Russia’s Putin Warns Georgia Against Provoking Moscow
President Vladimir Putin warned Georgia not to provoke or blackmail Russia on Wednesday as Moscow ignored international appeals to drop economic sanctions against its southern neighbor, the Reuters news agency reports.
Discussing a dispute with Georgia over the arrests of four Russian officers, who were later released, Putin told lawmakers: “I would not allow anyone to talk to Russia in the language of provocation and blackmail.”
Moscow has long been unhappy with Georgia’s pro-Western foreign policies and public attacks on its old Soviet master. But the officers’ arrests on spying charges last week provided a trigger for a wave of Russian retaliatory measures, which included severing all transport and postal links with Georgia and halting visas for Georgians wishing to visit Russia.
Broadening the actions targeting Georgia, Moscow police raided Georgian businesses in the capital on Tuesday. Authorities shut down a Georgian-owned casino, occupied a Georgian guest house and seized half a million bottles of Georgian wine in separate operations.
The Interior Ministry described the raids as “routine, planned work ... to combat ethnic organized crime groups.” However a law enforcement source confirmed to Reuters that officials had received oral instructions to step up action against Georgians.
Russian organizers canceled a visit by Georgia’s national ballet, and migration agency officials said they had detected cases of Georgians forging invitations to gain a Russian visa.
Russia’s State Duma, or parliament, passed a non-binding resolution “on the anti-Russian and anti-democratic policies of the Georgian leadership.” It hinted at tougher retaliatory moves in the future but did not spell out what these might be.
The Russian actions, coupled with an anti-Georgia campaign in Kremlin-controlled media, have alarmed the one million Georgians living in Russia and their relatives back home. The estimated $300 million a year Georgians send home from Russia are vital to the economy of Georgia, a poor country of five million people which depends on its former Soviet master for trade and energy.
“A patriotic campaign has started in Russia,” headlined leading Russian business daily Kommersant. Its front-page photograph showed a demonstrator holding up placards depicting Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili as Adolf Hitler. “Russia is sliding into a global confrontation with the disobedient country,” said the Novye Izvestia newspaper. “It cannot be ruled out that the economic blockade will change into a military conflict between the two countries.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, in unusually strident remarks to reporters on Tuesday, claimed that Georgia was channeling funds from organized crime in Russia into a slush fund to buy weapons in a massive military build-up.
He said this was directed at the Georgian breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, both backed by Moscow.
Georgia says it is boosting military spending to reverse years of neglect and bring its forces up to NATO standards.
In Tbilisi, the mood remained defiant although ordinary Georgians were increasingly worried about the human and economic impact of the Russian sanctions. “Will Russia deport Georgians?” Georgia’s New Version weekly asked in a headline. “We do not know exactly what aggression will come out of Russia.”
Kakha Bendukidze, Georgia’s State Minister for Economic Reforms, told Reuters the Russian measures could take 1.5 percentage points off his country’s GDP growth this year.
Moscow still holds a number of cards to play against Georgia if it wishes to escalate action still further. Gas supplies to Tbilisi by Russian state monopoly Gazprom are still flowing. Russian ministers insist Moscow will honor its commitments to pull its remaining 2,000-3,000 troops out of Georgia by 2008 and might even speed up the withdrawal.
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