Tension Between Russia, Georgia Heats Up

The Associated Press
Sunday, October 1, 2006; 2:55 PM

TBILISI, Georgia -- The Cold War is long over, but the tension between Georgia and Russia revisits many of its issues _ allegations of spying by Moscow, suspicions of interference by the United States and concerns that a hot war will start without some sort of compromise.

Last week's arrest of four Russian soldiers on charges of spying pushed a decade of animosity between Russia and Georgia to new heights. Russia recalled its ambassador, called Georgia a "bandit state" and stopped issuing visas to Georgians.

The reactions were far stronger than the tit-for-tat expulsions that usually accompany espionage scandals.

Amid an exchange of angry words, Russian President Vladimir Putin's response on Sunday stood out _ likening Georgia's actions to those of Lavrenti Beria, the Georgian who headed the Soviet secret police under Joseph Stalin, and calling them "state terrorism."

But also Sunday, Putin took a step that could keep the tensions from spiraling further by ordering the defense ministry to continue its plans for withdrawing troops from Georgia. A Russian general a day earlier had announced that the plans were suspended.

Georgia's West-leaning government resents Russia for its close contacts with two separatist Georgian regions, for its reluctance to pulling out thousands of troops based in the country as a Soviet-era holdover and for economic pressure including sharply increasing the price of natural gas to banning Georgian wine, one of the country's major exports.

Russia in turn resists Georgia's drive to join NATO, its demands for the withdrawal of Russian forces and President Mikhail Saakashvili's determination to re-exert control over the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, both of which seek possible annexation into Russia and have Russian forces present as peacekeepers.

It was also annoyed that a major oil pipeline from the Caspian Sea to Turkey runs through Georgia, bypassing Russia, and bristled when Georgia arrested a dozen opposition figures that Tbilisi claimed were plotting a coup with Russian backing.

The Kremlin saw Saakashvili's coming to power as an illegitimate regime change driven by Western governments, and the Western-educated Georgian leader has persistently aggravated Russia.

He went after the Russia-connected leader of the renegade province of Adzharia; then a seizure of Russian trucks in South Ossetia set off skirmishes there. Georgia took control of a small section of Abkhazia this year _ and last week renamed it Upper Abkhazia _ prompting Russian statements of support for the regions' drive for self-determination.

And last month he told the United Nations General Assembly that Russia was conducting a "gangster occupation" in the separatist regions. But relations were tense even with Saakashvili's predecessor Eduard Shevardnadze, who favored eventually joining NATO and had accepted U.S. troops and aid to buff up Georgia's impoverished army.

"There was already a kind of slowly developing cold war under Shevardnadze ... but when Saakashvili came to power, he sped up the process," said Ghia Nodia, an analyst with the Caucasus Institute for Peace Democracy and Development.

In the view of Sergei Markov, a Kremlin-connected analyst, the spying scandal is the next step in pushing tensions to all-out conflict.

"I think all these actions have, as their final goal, preparation for military operations first in South Ossetia and then in Abkhazia," Markov was quoted as saying by the RIA-Novosti news agency.

"One cannot rule out that there will be military conflicts or military incidents," agreed Georgian analyst Ramaz Sakvarelidze.

To avoid war, Sakvarelidze suggested, Georgia could stop its demand that Russian peacekeepers leave the separatist regions if, in turn, the troops changed their mandate from being "a wall between conflicting sides to a positive role in helping to build up relations." Georgia alleges the Russian troops support the separatists, essentially making Abkhazia and South Ossetia into proxy states.

Russia meanwhile wields significant influence over Georgia with its natural gas supplies. However, if it tried to cut off supplies, that could encourage Georgia to buy gas from Iran, as it did last winter when an explosion disrupted Russian deliveries to Georgia. That could also lead to new complaints from the West that Russia uses gas as a political weapon.

Russia last week tried to exert international pressure on Georgia by proposing a U.N. Security Council statement expressing grave concern at Tbilisi's actions. But the United States balked _ potentially increasing Russian suspicions that the United States is behind the latest tensions.

"It's obvious that the Georgian authorities have decided on this step under the dictates of the American special services," Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov said last week.

The United States has pursued close relations with Georgia and says its aid is aimed at boosting the country's security and democratic institutions.

Last week, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza urged Russia and Georgia to negotiate, but Putin echoed Russia's suspicions on Sunday.

"These people think that under the roof of their foreign sponsors they can feel comfortable and secure. Is it really so?" Putin said.


AP correspondent Jim Heintz in Moscow contributed to this report.

© 2006 The Associated Press