- The Washington Times - Friday, December 21, 2001

TBILISI, Georgia Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze says he has seen a "certain thawing" in his country's traditionally tense relationship with neighboring Russia since September 11, even as Georgia moves to improve ties with the United States and the West.
In an interview with The Washington Times earlier this week at the executive mansion in Tbilisi, Mr. Shevardnadze said Russia had agreed not use its oil and natural gas stocks as a strategic weapon against energy-dependent Georgia and that Moscow had softened its stance on the separatist conflict in the restive Georgian province of Abkhazia.
"There are certain difficulties in this relationship,"he said.
"But after my recent visit with [Russian President Vladimir Putin] in Russia, there is a certain thawing in the relationship," said the Georgian president, a former Soviet foreign minister who has served as president of this strategically placed country since 1995.
Georgia accuses Moscow of providing aid to Abkhazian separatists as a way to keep the former Soviet republic weak and dependent. Russia was maintaining 1,600 "peacekeepers" in the province, which fought a bloody, inconclusive civil war with Tbilisi in the early 1990s.
Russia contends that Tbilisi has allowed rebels in neighboring Chechnya to use Georgian territory as a base in their independence war with Moscow.
Matters appeared to be coming to a boil in early October when Georgia charged that a Russian military helicopter bombed three villages inside its territory, apparently targeting Chechen rebel forces. Georgian militants also were reported to be planning another strike on Abkhazia.
But after Georgia protested, Mr. Putin stunned the region by making a conditional offer to remove the Russian peacekeepers from Georgian soil and suggesting the dispute should be turned over to the United Nations for settlement.
In the interview, Mr. Shevardnadze said he and Mr. Putin had agreed to set up a joint council to investigate the bombing incident.
He said Georgia had accepted refugees from Chechnya, but that the refugees were civilians threatened by cold and starvation.

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