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Russia Cuts Travel Links With Georgia

By MISHA DZHINDZHIKHASHVILI
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.

Even before last week's arrest of the officers, ties between Tbilisi and Moscow were strained over Georgia's allegations that Russia is backing separatists in its breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Russia has denied it is supporting the regions.

At the United Nations in New York, Russia ratcheted up the pressure by circulating a draft U.N. Security Council resolution that would link the future of a U.N. observer mission with demands that Georgia stop "provocative actions" over the Abkhazia region.

The draft is a break with standard practice because it links what would normally be a routine extension of the U.N. Observer Force in Georgia to the recent tensions. The mission's mandate expires on Oct. 15.

That raises the threat that the latest dispute could jeopardize the peacekeeping mission's future. The United States had blocked earlier Russian attempts to condemn Georgia's actions.

In a report released Tuesday, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said "a new and tense situation" had been created by Georgia's operation in the Kodori Gorge.

The Russian draft urges Georgia to "return to the status quo available before the entry of its units into the Kodori Valley."

Lavrov said the sanctions, which took effect at midnight Monday, were aimed at cutting off illegal flows of money he claimed was being used by the Georgian leadership to increase its military might in preparation for the "forceful seizure" of the pro-Russian provinces.

In a potentially more crippling blow, Russian lawmakers scheduled debates this week on a new bill that could bar Georgians living in Russia from wiring money home. About 300,000 Georgians live in Russia, according to Russian officials, but some estimates put their number as high as 1 million. Georgia has a population of 4.4 million.

Georgians living in Russia send home an estimated $1.5 billion to $2 billion annually _ an amount comparable to Georgia's state budget. "These measures will not give the desired results and in the end will hurt Russia itself," Georgia's Foreign Ministry said.

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Associated Press writers Henry Meyer and Steve Gutterman contributed to this report from Moscow.

© 2006 The Associated Press