Russia Cuts Travel Links With Georgia

The Associated Press
Tuesday, October 3, 2006; 10:02 PM

TBILISI, Georgia -- Exasperated Georgians crowded at the capital's airport in disbelief Tuesday after Russia cut all travel links with the former Soviet republic in retaliation for detaining four of its military officers for espionage.

Moscow refused international pressure to lift the suspension of road, rail, air, maritime and postal links, saying Tbilisi deeply insulted it by arresting the officers. Georgia released the men Monday and they were permitted to return to Russia.

"One must not feed off Russia and insult it. The Georgian leadership must understand this," Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told reporters in Moscow.

The punitive measures, which dealt a painful blow to economically struggling Georgia, mark the first time Russia has used such pressure against a former Soviet state. They reflect the Kremlin's irritation over Georgia's pro-Western policies and NATO ambitions and signal a struggle for influence with Washington in Moscow's former Soviet backyard.

"How can they treat people like that?" asked Valentina Tatarenko, one of several hundred angry passengers stranded at the Tbilisi airport. She said she was trying to travel to Moscow for her brother's funeral but found all flights to the Russian capital canceled.

Murtaz Tavberidze, 50, said he would have to drive a winding mountain road to neighboring Armenia to catch a flight to Moscow.

"I can't understand why Russia is punishing simple people, especially after Georgia released the officers," he said.

The European Union said the Russian retaliation was disproportionate and appealed for calm. Finnish Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomioja, whose country holds the EU presidency, said both sides had overreacted and warned against any "more acute measures."

"We stressed that in this situation, even if being provoked, one shouldn't become provoked," Tuomioja told Finnish broadcaster YLE from Tbilisi after meeting President Mikhail Saakashvili.

The Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe urged Russia to respond to the officers' release by restoring travel and postal links. The State Department said Monday it encouraged Russia and Georgia to take steps to "de-escalate tensions in the days and weeks ahead."

Without naming any countries, Lavrov suggested the West was encouraging Saakashvili in what he called "absolutely, consistently anti-Russian actions," and criticized the United States for blocking adoption of a Russian-proposed U.N. Security Council statement expressing grave concern at Georgia's actions.

"We have warned ... third countries of the extreme danger of flirting with the Saakashvili regime, the extreme danger of indulging the policies the regime has pursued in relation to Russia, to its own people and to the conflicts that persist on its territory," he said.

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