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BLAIR URGED TO ACT ON RUSSIA-GEORGIA RELATIONS

Tony Blair has been urged to act as a bridge between Russia and Georgia.

In an interview with ePolitix.com, Georgia's new foreign minister Tedo Japaridze called on the prime minister to use his influence with Russia's president to help build strong relations between the two countries.

"Given the good relations between President Putin and Tony Blair, Britain can be some sort of bridge to make Georgia and Russia understand each other," he said.

"It's got to be about making Russia understand that it's only through co-operation, national understanding and communication that we can solve our problems."

Japaridze became foreign minister following the dramatic fall of President Eduard Shevardnadze in the "velvet revolution" of November last year.

Russia and Georgia have been in dispute over Russia's backing of separatists in the region of Abkhazia and Chechen rebels in Georgia's Pankisi Gorge.

Japaridze explained relations between the two countries need to improve.

"We have still to reform our relationship with Russia and there is the debate about that. We need to have Russia as a neighbour and engage with Russia," he told ePolitix.com.

"But our Russian friends need to understand that if Georgia remains a weak state, not economically reformed, it will create problems for Russia. Some think if we remain in that condition it's better for Russia. It's about political and security issues. It's not, you know, a zero sum game."

He praised the UK's work in Georgia and the Caucuses but urged the government to step up its support.

"We wish for this support to be bigger than it used to be. It's practical things," he said. "We're talking about a state building process in Georgia. It's what the Brits are quite experienced at."

The foreign minister also pledged that the country would get tough on corruption and accelerate vitally needed reforms.

"There are a lot of things to do. It takes hard work," he said. "We're making some preliminary planning to reform government structures. There's a lot of advanced work on the ground taking place."

"There were a lot of things that were achieved in the early days; the constitution, the currency, democratic institutions and a free press. But democracy has not become a way of life in Georgia.

"At the same time there are a lot of things that we could have accomplished during those 10 years. Corruption became a way of life."

International political and economic focus has been on the strategically important Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline, which will take Caspian Sea oil from Azerbaijan to the Turkish Mediterranean coast.

Japaridze, who visited the UK for the NATO Windsor Energy Security Workshop, explained the strategic importance his country has.

"Georgia functions as a transitory country in the East-West corridor - it makes us attractive," he said.

"There are other routes through countries like Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan. Or the only other access to the European markets is through Iran, China and Russia. Georgia is the shortest way to get goods through to market. Unless Georgia becomes a strong state it will diminish and events determined by outside factors will create a bottleneck."

Georgia, which is two hours' flight from Baghdad, is part of the coalition in Iraq and Japaridze argued outside pressures should not decide when elections should take place.

"Iraq has gone through a very powerful phase. For different states to dictate on nation building will not help," he said.

"I think as soon as the people of Iraq themselves will find it appropriate to have elections they should take place. It is not for any country to come and say to Iraq 'it is time to hold an election'. It's a very complex issue for them."

The foreign minister said Georgia would be pressing for EU membership but would not choose between Brussels, Moscow and Washington.

"We want to be integrated into Europe as a natural, historical and economic European country," he said.

"It's not about a wish as a foreign minister or president. It's the will of the Georgian people which was identified years ago to come back to Europe.

"But at the same time we're not going to do this on behalf or at the expense of relations with Russia. And America? We survived as a country for 10 years because of American assistance. Again, it's not about a zero sum game."