No country can get away with threatening Russia, Putin warns Georgia

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The Independent Online

President Vladimir Putin warned Georgia today that no country should get away with threatening Russia, setting the stage for passage of a parliamentary motion fiercely condemning Tbilisi's pro-Western leadership.

"I would not counsel anyone to talk to Russia in the language of provocations and blackmail," Putin told the heads of the parliamentary factions, adding that he was speaking specifically about Georgia.

Moscow slapped transport and postal sanctions on Georgia in response to Georgia's arrest last week of four Russian officers accused of espionage. Georgia released the officers on Monday, but the Kremlin has refused to back down despite Western calls for an end to the punitive measures. Lawmakers were to vote on a toughly worded resolution on Georgia later Wednesday.

Police, meanwhile, were targeting the large Georgian Diaspora in Moscow with raids of businesses and restaurants and the Russian parliament is set this week to consider a bill that would allow the government to bar Georgians living in Russia from sending money home — which would deal a huge blow to Georgia's struggling economy.

According to some estimates, about 1 million of Georgia's 4.4 million population work in Russia, and their families rely on the hundreds of millions of dollars (euros) in annual remittances.

Moscow's aim appears to be to punish Georgia's President Mikhail Saakashvili for his defiance of Russia through the detention of its officers on spying charges. The dispute more widely reflects Kremlin alarm at Tbilisi's goal of NATO membership and the growing U.S. influence in its former Soviet backyard.

A Kremlin official said the sanctions — a suspension of air, road, maritime, rail and postal links — would not be lifted until Georgia ended its "hostile rhetoric" toward Russia.

"The range of measures are a response to the situation and consequently their duration will depend on how long the hostile rhetoric (of the Georgian leadership) continues," the news Web site quoted Modest Kolerov, the Russian presidential administration's official in charge of regional relations, as saying.

Piling on the pressure, authorities Tuesday closed a popular casino run by Georgians in the Russian capital, saying it did not have authorization for its casino tables and slot machines. They also raided a hotel and two restaurants run by Georgians, saying they could be closed for legal violations.

The Kommersant daily quoted police officials as saying that 40 Georgian restaurants and shops in downtown Moscow would be raided in the next few days.

Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, meanwhile, said Wednesday that the pullout of Russian troops in Georgia could be accelerated because of the tensions there.

He told reporters on a visit to the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek, that Russia would "be withdrawing the Russian bases there according to the schedule, and maybe in an accelerated order. Because everybody understands the state of our soldiers and officers give the conditions that they are in there."

Russia has 3,000-4,000 troops at two military bases in Georgia, and pledged in a deal signed last year to withdraw its troops by the end of 2008.

Russia's chilly relations with Georgia have worsened steadily since Saakashvili came to power following the 2003 Rose Revolution, vowing to take the country out of Russia's orbit, reign in the breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and join NATO in 2008.

Georgia accuses Russia of backing the separatists, which Russia denies.

Pro-Western Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko's party, meanwhile, sharply criticized Russia's blockade against Georgia, saying it confirmed the Kremlin's imperial ambitions toward ex-Soviet states.