Georgia PM optimistic on restoring Russia ties

Georgia's Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili on Tuesday expressed optimism about restoring ties with arch-foe Russia while pledging to keep up the ex-Soviet state's pro-Western course.

At a press conference convened to sum up his 100 days in power since the surprise win in October parliamentary polls of his Georgian Dream coalition, Ivanishvili said: "Europe is what Georgia belongs to."

He said he hoped that "within 20 years Georgia will be a fully-fledged member of Europe."

"Europe will remain our beacon and we should make our European dream come true."

In terms of security and defence, "there is no alternative to NATO" membership, he added.

But he also said he was "optimistic" about restoring ties with Russia, severed following the 2008 war the two neighbours fought over Georgia's breakaway provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

"I am optimistic. With careful and measured actions" ties can be restored, he said, adding that a first step would be to renew trade links.

"Huge results need more time," he said. "Russians as well as Georgians want our relationships be restored," he said.

Ivanishvili -- a tycoon who bitterly opposes the anti-Russian rhetoric of President Mikheil Saakashvili -- says he is ready to engage Moscow in direct negotiations, vowing however to continue Saakashvili's bid to join NATO and the European Union.

A darling of the West, Saakashvili has long accused Ivanishvili -- who made his multi-billion fortune in Russia -- of being a Russian stooge.

Foreign policy debates are at the centre of a bitter confrontation in the Georgian parliament between Ivanishvili's allies and Saakashvili's fervently pro-Western opposition United National Movement party.

Saakashvili's supporters have accused Ivanishvili of threatening Georgia's path towards European and Euro-Atlantic integration and have recently demanded that its pro-Western orientation be cemented in the country's constitution.

Highlighting his uneasy cohabitation with Saakashvili, Ivanishvili attacked his political foe again during the press conference.

"The epoch of Saakashvili's lies is over," he said.

"They draw apocalyptic pictures, as if something catastrophic is happening in Georgia. They are in panic because they have to answer annoying legal questions," Ivanishvili said.

Dozens of former officials from Saakashvili's government have been arrested during the last three months over alleged wrongdoing, prompting warnings from top European diplomats against selective justice and political persecution of opponents.

Ivanishvili's remarks on Russia came just a day after Georgian officials held talks in Moscow to agree a mechanism on lifting the Russian trade embargo on Georgian wine and mineral water.

Russia's consumer watchdog chief Gennady Onishchenko said in Moscow that imports of Georgian wines -- highly prized in the former Soviet Union -- could resume in the spring if all the conditions are met.

Ivanishvili said the reopening of the Russian market to Georgian goods would help kick-start Georgia's struggling agricultural sector.

But Ivanishvili has so far offered little sign of compromise in the political row over Abkhazia and South Ossetia which Tbilisi no longer controls and Moscow has recognised as independent.

His government believes that economic and cultural ties with Moscow can be restored soon but a return to full diplomatic relations will take much longer.