Russia issues sanctions on Georgia despite freed officers
Four had been arrested for allegedly spying
TBILISI, Georgia -- Georgia released four Russian officers whose arrests on spying charges have angered its giant northern neighbor, but Russia pushed ahead yesterday with punitive sanctions aimed at dealing a painful blow to the economically struggling Caucasus nation.
The tension reflected Moscow's difficult relations with Georgia, which has defied President Vladimir Putin with a pro-Western stance, hosts unwanted Russian troops on its soil, and is facing two Russian-backed separatist movements that could flare up in new violence.
Georgia's agreement to release the men -- even as it reaffirmed the spying allegations against them -- appeared to be a capitulation that underscored its vulnerability. To many Russians, however, the very fact that the former Soviet republic dared detain the men was an affront to Moscow's prestige and its ability to project power and influence across an area many Russians still call ``the near abroad."
The questions on the table are how long the sanctions will last, if Russia will go ahead with plans to withdraw its military presence in Georgia by 2008, and whether the crisis can be ended without new violence in the separatist regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The two regions have run their affairs without international recognition since the early 1990s.
Russia has granted its citizenship to many residents of the rebel provinces, which have had de facto independence since breaking away from Georgia in bloody wars in the early 1990s. Separatist leaders have regularly traveled to Russia for meetings with top officials.
The Kremlin's willingness and ability to provide strong backing for Georgia's breakaway regions are watched closely elsewhere in the former Soviet Union. The Soviet collapse left a kaleidoscope of ethnic groups clamoring for autonomy, independence, or greater links to Russia.
``We won't forgive those who spit at us," Russian parliament's upper house speaker, Sergei Mironov, said.
Infuriated by Wednesday's arrests, Russia has put its troops in Georgia on high alert, recalled its ambassador, and evacuated its citizens. And even though Georgian officials announced early yesterday that the officers would be handed over to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and sent home, Russia's transport and communications ministries declared that all air, road, rail, sea, and postal links with Georgia would be suspended starting today.
Visiting Foreign Minister Karel De Gucht of Belgium, who holds the rotating security and cooperation organization chairmanship, urged Russia to respond to the officers' release by restoring transport and postal links.
But in a potentially more crippling blow, Russian lawmakers scheduled debate this week on a bill that could bar Georgians living in Russia from cabling money home. Russian officials say about 300,000 Georgians live in Russia; some estimates put the number far higher .