Sun, May 08, 2005 - Page 6 News List

Georgia's president to skip WWII ceremony in Moscow

AP , MOSCOW

Georgia's president will not attend ceremonies in Moscow marking the 60th anniversary of Nazi Germany's defeat because talks on Friday failed to produce an agreement on the withdrawal of Russian military bases from the former Soviet republic, Georgian Foreign Minister Salome Zurabishvili said.

Zurabishvili, speaking after talks in Moscow with Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov, said President Mikhail Saakashvili would also skip a Moscow meeting today of leaders of 12 ex-Soviet states.

"The main agreement ... has still not been reached," Zurabishvili said, adding that "the president will not fly to Moscow the day after tomorrow, because nothing important can be achieved by this trip."

Dozens of world leaders will mark the anniversary of the Allied victory over the Nazis and pay tribute to the Soviet Union's huge contribution.

Zurabishvili had indicated Thursday that Saakashvili could boycott the Victory Day celebrations if no agreement was reached on a timetable for the withdrawal of the two Russian military bases left over from the Soviet era. Russia wants four years to complete the pullout, while Georgia says it must be finished before January 2008 -- less than three years.

The outspoken Saakashvili said earlier Friday that "the occupation of Georgia must end."

Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Yakovenko criticized Georgia for linking the base dispute to the Victory day celebrations, calling them "completely different issues." The ministry said Russia is determined to reach an agreement but that it will require "efforts by both sides."

In an attempt to increase pressure on Moscow to compromise, Saakashvili has asked US President George W. Bush to raise the issue with Russian President Vladimir Putin when the two meet today in Moscow.

Bush told reporters in Washington on Thursday that he would bring up the issue with Putin, saying he was willing to "help facilitate dialogue" but that the dispute needed to be resolved between Russia and Georgia.

Earlier this week, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said it could take up to four years to build the infrastructure in Russia to accommodate servicemen and materiel being withdrawn from Georgia.

But Zurabishvili said the withdrawal "cannot be completed later than January 2008, because we will be entering a very important year when parliamentary and presidential elections will be held."

The long-simmering dispute has strained ties between the ex-Soviet republics, which have been tense since Georgia gained independence in the 1991 Soviet collapse and have soured further since Saakashvili and his pro-Western administration came to power last year.

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