Georgia's president warns Russia after clashes

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The Independent Online

The Georgian President, Mikhail Saakashvili, arrives in London today to a red carpet welcome as he struggles to contain ethnic tensions that could lead to direct conflict with Russia.

Britain sees Mr Saakashvili, who was elected after the so-called "rose revolution" ousted Eduard Shevardnadze last November, as the best hope of restoring stability to a fractured nation, and strongly supports his efforts to hold the former Soviet republic together.

But some observers fear the president may have dictatorial tendencies and could end up rekindling simmering conflicts with the pro-Russian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

In an ominous sign at the weekend, Mr Saakashvili issued a strong warning to Moscow after separatist attacks in the volatile region of South Ossetia left four Georgian soldiers wounded in an ethnically Georgian village.

"If conflict flares up in South Ossetia, it won't be an internal conflict in Georgia, it will be a conflict between Georgia and Russia," he said.

Some 80 per cent of South Ossetia's residents hold Russian passports and the new Georgian president's vow to regain control of the region, which has had de facto independence since the collapse of the Soviet Union, has strained relations between Georgia and Russia.

Yesterday, Mr Saakashvili toned down his rhetoric and told about 300 ethnic Ossetians outside his office: "We are doing everything to avoid a conflict - tell that to your relatives."

Britain strongly supports Georgia's territorial integrity, and Mr Saakashvili has already chalked up one success in his bid to unite the country by securing the departure from office of the Ajarian strongman, Aslan Abashidze, who ran his region like a personal fiefdom.

But Abkhazia and South Ossetia are likely to prove more intractable and will require Mr Saakashvili to make good on his promises to build a constructive relationship with Russia's President, Vladimir Putin.

Bill Rammell, a Foreign Office minister, travelled to Georgia last week to discuss UK support in conflict resolution, combating corruption and parliamentary reform.

In particular Britain is backing the new Georgian government's attempts to get the Russians to evacuate an army base, Gudauta, in the breakaway region of Abkhazia.

During his three-day trip to Britain the US-educated President, who previously worked as a lawyer in New York, will have an audience with the Queen and will also hold talks with Tony Blair and Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary.

Asked about Britain's previous experience with former Georgian presidents who have been held up as an example only to end up being chased from office in ignominy, Mr Rammell stressed that Britain was going into the relationship with its eyes open.

"We welcome Saakashvili's efforts," Mr Rammell said. But "it's important that we don't go into it naively. Local elections next year will be a critical test of how the pace of progress is going forward. I think it's right that we engage and support, but not uncritically."

Stability in Georgia is vital for Western powers which have an economic stake in the new "great game" being played out with Russia in the Caucasus region over construction of a multibillion-dollar pipeline from the Caspian oilfields through Tbilisi to Turkey.

Georgia is the hub of a region that could provide an answer to the West's energy needs, with continuing turmoil in Iraq, and Saudi Arabia facing waves of attacks from Islamist terrorists.

"We are not going to be in Georgia as an alternative to the Americans. But it is in Britain's national interests to have a stable country," Mr Rammell said.