- The Washington Times - Monday, July 24, 2006

Georgia’s goals

The new ambassador from Georgia appreciates the Bush administration for making his job a little easier.

The top priority for Ambassador Vasil Sikharulidze is to ensure that Georgia is on the agenda whenever President Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin hold summits or when American and Russian diplomats meet for lower-level talks.

“I would call this administration extremely sympathetic,” Mr. Sikharulidze told Embassy Row yesterday. “Georgian issues are always on the agenda.”

Mr. Bush raised the issue with Mr. Putin at the recent Group of Eight summit in Russia.

Georgia accuses Russia of undermining the young democracy, fueling uprisings in two regions of the former Soviet republic, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and using energy to influence the domestic politics of the country.

“Russia is always a major headache,” Mr. Sikharulidze said.

Russia maintains about 1,700 troops in Abkhazia and 1,500 in South Ossetia, claiming they are on peacekeeping missions to control separatist rebels.

However, Mr. Sikharulidze said their presence actually increases tensions between the restive regions and the Georgian government. Russia imposes its will on both regions through puppet governments with Moscow allies in charge of provincial governments, he said. Those regions foster smuggling, corruption and weapons trafficking. Recently, Georgian authorities arrested smugglers with enriched plutonium, a key component of nuclear weapons.

“A number of criminals are in Georgian jails, but a larger number are in Russia. Some even have citizenship,” he said.

The Georgian parliament recently demanded that Russia withdraw its troops and cease its interference in those regions.

Mr. Sikharulidze noted that his government has called for “international political involvement for [the purpose of] conflict resolution” in Abkhazia and South Ossetia but not foreign troops.

“We are not trying to create provocations between the United States and Russia,” he said. “We want good neighborly relations with Russia but not a big brother.”

Mr. Sikharulidze, a former deputy defense minister, has had a busy four months in Washington since he arrived in March. He immediately had to prepare for an April visit by Prime Minister Zurab Noghaideli and a July 5 visit by President Mikhail Saakashvili.

Those visits showed that Washington has high hopes that Georgia will serve as an example of democracy in a neighborhood where authoritarian governments reign. On Georgia’s southern borders sit Armenia and Azerbaijan, which has vast energy resources in the Caspian Sea. Iran anchors the southern Caspian Sea basin, and Turkmenistan is on the eastern shore.

“Georgia is the key for the region,” Mr. Sikharulidze said.

The ambassador said another of his goals is to pursue Georgia’s membership in NATO. Georgia has sent troops to Afghanistan, Iraq and Kosovo to show it is a NATO partner. Georgia has 850 troops in Iraq.

“By being in Iraq, we are supporting the general idea of freedom and democracy,” he said. “Security has no borders. What happens in Iraq may affect us.”

Rebel to meet Bush

The leader of the Sudan Liberation Army, which has laid down its arms and joined the government, will meet President Bush today to discuss a peace agreement to end three years of conflict in Sudan’s western Darfur region.

Minni Minnawi and Mr. Bush will talk about efforts to “broaden support for the Darfur Peace Agreement, facilitate its implementation and ensure the expeditious deployment of U.N. peacekeepers to Darfur,” the White House said yesterday in announcing the meeting.

The Sudan Liberation Army is the largest of the groups engaged in the civil war that killed 200,000 people and drove 2 million from their homes. It also is the only rebel army to sign the accord. Mr. Minnawi is now senior assistant to Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir.

Call Embassy Row at 202/636-3297, fax 202/832-7278 or e-mail jmorrison@washingtontimes.com.

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