Georgian Vows Peaceful Solution With Russia

Posted in Russia | 06-Aug-04 | Author: Steven Weisman| Source: The New York Times

President Mikhail Saakashvili of Georgia met American officials.

WASHINGTON, Aug. 5 - President Mikhail Saakashvili of Georgia warned the Bush administration on Thursday that Russia was trying to assert greater control over his country, a former republic in the old Soviet Union. Despite rising tensions, however, he said he would seek to resolve differences with Moscow peacefully.

"Georgia cannot and will not solve this problem with violence," said Mr. Saakashvili, in a visit to the United States that coincided with renewed charges and countercharges over Russia's involvement in the drive for secession in two Georgia provinces. "We have the patience to wait to unify Georgia by peaceful means."

Mr. Saakashvili, a 36-year-old reformer who took power last year after the ouster of Georgia's long-serving president, Eduard A. Shevardnadze, met with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld shortly after his arrival on Wednesday. On Thursday, he met with Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser.

His meetings came after he threatened to sink ships approaching one of Georgia's two secessionist provinces, Abkhazia, which is on the Black Sea. The threat, issued Tuesday, included warnings against ships carrying Russian passengers, including summertime vacationers, according to the Russians.

Russia's defense minister, Sergei B. Ivanov, said Mr. Saakashvili's threat amounted to piracy.

The Bush administration, which has been close to Mr. Saakashvili and welcomed his country's contributions of some 200 troops to Iraq, has declined to take sides in his dispute with Russia and instead urged leaders of the two countries to try to resolve their disputes without threats of force.

Secretary of State Powell also sought to reduce tensions surrounding the latest exchange between Russia and Georgia. "There is a bit of tension there," Mr. Powell said after his meeting with Mr. Saakashvili. "But I don't think they're on the verge of a crisis of the kind that's sometimes suggested."

Mr. Powell said the United States would continue to try to "calm this situation down, remove tensions and the propensity for provocation and get back to dialogue."

A senior State Department official said: "This is an issue that needs to be resolved peacefully. That is a message that has been constantly reiterated to both sides."

In Moscow, Russia's lower house of Parliament assailed Mr. Saakashvili's recent statements as tantamount to "belligerence, and at times blatant aggression," Reuters reported. "Georgia has chosen to resolve the existing problems by force but with total disregard for other interested parties," the statement said.

But Mr. Saakashvili, speaking at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said that it was Russia that was threatening violence by sending ships to Georgia laden with drugs, contraband and arms for rebels in the restive provinces.

"Since when does Russia own a piece of Georgia so that they can infringe on our own territorial integrity?" he asked, adding that many in Russia continued to view Georgia as a part of their country.

The spiraling tensions in Georgia come at an awkward moment for the Bush administration, which has described warm American relations with President Vladimir V. Putin in Moscow is one of its major foreign policy achievements.

The administration has not only managed to win Russian acceptance of the American invasion of Iraq but also acceptance of the expanding presence of American military forces in what used to be the old Soviet bloc of nations.