Question: Mr Putin, what do you think about the latest statements by the Georgian Parliament on the withdrawal of Russian peace-keepers from Abkhazia and rumours in Georgia about its possible withdrawal from the CIS?
Vladimir Putin: On the whole, the situation in the North and South Caucasus is fairly complicated. I think that this body of problems should be approached in a calm, sober and professional way without undue emotions.
You have asked several questions there. To take the first one, I would say that we consider the level of bilateral relations with Georgia to be highly satisfactory. Let me stress that in our opinion Russia has never refused to meet Georgia’s requirements. Russia has always met it halfway. In the energy sphere, while we sell gas to the West at $110 per 1,000 cubic metres, we charge Ukraine $80, Armenia $53 and Georgia $50.
We are ready to cooperate in the energy sector. We have met the request of the Georgian authorities to reschedule Georgia’s debts to the Russian Federation: we did it last December. We have helped Georgia to settle some issues in its relations with the IMF and the Paris Club. Most recently Georgia has asked us to revisit the problems of debt restructuring, and we are ready for it. So, on the whole, we believe that the level of relations is fairly high and satisfactory.
Of course, I repeat, there are numerous problems in the region. By the way, the Georgian leadership knows about them better than most because the Georgian President was a member of the Soviet Communist party and state leadership exactly at the time these problems arose. Today unfortunately, we have to deal with the problem of Karabakh and the problem of South Ossetia and South Ossetian refugees in Russia. We are ready to work together.
I need hardly remind you of the basic Russian position on the issue of Georgia’s territorial integrity. It has always been our position that the territorial integrity of Georgia must be guaranteed. I have never questioned this thesis. At the same time, and in fact for that reason, we regard the complex relations between Abkhazia and Georgia as an internal political problem of Georgia. I would like to stress that Russia does not intend to be drawn into a resolution of conflicts on the territory of third countries – we have enough problems of our own.
At the same time, what happens on our borders cannot be a matter of indifference to us. I have the impression that under the impact of the international community, which is beginning to unite in the fight against terror, the Georgian authorities have also tried to get rid of some groups and terrorist units and militants in the Pankissi Gorge, and have tried to push them out. Nothing wrong about that. But the fact that it is being done without coordination and that these groups surface on other stretches of the Russian-Georgian border is hardly welcome to us and cannot but give cause for concern.
The answer is very simple: we are not going to do anything other than strengthening our own border along its entire length. The border service and other military and security agencies have been instructed accordingly and work is already underway.
In this connection I can say that in spite of any Georgian internal political problems connected with Abkhazia, we will abide by our commitments to withdraw our troops from our base in Abkhazia. I would like to reaffirm that the troops will be withdrawn.
Now about peace-keepers. They are not our peace-keepers. They are CIS peace-keepers. They are there at Georgia’s request. If Georgia believes there is no need for them (and they are represented by Russian servicemen and, in addition to trying to prevent ethnic strife, they also provide security for UN personnel who come under attack and some of them, as you know, recently died at the hands of terrorists), if the Georgian leadership assumes responsibility before the international community and its own people – all right, it is their choice, and we will remove our peace-keepers.
As for the CIS, it is not a Russian, but an international organisation. Russia is not dragging anyone into it. If there is an interest in maintaining special relationships and gaining certain advantages, including economic advantages (I have already mentioned preferential treatment in the energy field), if there is such an interest, we are ready to go on working together. If there is no such interest, if you feel that the entire range of problems, including in the economic sphere, can be tackled effectively by other means and using other resources and in a different international configuration, we have no problem with that, and it is not going to be a signal to us to downgrade bilateral relations. On the contrary, I think it should not be detrimental to our bilateral relations. But for Russia it would diminish the burden that the special relationship implies in the political sphere.
I repeat, there is nothing that warrants dramatising the situation. It is a negotiating process. Besides, I absolutely agree with the Georgian President that all the bilateral issues that have piled up should be resolved in the course of our joint work on drafting a treaty on the basic principles of relations between Georgia and the Russian Federation.