The specter of a new conflict is hovering south of the Russian borders today. President of South Ossetia Eduard Kokoyty arrived in Moscow to hand over the appeal of his republic's parliament with a request to include the non-recognized autonomy in the Russian Federation. Another part of Georgia with pro-Russian orientation - Abkhazia - is living through an acute political crisis - on the eve of the forthcoming presidential elections in the autonomy which are slated for this fall a tough political struggle for power is in full swing in the republic.
Tbilisi's new authorities would like to return to the Georgian state all the rebellious territories as soon as possible and for attaining this goal are ready to use all available economic, political and, probably, military resources. For Moscow the situation is being aggravated by the fact that nearly entire population of South Ossetia and Abkhazia are holders of Russian passports. And the leaders of the unrecognized republics appeal to Moscow to defend the interests of not merely Abkhazians and Ossetians, "but citizens of Russia". Russia is facing a highly difficult choice - either to aggravate relations with Tbilisi or abstain from supporting or as some observers like to say, "refuse to defend" its citizens who found themselves in a difficult situation.
The recently appointed defense minister of Georgia Georgy Baramidze put forth his vision of the situation in an interview to Vremya Novostei newspaper. It was his first interview with the Russian mass media.
In spite of the difficult situation, the presidents of Russia and Georgia are controlling it, Mr Baramidze said. The minister believes they will manage to find an acceptable solution for the sake of preventing a conflict and clashes. Neither Moscow, nor Tbilisi are interested in such clashes. The same can be said about the region's local population who suffered enough during the hostilities of 1989-1992 and do not want a new war to break out. Vladimir Putin is becoming more and more interested in the solution of this problem. Permanent contacts are maintained between him and president of Georgia Mikhail Saakashvili on this and other problems.
The opinions of the two states' leaders virtually coincide on all issues. A new working meeting between the presidents of Georgia and Russia is quite probable in the near future, the minister said.
Replying to the question whether Tbilisi is considering the possibility of using military force against Abkhazia or South Ossetia , the Georgian defense minister said that it would be the most undesirable option. "We will be doing everything to avoid the military solution. There are many mechanisms available - political, economic and social. At the same time we must be ready for all kinds of "surprises", he said.
As for the problem of withdrawal of the Russian military bases from Batumi and Akhalkalaki, Mr Baramidze considers the issue to be important, but "still we have" no intention of linking prospects of our bilateral ties with it. Russian-Georgian relations have mostly improved of late, with both countries steering toward strategic partnership. Consequently, "the military-base issue" will be tackled in the context of ensuring Russia's legitimate regional interests.
Today the interests of Russia and Georgia in the sphere of security virtually coincide. The Georgian side has submitted its constructive proposals to Moscow, a constructive dialogue is under way now in order to solve this problem in line with Georgian and Russian interests. This implies the establishment of a joint Georgian-Russian anti-terrorist center. "This meets our common interests, also benefiting the entire South Caucasian region," the Georgian defense minister pointed out.
Mr. Baramidze also expressed the hope that very soon he will have a chance to meet with the Russian defense minister.
During the interview the issue of NATO-Georgia relations was also raised. The minister stated that Georgia, like Russia, is striving for close cooperation with NATO. "NATO is not creating threats for anyone in our region. We are taking part in all NATO programs. Our aim is membership in NATO," the minister said. But this aim should not be achieved at the expense of the legitimate interests of Russia's security." We have already stated that there would be no bases of other states in Georgia after the withdrawal of the Russian bases from its territory. The Russian-Georgian anti-terrorist center will exist on a permanent basis," the Georgian Defense Minister stressed in his interview to Vremya Novostei.