- The Washington Times - Friday, December 15, 2006

Georgia will not retreat from democratic reforms or its pro-Western foreign policy despite Russian pressure that could produce a total cutoff of oil and gas shipments this winter, Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Nogaideli said in an interview.

“We will not give up on our energy security, on our reforms at home or on our hopes for trans-Atlantic integration just because somebody is getting angry,” Mr. Nogaideli said Thursday, concluding a 10-day U.S. visit that included meetings with Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

The Georgian prime minister said he found “good understanding” in the United States for his country’s plight in its standoff with Russian energy giant Gazprom.

Gazprom has said it might cut off critical shipments to Georgia by the end of the year if Tbilisi does not agree to a doubling of the price it pays for natural gas.

Georgia, which calls the price increase a form of political intimidation, hopes that producers in Azerbaijan and Turkey can fill the gap but has also said it will look to Iran if necessary.

Buying from Iran “would only be part of the short-term solution,” said Mr. Nogaideli, “but I found a very clear appreciation in Washington that Georgia will not be left to freeze this winter.”

Gazprom officials say the price increases — which is also being demanded of Moscow’s ally, Belarus — will end outdated energy subsidies enjoyed by former Soviet republics.

Georgia has rejected Gazprom’s offer of a lower price in exchange for control of key pipelines passing through the country. Mr. Nogaideli said his country is developing a long-term energy strategy to eliminate all dependence on Russian-owned suppliers.

Since the 2003 Rose Revolution, Georgia has pursued a staunchly pro-Western foreign policy, infuriating the Kremlin by pushing for membership in NATO and the European Union.

Georgia has 800 troops in Iraq, the second-largest per-capita contribution among allies to the U.S.-led coalition. Mr. Nogaideli said he was following the U.S. debate on Iraq closely, but said Georgia had no plans to withdraw troops as other coalition partners have done in recent months.

“We don’t want to stay there long, but we will stay as long as our partners do,” he said.

The Bush administration has reciprocated with military and economic aid to the government of President Mikhail Saakashvili. U.S. trade officials will travel to Georgia next month for preliminary talks on a bilateral free-trade agreement, although Mr. Nogaideli said any deal was still a long way off.

Always-tense Russian-Georgia relations plunged again in the fallout after Georgia arrested four Russian military officers on espionage charges in late September.

Russian responded with a series of economic sanctions and boycotts on Georgian exports, as well as a crackdown on Georgian nationals working in Russia. Georgia has also long complained of Russian backing for separatist movements in the ethnic enclaves of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Mr. Nogaideli said Georgia would like good relations with its vastly larger neighbor. But he said it was clear the Kremlin sees the Rose Revolution as a challenge to Russia’s dominance of the countries along its borders.

“Why a strong democratic government in Georgia should be a threat to Russia we don’t fully understand,” he said, “but we are not going to compromise our principles, and we must talk as equal partners.”

While relations now are at a “very low point,” he added, Georgian officials are anxious to prevent the downward spiral from becoming “irreversible.”

“If the current generation is incapable of talking to each other, we should at least keep the window open for future generations in Georgia and Russia to move to a better understanding of each other,” Mr. Nogaideli said.

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