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Georgia: Russia, U.S. Take Uncustomary Approaches Amid Crisis


Russia is on track for a lengthy feud (file photo) (epa) MOSCOW, October 5, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- The release of the four Russian military officers arrested last week in Georgia over spying charges was expected to placate Russia. But Moscow's fury at Tbilisi shows no signs of ebbing.


On October 3, one day after Georgia handed the officers over to the OSCE, Russia cut air, road, rail, and postal links with the South Caucasus country and stopped issuing entry visas to all Georgian citizens.

Russian authorities then raided Georgian businesses in Moscow and detained a dozen illegal immigrants from Georgia. And this might just be the start. Moscow is mulling more sanctions, including cutting energy supplies and banning money transfers from Russia to Georgia.


Presidential Warning


Russian President Vladimir Putin on October 4 thanked Duma deputies for adopting a tough resolution blessing any further Kremlin action against Georgia. He warned Tbilisi not to provoke his country.

"I'm grateful for your support of the efforts of the executive branch to protect the rights, dignity and lives of our citizens abroad," Putin said. "Such consolidation among all political groups in the country is clearly supported by a majority of Russian citizens and will help defend the rights of our citizens in the near and far abroad. Of course, I'm talking about Georgia in this case. And I wouldn't advise anyone to talk to Russia in a language of provocation and blackmail."

Relations between the two neighboring countries have steadily deteriorated since President Mikheil Saakashvili came to power following the 2003 Rose Revolution, vowing to steer his country away from Russia.

"This is unprecedented in world diplomacy. An ultimatum is issued, this ultimatum is respected, and then the country that issued the ultimatum...implements the threats connected to the initial demands" -- analyst Kagarlitsky

Last week's arrests appear to have been the last straw for the Kremlin, which is clearly irked by Saakashvili's pro-Western course and sharp verbal attacks on Moscow.

But why is Russia reacting so harshly to this particular incident? Timofei Bordachyov, the deputy editor of the "Russia In Global Affairs" journal, says the officers' arrests wounded Russia's newfound pride.

"I think that it most mostly linked to the fact that over the past year Russian authorities have been confident that Russia is gaining clout on the international arena," Bordachyov says. "Besides, Georgian authorities have indeed taken unprecedented harsh steps."

Ulterior Motive?


Some observers, however, see other motives behind the Kremlin's anger, which has been accompanied by a sweeping anti-Georgian campaign on Russia's state-owned television channels.

Boris Kagarlitsky, the director of the Institute for Globalization Studies, says the Kremlin is beating its chest ahead of the State Duma elections in 2007 and the presidential elections in 2008.

"This is unprecedented in world diplomacy. An ultimatum is issued, this ultimatum is respected, and then the country that issued the ultimatum, without making further demands, nonetheless implements the threats connected to the initial demands," Kagarlitsky says. "This is due to Russia's upcoming elections. We are entering a preelection season, and there's always a war taking place with Russia in preelection seasons."

In Tbilisi, the mood is equally defiant. In a televised address on October 4, President Saakashvili said he expected "provocations" from Russia in Abkhazia, the separatist province in Georgia backed by Moscow. "They want to take away Abkhazia," he said.


Sour Grapes

Georgian Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili the same day thumbed his nose at Russia by sending off two bunches of wine grapes to the Kremlin -- a hint to the ban Russia imposed on Georgian wine and mineral water earlier this year.

Many in Russia say NATO's recent decision to deepen cooperation with Georgia -- widely seen as a first step toward Georgia's NATO membership -- has emboldened Saakashvili and his government to move against Moscow.


"For Americans, this issue is more important than Georgia. Of course, the U.S. is not indifferent to Georgia, but Americans right now clearly don't want to confront Russia on Georgia" -- analyst Volk

Saakashvili reiterated on October 4 that joining NATO would be Georgia's "main accomplishment."

But NATO and the United States, usually quick to defend Georgia, have so far largely stayed out of the conflict, limiting themselves to calls for restraint.

Yevgeny Volk, the director of the Moscow office of the U.S.-based Heritage Foundation, says the United States is not ready to jeopardize its relations with Russia over Georgia.

"The Americans have accumulated a lot of foreign-affairs problems in which they depend, to a certain extent, on Russia's position," Volk says. "The chief problem is Iran's nuclear program, where Russia's support is needed. For Americans, this issue is more important than Georgia. Of course, the U.S. is not indifferent to Georgia, but Americans right now clearly don't want to confront Russia on Georgia."

Russia is indeed unlikely to welcome any Western criticism. Russia's Foreign Ministry said on October 4 it saw no need for mediation by the OSCE, which negotiated the return of the four Russian officers to their country.

The ministry said only what it called "corrections" by the Georgian leadership would improve relations.

Moscow And Tbilisi

Russian military hardware being withdrawn from a Russian base in Batumi, Georgia, in August 2005 (TASS)

WHAT COMES NEXT? Although Russia is unlikely to push an aggressive military response to the current tensions with Georgia, it has a number of economic, political, and diplomatic options at its disposal. Already on October 1, Russian President Vladimir Putin summoned his inner circle to weigh Moscow's options... (more)


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MORE: Coverage of the situation in Georgian from RFE/RL's Georgian Service and in Russian from RFE/RL's Russian Service.


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RFE/RL's English-language coverage of Georgia and Russia.

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