Russia Cuts Links to Georgia Despite “Spy” Release

TBILISI (Reuters) – Russia threw up a blockade against Georgia on Monday after Tbilisi’s release of four arrested Russian soldiers failed to defuse the worst crisis in years between the ex-Soviet neighbors. Western mediators urged Russia to step back from confrontation when Georgia climbed down by releasing the soldiers. But Moscow ignored those pleas and said it would cut rail, air and postal links with Georgia. The soldiers’ arrest on spying charges was a flashpoint for deeper tensions. Georgia is pushing aggressively to join NATO and the European Union. That alarms Russia, which sees the country as part of its sphere of influence. "Naturally, (Georgia’s actions) will not be without consequences. We are able to put pressure on the current Georgian regime across the board," Andrei Kokoshin, a senior pro-Kremlin politician, told Russia’s Channel One television. After days of increasingly shrill exchanges between Moscow and Tbilisi, Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili said he had ordered that the four Russian soldiers be deported in what he called a gesture of goodwill. "The message to Russia is: ‘Enough is enough’," Saakashvili told reporters at a ceremony where the four were handed over to mediators from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). "We want to have good relations. We want to have dialogue. But we cannot be treated as a second-rate backyard of some kind of emerging empire." If in force for an extended period, the Russian restrictions could cause deep damage to Georgia’s economy. Russia is a key trading partner and many Georgians survive on money sent home by relatives working in Russia. Georgia’s stand-off with Moscow has sent ripples beyond the region. President Bush talked to Russian leader Vladimir Putin about Georgia in a telephone conversation on Monday, the Kremlin press service said. It said Putin underlined that third parties should be careful about encouraging Georgia — a clear reference to the US support for Georgia’s pro-Western leadership that irks many in Moscow. At a ceremony in front of reporters and television cameras, the dazed-looking Russian soldiers were marched out of the prosecutor-general’s office each flanked by two Georgian police officers. Their handcuffs were removed and they were told one by one they were being deported on suspicion of spying. They were then driven to the airport in white OSCE jeeps and took off for Moscow in a Russian Emergencies Ministry aircraft. The European Union’s foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, welcomed the release. "I hope normal relations can now be re-established between Russia and Georgia," he said. But the release did not appear to appease the Kremlin. Rail and air links are to be cut from Tuesday, officials said. They cited unpaid debts and safety concerns as the reasons. They did not say when the links would be re-opened. Russia’s parliament also said it planned to vote this week on a draft law allowing the government to ban money transfers abroad. That would hit remittances from Georgians working in Russia. Russia has already banned two of Georgia’s biggest exports: wine and mineral water. Georgian Foreign Minister Gela Bezhuasvili said the latest measures would not bring the country to its knees. "We will survive, as we …. survived for the last 2,000 years," he said. Georgia is a small mountainous republic of five million people which for centuries was part of the Russian empire and later a Soviet republic. The two have had uneasy relations since Georgia became independent from Moscow in 1991. Ties deteriorated sharply after Saakashvili, a US-educated lawyer, was swept to power in a 2003 "Rose Revolution" and began pushing hard for NATO and EU membership. He is also trying to restore Tbilisi’s control over the Moscow-backed separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, further adding to tensions.

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