Putin and Georgia Officials Intensify Rhetoric in Dispute

By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, October 2, 2006

MOSCOW, Oct. 1 -- Russian President Vladimir Putin accused the Georgian government of "state terrorism with hostage-taking" in a blistering attack Sunday that followed the arrests on espionage charges last week of four Russian military officers in Georgia.

Georgian officials, meanwhile, said Putin had met last week with the leaders of two breakaway regions that are inside Georgia's internationally recognized borders. The Kremlin would neither "confirm nor deny" that Putin had met with the separatist leaders of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, where he was working last week.

Putin's harsh tone and, if confirmed, a meeting with the separatist leaders would presage a major rupture in relations between Russia and Georgia, which have been at odds since Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili came to power in January 2004 and set the former Soviet republic on a course away from Russian influence and toward membership in the NATO alliance.

Russia has provided quiet support to the two breakaway regions, including extending citizenship to many of their residents. But a meeting between Putin and their leaders would signify an open relationship that would infuriate the Georgians.

"This is an open support of separatism by Russia's leadership," Georgia's foreign minister, Gela Bezhuashvili, told reporters in Tbilisi, the country's capital.

Russia has signaled that any attempt to extend independence to Kosovo, a province of Serbia that has been administered by the United Nations since 1999, would provide a precedent for Abkhazia and South Ossetia to break away from Georgia. Both regions have been effectively independent since they routed Georgian forces in short wars in the early 1990s.

Saakashvili has said he is determined to reassert Georgian sovereignty over the two areas, and scrimmages along the borders in recent years have repeatedly threatened to spark renewed warfare. Russian forces are present in both regions -- as peacekeepers, according to Russia. Georgian officials say the Russian troops are propping up illegitimate governments.

Russia also maintains bases in other parts of Georgia, and Gen. Andrei Popov, head of the Russian military in the Caucasus, said on Sunday that any attempt to enter the facilities would be met with "deadly force." Georgian officials are seeking the arrest of a fifth Russian military officer who they say is in hiding in Russian military headquarters in Tbilisi.

Putin's comment came during a meeting at his country home outside Moscow to discuss the situation with senior ministers, leading legislators, armed forces chiefs and intelligence officials.

"The president described the actions of Georgia's leadership as an act of state terrorism with hostage-taking," the Kremlin said in a statement.

Before the meeting, Putin compared the arrests to the work of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin's secret police chief, Lavrenti Beria, who, like Stalin, was a Georgian known for bloodthirsty ruthlessness.

"Our servicemen, as is known, have been detained and put behind bars," Putin said, making his first public comments on the crisis. "It is a sign of the legacy of Lavrenti Pavlovich Beria's policy."

On Thursday, Russia recalled its ambassador and evacuated other diplomats and their families from Georgia.

Georgian officials denounced the comments of Putin and other Russian officials as bellicose. "Our opinion is that this warlike rhetoric . . . can be described as an explicit threat to use military force," the Georgian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

The intensity of the rhetoric has alarmed Western officials, who are calling for a negotiated settlement and privately urging the Georgians to find a quick solution, probably by expelling the Russians rather than putting them on trial, diplomats said.

Some Russian legislators are calling for a military solution, which would put Russia in conflict with a close U.S. ally with a force trained by Americans. Senior Russian officials so far have ruled out that option.

Putin hinted that the Georgians had been emboldened by their ties to the United States.

"By all appearances, those who are doing it believe that this anti-Russian bias in foreign policy meets the interests of the Georgian people," he said. "But I do not think so. These people believe that, being under the cover of their foreign sponsors, they can feel comfortable and safe. But is it really so?"

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