TBILISI – Georgia and Russia pledged to repair their tattered relationship on Sunday after Mikhail Saakashvili was sworn in as Georgian president, the first concrete sign of an improvement.
But a few kilometers from the ceremony in a scruffy field around 80,000 people marked the inauguration with the largest protest yet against a January 5 presidential election which they say Saakashvili rigged.
Outside Georgia’s parliament Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov joined foreign envoys and hundreds of ordinary Georgians to watch Saakashvili’s swearing-in, the highest-ranking Kremlin official to visit Tbilisi since a spy row in October 2006 which sparked a breakdown in ties.
“We extend the hand of partnership to our northern neighbour,” said the 40-year-old Saakashvili during his 30-minute acceptance speech.
“We should be friends, we should be close to each other, we should stand next to each other.”
Hundreds of soldiers marched past clutching new U.S.-designed rifles, helicopters buzzed overhead and tanks trundled along the main street — all part of a military in which Saakashvili has invested millions of dollars.
The staunchly pro-U.S. Saakashvili has steered Georgia towards NATO membership since sweeping to power in a 2003 revolution, angering Russia which cut trade and transport links after Georgia said it uncovered Russian spies in October 2006.
Georgia accuses Russia of backing two rebel regions — South Ossetia and Abkhazia — and stirring revolution, and their soldiers have faced each other in tense standoffs across the borders of the breakaway provinces where the Russian soldiers are deployed as peacekeepers.
But since winning the election Saakashvili has struck a more conciliatory tone and he met Lavrov after the ceremony.
“Our participation in the Georgian president’s inauguration ceremony confirms Russia’s sincere and deep intention to normalize relations with Georgia,” Lavrov said afterwards.
Georgia lies at the centre of the Caucasus, a region where Russia and the U.S. are battling for influence and which hosts an oil pipeline connecting the Caspian Sea to Europe.
Analysts said it was significant that Saakashvili and Lavrov had met but it was unrealistic to expect ties to mend overnight.
“We should expect a little improvement in relations if both sides change rhetoric,” said Archil Gegeshidze, a Tbilisi-based political analyst. “But we can’t expect a radical change because their geo-political directions are so different.”
Saakashvili’s popularity has dropped over the past four years and he called the snap election in November after ordering police to crush anti-government protests.
Western monitors said the election, which Saakashvili won with 53 percent of the vote, had been mixed but was competitive despite violations. His opponents called it fixed and have staged street protests attracting tens of thousands of people.
And on Sunday on the outskirts of Tbilisi, Georgian opposition leaders a mass rally they would continue protests.
“There are a lot of us and we have to fight to the very end,” the opposition’s main presidential candidate Levan Gachechiladze, who won around 26 percent of the vote, shouted.
The crowd chanted back: “Misha go, Misha leave,” referring to Saakashvili by his widely used nickname.