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Georgia mulls leaving Russian-led bloc

Written by: Staff

TBILISI, May 2 (Reuters) Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili today said his government would look into quitting a Russia-led bloc that groups ex-Soviet states in the latest twist to a spat between his tiny country and Moscow.

The two neighbours have argued for most of the post-Soviet period, with trade blockades and mutual accusations of helping insurgents continually keeping ties on the edge of rupture.

But Georgia remains a member of the Commonwealth of Independent States, a regional grouping that meets yearly to discuss issues common to all the Soviet successor states. ''We have to sit down and consider, if it is worth us remaining members in the CIS,'' Saakashvili said at the opening of a school in Kutaisi, Georgia's second city.

''If it is not and, as I suspect, Georgia receives nothing but humiliation from this organisation, then the Georgian people together with the government must take a decision as befits a worthy people.'' Revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine brought pro-Western governments to power, and added strains to the CIS in which Moscow holds a dominant role. Russian resents its ex-colonies seeking to join Western organisations and find Western markets.

Relations have particularly suffered in recent months since Russia banned imports of Georgian wines and spirits -- major exports for Georgia where the economy is still suffering from the post-Soviet slump.

Russia says the ban is for health reasons, but analysts say it is a riposte to Georgia trying to use World Trade Organisation talks to force Russia to stop its financial support for two rebel regions that remain outside Tbilisi's control.

Georgia is hunting for new markets for its wine, which brought in 90 million dollars to its struggling economy last year, 70 percent of it from Russia. Saakashvili has tasked a minister with publicising wine in the West.

Saakashvili has pledged to regain control of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which broke away from central rule in the early 1990s, and says Russia is trying to undermine Georgian sovereignty by supporting their de facto independence.

''Today every one of us is facing the threat of losing our country, of losing our state, our independence and our future. It is time for all of us to wake up,'' he said.

Reuters SI GC2234

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