Georgia will ‘wait and see’ if Putin’s softer tone lasts

International News

FILE In this file photo taken on Sunday, Dec. 16, 2018, Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili arrives to attend her inauguration in Telavi, Georgia. Georgia’s president says she’ll “wait and see” how a debate in Russia about possible new sanctions against her country will shape out, cautiously welcoming conciliatory comments from President Vladimir Putin as preferable to “threats.”. (Irakli Gedenidze/Pool Photo via AP, File)

GENEVA (AP) — Georgia’s president says she’ll “wait and see” how a debate in Russia about possible new sanctions against her country will pan out as she cautiously welcomed conciliatory comments from President Vladimir Putin as preferable to “threats.”

Salome Zurabishvili spoke to The Associated Press in an interview during a break from a conference she was hosting with European leaders — including European Council president Donald Tusk — at the Black Sea resort city of Batumi.

Zurabishvili, who took office as Georgia’s first woman president in December, also responded to critics in Georgia who have faulted her allegedly soft line toward Russia during a recent flare-up of tensions, saying it’s the “fate of any political leader” to face opposing views.

“I’m here to protect my people, and nobody is going to give me a lesson in patriotism,” she said by Skype.

But her most timely comments came in response to passing remarks this week by Putin, who sought to lower the temperature by rejecting calls in Moscow to halt money transfers from Georgians living in Russia and ban imports of Georgian wine and mineral water.

Putin said he wouldn’t take such action “out of my respect for the Georgian people,” adding that he “wouldn’t do anything that would exacerbate our relations.”

In response to Putin’s remarks, Zurabishvili replied: “Well, we are going to wait and see what is the reality. But I would rather have these comments than have threats.”

“And on our side we’re certainly ready not to escalate,” she said. “And I’ll be the first one to call for de-escalation.”

Russia banned wine and mineral water supplies from Georgia in 2006 amid an earlier political spat, but the ban was lifted six years later and Russia again has become the No. 1 destination for Georgian wine exports.

Putin’s conciliatory words came just days after a ban on direct flights between the countries took effect, spoiling holiday plans for many Russian holidaymakers and threatening a large dent in Georgia’s crucial tourism industry.

Zurabishvili took an optimistic tone, and sought to lure tourists from elsewhere.

“I’m sure that the Russian tourists will come back one day — maybe sooner than later,” she said. “Georgia will remain open.”

Tensions have risen in recent weeks after a contested visit by a Russian lawmaker to Georgia’s parliament sparked protests in Georgia, and have been fueled further by a Georgian TV host who showered Putin and his late parents with profanities in live broadcast.

Zurabishvili, who was born and raised in France, was speaking during her latest effort to reinforce ties with the European Union. In a transcript of her speech in Batumi, she said fully four-fifths of Georgians back membership of the European bloc, and that the country has become “one of the staunchest and enthusiastic” advocates of the EU.

Russia and Georgia fought a brief war in 2008, after which Russia recognized the independence of two of Georgia’s breakaway republics. Despite a freeze in political ties, more than 1 million Russian tourists a year have visited Georgia, attracted by its scenic mountains and lush sea coast.

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