- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 25, 2004

The Republic of Georgia plans to be a close ally of the United States and its giant neighbor Russia will have to live with that fact, Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili said in an interview yesterday.

The newly elected president, who engineered the ouster of former President Eduard Shevardnadze last fall, was in a buoyant mood after what aides described as a “very warm” meeting with President Bush yesterday in the Oval Office.

“The relationship is based on shared values,” said the hulking U.S.-trained lawyer, who emphasized the “kinship” and “chemistry” between Georgia and the United States during a meeting at Blair House with editors and reporters from The Washington Times.

Mr. Saakashvili said he had recently met for 4 hours with Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom he found “nostalgic” over the demise of the former Soviet Union but desirous of better relations with his neighbors.

“They are getting used to our cooperation with the Americans and learning to live with it,” Mr. Saakashvili said.

Almost every member of the new Georgian government has been trained in the United States, making the new leadership a natural ally of the West and the United States. Defense Minister Gela Bezhuashvili, for example, is a graduate of Southern Methodist University in Dallas and of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

“Basically we speak the same language,” Mr. Saakashvili said.

Georgia, a country of 5 million people wedged among Chechnya, Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan, the Black Sea and the oil-rich Caspian Sea, has become one of the largest recipients of U.S. aid and is actively cooperating with Washington in the war against terrorism.

Mr. Saakashvili said his country was sending 500 troops to supplement the 200 soldiers it already has in Tikrit, Iraq, and noted that the United States is training two Georgian military brigades and a counterterrorism force that could be deployed at home or abroad.

The United States is also working with other countries to build a pipeline that will carry the vast Caspian Sea oil reserves through Georgia, Azerbaijan and Turkey to the Mediterranean Sea.

“We have very good security cooperation,” Mr. Saakashvili said, lounging comfortably before a meeting with Secretary of State Colin L. Powell. “Even my personal bodyguards are trained by Americans.”

Mr. Saakashvili took office with an overwhelming election victory following his leading role in the “Rose Revolution” that forced the resignation of the corruption-tainted former Communist Party boss Eduard Shevardnadze in November.

Georgian authorities have since arrested several officials from Mr. Shevardnadze’s government on corruption charges, including his son-in-law as he was boarding a plane headed for Paris last week.

But Mr. Saakashvili said he will ask parliament to grant an amnesty to the former Georgian leader if enough evidence emerges that the government would otherwise feel obliged to charge him.

“We’re not going to prosecute that old man,” he said.

Washington’s favorable view of the new Georgian government was reflected in yesterday’s State Department report on human rights, which noted that the Jan. 4 presidential election had been more fair than past ballots and that major protests had been permitted.

However, the State Department said, there were scattered reports of the use of torture, such as electric shock, to extract money or confessions, and human rights advocates continue to worry about a culture of impunity.

Mr. Saakashvili has also come under fire from his domestic opponents. Irakly Areshidze, a political analyst and consultant to Georgia’s New Rights Party, said in an weekend editorial that innocent people were getting caught in the anticorruption net and being held for political reasons.

Journalists from a major television station in Tbilisi, meanwhile, have protested at what they said was the death of the free press under the new government.

Mr. Saakashvili shrugged off the criticism yesterday and insisted the power of the press was intact. “Of course people don’t like that we crack down on corruption,” he said.

He also rejected charges that he has tried to centralize authority, saying he enjoys powers somewhere between those of the presidents of Germany and France. “I cannot dissolve Parliament at my own will. … I don’t control the legislature,” he said.

While he insisted that Russia would have to leave its two military bases in Georgia, Mr. Saakashvili said the two nations would continue cooperating on joint border patrols and intelligence sharing.

He said Georgia also regularly exchanges information with the United States and that the FBI is active in his country, as are 70 U.S. military instructors and another 25 advisers at the Ministry of Defense.

“It takes three friends to make it really peaceful,” he said smiling. “I think the Russians understand that.”

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