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Russia: Moscow Eases Sanctions On Georgia, But Rattles Sabers Over NATO

By Salome Asatiani and Brian Whitmore President-elect Dmitry Medvedev during his interview with the "Financial Times" (ITAR-TASS) Speaking just days before a key NATO summit that may or may not bring Georgia and Ukraine a major step closer to entering the military alliance, Russian President-elect Dmitry Medvedev warned a British newspaper that such a move could undermine European security.

In tones reminiscent of, if not identical to, those of his predecessor, outgoing President Vladimir Putin, Medvedev told the "Financial Times" that Moscow was "not happy" about Tbilisi and Kyiv moving closer to NATO. "No state," he added, "can be pleased about having representatives of a military bloc to which it does not belong coming close to its borders."

Medvedev, who made the remarks in the course of a wide-ranging interview, added that such membership bids are particularly "difficult to explain" when "the vast majority of citizens of one of the states, for example of Ukraine, are categorically against joining NATO, while the government of this state follows a different policy." (Public support for joining NATO is low in Ukraine, at close to 30 percent.)

For Ukraine and Georgia to enter the alliance, he said, "would be extremely troublesome for the existing structure of European security."

Carrot Or Stick?

Medvedev's interview appeared the same day that Moscow allowed the resumption of flights and some sea transit between Russia and Georgia. Those flights had been banned as part of a series of economic sanctions imposed by Moscow on Tbilisi in October 2006 as relations between the two former Soviet states deteriorated.

Moscow suspended the flights and imposed a ban on most Georgian imports ostensibly as punishment for Tbilisi's arrest and deportation of military officers for alleged espionage. But most analysts say the conflict has deeper roots, and is related to Georgia's efforts to join Western institutions and leave Russia's sphere of influence.

So by resuming the flights, is Russia suddenly extending an olive branch, or just adding a curve to its usual hardball? Archil Gegeshidze of the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies says Moscow is using a traditional mix of threats and enticements to ensure its influence over the tiny Caucasus state remains in force.

"Such an approach -- strictness on the one hand, and softening of the economic sanctions regime on the other hand -- is deploying the well-known carrot-and-stick policy," Gegeshidze says. "Through this, Russia is trying to maintain and prolong its influence on Georgia, and through such policies it keeps, or increases, Georgia's dependence on Russia."

Check-in counter at Tbilisi's international airport after Moscow imposed the transport link in October 2006 (AFP)

Ukraine and Georgia are seeking a NATO Membership Action Plan (MAP), a crucial step toward membership, when the alliance meets in early April in Bucharest, Romania. The issue has proven highly divisive among the alliance's powerhouse members. Germany and France have expressed deep reluctance to risk irritating Moscow by offering a MAP to either Ukraine or Georgia. The United States, by contrast, openly supports both countries' bids.

The impasse has sparked speculation that the military alliance may use the Bucharest summit to offer a halfway measure that falls short of a MAP but nonetheless encourages the two membership-hopefuls. Daniel Fried, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, told RFE/RL on March 20 that the debate is likely to continue up to and through the summit.

"It's hard from our point of view to say 'no' to an aspiring new democracy that looks at NATO as a way to help guarantee their sovereignty and at NATO as a bastion of common values," Fried said. "NATO enlargement has been a fabulous success -- it has helped consolidate freedom and stability in Central and Eastern Europe. We ought to build on that success."

The Kosovo Card

Russia is using every opportunity to remind the world that it strongly disagrees with such sentiment. Medvedev's remarks to the "Financial Times" are just the latest in a string of hostile warnings. On March 21, the Russian State Duma passed a resolution calling on the Kremlin to consider recognizing the Georgian breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia if Georgia joins NATO.

Russia has said that Kosovo's declaration of independence sets a precedent allowing separatist regions like these pro-Moscow provinces to seek statehood as well.

Gegeshidze calls the move part of an "unfriendly policy" ultimately aimed at weakening the resolve of Georgia's backers in the West.

"In order to prevent Georgia from getting even closer to NATO, Russia is using threats and blackmail -- as well as some practical decisions -- in trying to delay this process," Gegeshidze says. "It's trying to frighten Georgia, and alarm the West."