Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said during annual press conference in Moscow on January 26 that there are “reports” of Islamic State fighters training in Georgia’s Pankisi gorge.
Georgian PM Giorgi Kvirikashvili responded by telling journalists in Tbilisi that there was no threat coming from Pankisi gorge.
“The Georgian government exerts full control [in Pankisi] – Pankisi poses no terrorism threat whatsoever. Several dozen of people from there went to [Syria] to fight for the Islamic State, but there is a strict control over their return and criminal prosecution applies [against them],” PM Kvirikashvili said.
“We will provide them [Russia] information through available channels of communication in order for them to have more precise information about the situation existing in the region,” Kvirikashvili added.
Lavrov mentioned Pankisi when responding a question about relations with Georgia and if it was possible to lift visa requirements with Georgia.
The Russian Foreign Minister said that Moscow introduced visa regime with Georgia largely because of terrorism threat from Pankisi. Russia unilateral introduced visa rules with Georgia in 2001.
“By the way reports are coming even now that IS members are using this remote territory for training, rest, and replenishing,” Lavrov said.
He then also added: “But recently process of normalization of our relations has been reflected in significant easing of visa regime.”
“We are ready to move towards visa-free regime in the future, but it is a bit strange if it is discussed in the condition when we have no diplomatic relations,”
Russia’s President Vladimir Putin said at an annual press conference in December that Moscow was “ready to cancel visa regime” for Georgian citizens. The Russian Foreign Ministry eased visa requirements for the Georgian citizens starting from December 23.
Issue of easing, but not lifting, visa requirements for the Georgian citizens have been regularly raised in talks between Georgian PM’s special representative for relations with Russia Zurab Abashidze and Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin – a format of direct bilateral talks on economic, trade and humanitarian issues, launched in late 2012. The Russian Foreign Ministry’s position on the issue has been that lifting of visa requirements was not likely until restoration of diplomatic relations between the two countries, which were severed after the August, 2008 war; Lavrov’s January 26 remarks appear to be reiteration of this position.
Commenting on Lavrov’s remarks, Georgian PM Kvirikashvili told journalists that restoration of diplomatic relations with Russia “has significant preconditions – territorial integrity, and even more importantly, respect of sovereignty, that is respecting sovereign choices made by the Georgian authorities along with the Georgian people.”
Georgian PM’s special representative for relations with Russia, Zurab Abashidze, said that the issue of restoration of diplomatic relations “is not on the agenda.”
“And it cannot become an issue on the agenda at this stage. Our Russian colleagues know the reason why. Restoration of diplomatic relations is impossible as long as Georgia’s territorial integrity remains violated, but if we see that there is a significant progress, then at certain stage this issue will probably become part of the agenda,” Abashidze told journalists in Tbilisi.
In his remarks on Georgia during the press conference, Lavrov hailed informal bilateral dialogue led by Georgian PM’s special envoy Abashidze and Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin. Lavrov said that the two diplomats have “mutual trust”, which helps to discuss “any issue.”
“By the way I am open for contacts with my Georgian counterpart. I am sure that other contacts are also quite possible When asked the President [Putin] did not rule out such a possibility [of having a meeting with the Georgian leadership] if there is a chance,” Lavrov said.
Lavrov also said that bilateral relations with Georgia “are now moving out from deep freeze.”
“We are in favor of having normal, good neighborly relations with Georgia,” Lavrov said, adding that the Georgian people “should not be paying price” for ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili’s “criminal mistakes.” Blaming personally Saakashvili for launching war in august, 2008, Lavrov also said that Moscow had no other choice but to recognize independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in 2008.