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Last Updated: Tuesday, 9 December, 2003, 17:27 GMT
Georgia's visa anger at Russia
By Steven Eke
BBC regional analyst

In a strongly-worded statement, Georgia has accused Russia of trying to undermine its sovereignty by introducing a new visa regime for residents of the breakaway region of Ajaria.

Georgia's acting president Nino Burjanadze
Ms Burjanadze is furious that Moscow acted unilaterally
It is the latest sign that, far from building the "new relations" both sides say they want, Moscow and Tbilisi remain at daggers drawn over Russian influence in Georgia's separatist regions.

"One set of rules for the lord and another for the vassal" - is what Georgia's acting President, Nino Burjanadze, had to say about the easing of visas for residents of Ajaria.

In reality, all that is changed is that Ajarians can now get an entry visa on arrival at Russian airports.

Punishment

Other Georgians still need to queue up at the Russian embassy in Tbilisi or pay expensive private agents to arrange their visas for them.

The symbolism is immense.

Georgia is the only country in the CIS to have faced the imposition of Russian visas.

It was a strongly-resented step, seen by many Georgians as punishment for their country's pro-Western stance.

Ajaria's leader Aslan Abashidze with Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov in Moscow during a visit last month
Ajaria's leader Mr Abashidze is a welcome guest in Moscow
Ms Burjanadze is furious that Moscow has acted unilaterally in holding independent consultations with the leadership of Ajaria and two other separatist-minded regions.

For her, that is proof that Russia is not prepared to stop meddling and to abandon what many Georgians see as imperial ambitions on their country.

Tbilisi fears the growing Russian closeness with the leadership of Ajaria.

Its leader, Aslan Abashidze, says he does not recognise the new government in Tbilisi as legitimate.

And, in what potentially presages serious future instability, he is known to have a deep personal animosity for Mikhail Saakashvili, the man likely to become Georgia's president in next year's elections.


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