed the ban because the wine contained unacceptable levels of dangerous chemicals. But analysts linked it to Tbilisi's attempt to use trade regulations to regain control over the rebel enclaves.

The Georgian government has tightened customs controls around the separatist territories, to where large volumes of goods are shipped from Russia without customs payments because the areas' unclear legal status makes it difficult to levy tariffs.

The separatist leaderships have condemned the controls, labeling them an economic blockade -- a position backed by Moscow. Some analysts say the wine ban was Moscow's retaliation for the customs crackdown.

Saakashvili, who wants to take his small republic into the European Union and NATO, has been at loggerheads with his giant northern neighbor during his two years in office.

Relations have repeatedly floundered over South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which broke away from central rule in bloody wars in the early 1990s. Russia backs both regions and has given most residents Russian passports.

Russia did not officially respond, but on Tuesday moved to relax controls on its border with Abkhazia, allowing foreigners to cross for the first time -- a move that will be unwelcome in Georgia.

Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Nogaideli was due to come to Moscow this week, but said on Tuesday the visit had been cancelled because the two sides are not yet ready for negotiations.