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Georgia: Minister Heads To Moscow Amid Fresh Spying Charges

By Okropir Rukhadze and Eka Tsamalashvili Abkhaz soldiers take part in a tank exercise in Ochamchyra, east from Sukhumi, on May 14 (AFP) The never-easy relations between Russia and Georgia have suffered a fresh blow, with Russian media reporting that federal security services have detained a Georgian-born Russian citizen on charges of spying for Georgia and engaging in terrorist activities in the North Caucasus.

The charges -- which Shota Khizanishvili, the chief of staff of Georgia's Interior Ministry, has dismissed as "primitive provocation" -- echo Georgia's 2006 expulsion of four Russian military intelligence officers accused of spying, and come amid already heightened tensions over Georgia's breakaway region of Abkhazia.

Moscow has moved in recent weeks to increase the number of Russian peacekeepers it has based in Abkhazia, which Georgia considers an integral part of its territory. Russia says it is acting within legal guidelines on peacekeepers established as part of the 1994 cease-fire agreement that ended a 14-month war between Georgia and Abkhazia.

Georgia, meanwhile, argues that the cease-fire agreement states that any changes in troop levels must be agreed by consensus of all parties to the conflict. Eka Tkeshelashvili, Georgia's newly appointed foreign minister, says Moscow's troop buildup is neither legal nor paternal.

"The way in which the deployment of additional military forces to Abkhazia's territory was carried out -- and also the kinds of armed forces that were brought in -- clearly indicate that today we are dealing with a military intervention onto Georgia's territory," Tkeshelashvili told RFE/RL's Georgian Service. Using the language of international law, she added, Moscow's behavior "even equals an act of aggression."

World Stage

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has used even starker terms, accusing Russia of attempting to "redraw the postcommunist world order" with its attempts to drive a permanent wedge between Tbilisi and its restive separatist regions.

Saakashvili, who was due to discuss the issue with U.S. President George W. Bush during a meeting in Israel on May 15, has had some success in raising the Abkhaz question to the international level.

Bush expressed concerns about the issue during his first phone call with newly inaugurated Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. And Georgia's reintegration minister, Temur Iakobashvili, this week dramatically credited France with staving off a war over Abkhazia through private talks with Moscow. Western countries, Iakobashvili said, "have switched from giving moral support to taking action." (The United States, it should be noted, has sought to soften Tbilisi's assertions that Russia and Georgia are on the brink of open conflict.)

Abkhazia was likewise on the agenda at the United Nations, where the General Assembly on May 15 adopted a resolution upholding the rights of Georgians displaced by the Abkhaz war to return to the territory.

Georgia's UN ambassador, Irakli Alasania, told RFE/RL's Georgian Service that the resolution is important because its addresses the rights of both Georgians and Abkhaz. This, he said, may help lead toward a peaceful resolution of Tbilisi's historic standoff with Sukhumi.

"This is a big step toward resolving the conflict in the right way. But I can also say very frankly that these documents enable us to stand firm on the foreign political front," Alasania said. "Real progress with the process is up to the dialogue between the Georgians and the Abkhaz. This is the main thing, if we want to really solve this issue."

Moscow Critical

Russia, however, has been critical of efforts by Tbilisi to raise the question of Abkhazia and its second separatist region, South Ossetia, to an international level. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, speaking on May 16 in Yekaterinburg, said initiatives like the UN resolution amount to little more than "propaganda."

Temur Iakobashvili, Georgia's minister for reintegration issues

"Instead of fulfilling its obligations under the negotiation process, [Georgia] is making attempts to internationalize the South Ossetian and Abkhaz conflicts," Lavrov said. "In my view, such attempts show that Tbilisi is not really interested in a settlement that is based on a balance of interests and respect of each other's interests."

Lavrov's comments come as Iakobashvili makes his first visit to Moscow as reintegration minister. Iakobashvili held talks with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin and other high-ranking ministry officials; both sides have reportedly agreed that the situation in the conflict regions is extremely tense and needs to be addressed as soon as possible.

"I think in Russia there is an increasing awareness that different approaches are needed -- that it is necessary to really resolve these conflicts, that it is necessary to really restore Georgia's territorial integrity, not just on the level of talks," Iakobashvili told RFE/RL's Georgian Service following the first of two days of talks. "For this, of course, a different methodology needs to be employed -- and I hope that sooner or later we will really move on to this new methodology."

With Moscow's latest allegations of Georgian espionage in the North Caucasus, however, it's uncertain whether the climate is right for diplomacy. Speaking on May 15 before the spy allegations were aired, Georgian Foreign Minister Tkeshelashvili stressed that Tbilisi is doing its best to hold up its end of the bargain and work toward improved ties with Moscow.

"It will not be an exaggeration on my part to say that relations [between Georgia and Russia] are very strained," she said. "This, in itself, is a deeply regrettable fact. I can say with full certainty that we have been doing everything possible -- and continue to do so -- to restore normal relations with Russia."

RFE/RL correspondent Daisy Sindelar contributed to this report

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