Russia slams Georgia for arrests on spy charges

September 29, 2006|By Alex Rodriguez | Alex Rodriguez,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

MOSCOW -- Russia reacted furiously yesterday to the Georgian government's arrests of five Russian military officers on spying charges, labeling Georgia's actions "wild and hysterical" and calling for a partial evacuation of Russian diplomats and their families from its southern neighbor.

Georgian authorities have yet to fully lay out the charges against the five officers, saying only that the men set up a spy ring that for several years sought information about Georgia's defense capabilities, energy security and integration plans with NATO.

The officers were arrested Wednesday in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, and in the Black Sea port of Batumi. Georgian police have also cordoned off Russia's military headquarters in Tbilisi, where authorities say a sixth Russian military intelligence officer is hiding to avoid arrest.

The arrests drew condemnations from top Russian officials, including Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, who demanded the officers' release and called the charges "moronic and absolutely far-fetched."

"I would not be surprised if they get indicted for planning to steal the sun from the sky," Ivanov said.

The Russian Foreign Ministry said it was concerned about the safety of Russian Embassy workers and their families in Georgia and would begin a partial evacuation today. A statement on the ministry's Web site urged all Russians to avoid traveling to Georgia.

The ministry also recalled Russia's ambassador to Georgia, and the embassy in Tbilisi stopped issuing visas to Georgians planning to travel to Russia.

Moscow's relationship with Georgia has always been strained, but it worsened considerably with the rise of Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, the Western-educated reformist who led the Rose Revolution against Eduard A. Shevardnadze in 2003.

Saakashvili has turned his small mountainous republic on Russia's southern border into a strong U.S. ally that now vigorously pursues membership into NATO and integration with Europe.

As Georgia has drawn closer to the West, Moscow has stepped up pressure on Tbilisi. This year Moscow imposed a ban on imports of Georgian wine and mineral water, claiming they were unsafe.

Georgia also accuses Russia of keeping alive separatist movements in the breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia by providing military support to those movements and maintaining troop contingents in both regions.

Russia has military bases in Batumi and near the Georgian- Armenian border, holdovers from the Soviet era that house about 3,000 troops. But the Kremlin has pledged to shut those bases by 2008.

The officers arrested Wednesday were members of Russia's military intelligence service and are not protected by diplomatic immunity, Georgian authorities said. At least 10 Georgian nationals suspected of working with the officers were also arrested.

Georgian Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili said that the men would be formally charged today and that reporters would be given audio and video evidence that supports the allegations.

Speaking on Georgian television, Saakashvili defended the arrests, saying the activities of the officers crossed "a certain boundary that no one should cross. ... Everyone should understand that we are no longer the vague territorial entity we once were under Shevardnadze, but a proper, efficient and effective democratic state."

Alex Rodriguez writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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