Unswayed by West, Russia Continues Georgia Blockade

By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, October 4, 2006

MOSCOW Oct. 3 -- Russia signaled Tuesday that it would not lift a transportation blockade on Georgia despite the release of four Russian officers detained on espionage charges and calls from the European Union and the United States for the two countries to find ways to ease tensions.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Tuesday that his country had "no plans for the time being" to restore postal and transportation links, including commercial flights and train service, that were severed Monday as the four military officers were about to be released.

"One must not feed off Russia and insult it," Lavrov said at a media briefing Tuesday that was marked by harsh language. "The Georgian leadership must understand this."

Relations between the two countries have worsened since Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili came to power in early 2004 on the promise of taking his country into the NATO military alliance and out of Russia's sphere of influence. Tensions are also heightened by two breakaway regions in Georgia -- South Ossetia and Abkhazia -- that receive support from Moscow.

Saakashvili has said he is determined to reassert Georgian sovereignty over the two areas, which are patrolled by Russian peacekeepers.

In Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomioja of Finland, which holds the rotating E.U. presidency, said Moscow's sanctions seemed disproportionate and warned against "more acute measures." On Monday, the U.S. State Department also called on Russia and Georgia to take steps to "de-escalate tensions in the days and weeks ahead."

"We think that hot rhetoric on either side or sanctions is not a good idea," Daniel Fried, assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, said in a telephone interview. "This is a time for reflection and for both sides to work together. . . . It's too bad Russia is not taking the opportunity to de-escalate."

But Lavrov was not in a charitable mood. "There are attempts by some figures to say that the Russian officers have been released, the situation has calmed down and let's do things as before," he said. "We don't want to do things as before."

The Russian foreign minister accused Georgia of illegally acquiring Soviet- or Russian- made arms in Europe, and he said the sellers, whom he did not identify, were violating a ban on transferring those weapons to third parties.

He said Russia was "seriously worried by total militarization in Georgia," noting a call-up of reservists by the government.

"The Georgian budget is not very big," Lavrov said. "Money is coming via different channels, including illegally from Russia, where this money is largely made by criminal methods. These channels will be blocked, too."

Lavrov provided no details, but the statement appeared to be a reference to remittances sent back to Georgia by some of the estimated 300,000 Georgian immigrants here; some estimates put the number of Georgians in Russia, many of them here illegally, closer to 1 million. The population of Georgia is 4.6 million.

Russian lawmakers scheduled a debate on a bill that would bar Georgians from transferring money home.

"These measures will not give the desired results and in the end will hurt Russia itself," Georgia's Foreign Ministry said in a statement Tuesday.

Lavrov also noted that Georgia had arrested the Russians after Saakashvili had visited Washington and NATO had agreed to an intensive dialogue with the country on membership.

"We certainly make note of the assurances of our U.S. colleagues that they have constantly tried to keep the Georgian leadership from abrupt moves," Lavrov said. "But the chronology was the way I have just explained -- a visit to Washington, NATO's decision, hostage-taking -- and the charges were laughable and groundless."

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