Russia steps up blockade on Georgia

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The Independent Online

Russia has stepped up its economic and diplomatic blockade of neighbouring Georgia, severing all land, sea, and postal links with the small former Soviet republic in order to punish it for accusing four Russian military officers of spying.

Moscow's hardline reaction came despite the four men being allowed to fly home to Russia yesterday after Georgia's President, Mikhail Saakashvili, handed them over to the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe during a ceremony in which the world's media was invited to watch the "spies" having their handcuffs removed.

"The message to Russia is: 'Enough is enough'," Mr Saakashvili told reporters.

"We want to have good relations. We want to have dialogue. But we cannot be treated as a second-rate backyard of some kind of emerging empire."

Anger in Russia over the row is still boiling, however, and the Russian parliament threatened to bring more misery to Georgia, tabling debates to discuss the possibility of banning Georgians living in Russia from transferring their earnings back home. The Kremlin has branded the spying allegation against the officers as "outrageous".

If approved, the measure would hit Georgia's economy hard as an estimated one million Georgian nationals live outside the country with the vast majority - up to 60 per cent according to Tbilisi - living and working in Russia. Georgia's release of the four men could calm emotions, though, and is a sign of how vulnerable the former Russian vassal is to the mounting pressure from Moscow.

President George Bush phoned President Vladimir Putin to discuss the crisis while US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, was reported to have spoken to Mr Saakashvili.

Tension has been ratcheted up with Russia complaining to the UN Security Council, in effect severing diplomatic relations with Tbilisi, and ordering its troops stationed on Georgian soil to shoot to kill if threatened.

Mr Saakashvili argues that Moscow is trying to topple its pro-Western government using every weapon at its disposal. In an interview with The Independent and other international titles President Saakashvili even went so far as to accuse Moscow of seeking to intimidate him and his officials by "hunting" them down like birds whenever they travelled in helicopters over Russian-controlled territory.

Though he stopped short of accusing Russia of operating a targeted assassination policy, the US-educated President alleged that Moscow could not get used to the fact that it had lost its empire and was resorting to increasingly crude methods to try to bring Georgia back into its sphere of influence. "They [the Russians] have got more and more arrogant and more and more nasty. They started to hunt us like birds in the sky by shooting down our helicopters. They shot down our Defence Minister but luckily he survived." He described how he had listened in awe to Kremlin political scientists muse on Russian state-controlled TV about the option of "getting rid of him physically".

"The idea is not about targeting me specifically but about creating instability."

The problem, he argued, was that Russia was furious about his plans to join Nato and the EU.

To make Georgia's life more difficult he claimed Moscow was directly aiding two breakaway regions to remain beyond his and Georgia's control in order to keep his country weak.

There are some 2,500 Russian "peacekeepers" in the two provinces, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and a further 4,000 Russian troops in Georgia proper as a hangover from the Soviet era. The soldiers on uncontested Georgian territory are due to withdraw in 2008 but the peacekeepers in the breakaway regions, whom he refers to as "troublemakers", have no plans to pull out.

He said that Russia's pressure on his government, which extends to a ban on one of its most important exports, its wine, was counterproductive.

"They tried energy price rises, the heart of our economy, and they tried a visa crackdown, but we have found alternative supplies. Every lever of pressure has been tried.

"But there are certain limits to what you can do to a country. I'm sorry but we're our own country. Might does not always mean right," he said.