Russia-Georgia tensions rise

Sanctions to remain in place, Moscow says

October 04, 2006|By New York Times News Service

MOSCOW --Tensions heightened yesterday, as Russian officials said sanctions will remain in effect indefinitely even though Georgia has released the four Russian military officers arrested last week on suspicion of spying.

The Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, said the sanctions - the suspension of cross-border transportation links and postal service, which were announced Monday and took effect yesterday - are meant to cut off what he said were illegal transfers of cash from the sizable Georgian population in Russia, which he said was financing the buildup of Georgia's military.

The arrest of the four Russian officers last week on espionage charges touched off a new round of furious accusations between the two countries, whose relations have been tense for years. The officers were released Monday.

Russia's lower house of parliament announced yesterday that it was drafting a bill to bar money transfers to Georgia and would vote on it as soon as today, though some reports suggested that a quick vote was unlikely. The Georgian economy depends heavily on money from Georgians living abroad, especially in Russia.

Lavrov said Georgia was expanding its army so it could seize control of two breakaway regions of the country, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which receive significant support from Russia. In remarks reminiscent of the Cold War, Lavrov suggested that Georgia had arrested the Russian officers with the tacit encouragement of the United States and NATO, which agreed last month on a schedule for negotiations on Georgia's potential membership in the military alliance.

"The seizure of our officers immediately followed, I repeat, NATO's decision to grant Georgia an intense cooperation plan, intense dialogue," Lavrov said, adding that NATO's step followed a recent visit to Washington by Georgia's president, Mikhail Saakashvili.

"We certainly make note of the assurances of our American colleagues that they have constantly tried to keep the Georgian leadership from abrupt acts, but the chronology was the way I have just explained: a visit to Washington, NATO's decision, the taking of hostages," Lavrov said.

His remarks coincided with Russian retaliatory steps aimed at Georgia or Georgian economic interests. Those steps were accompanied by a flood of news reports about Georgian criminality.

Yesterday morning, Interior Ministry officers raided a Moscow casino called Krystal, where, the official Russian Information Agency reported, they found 84 gambling tables and 259 slot machines without proper documentation, and a "large amount of caviar" in the casino's kitchen that the owners could not prove was legal or safe.

Later in the day, the Interior Ministry seized a Moscow hotel linked to the Georgian Embassy, and city authorities said they had confiscated 500,000 bottles of Georgian wine that had evaded a Russian import ban imposed this year.

By yesterday evening, a small crowd of protesters had appeared in front of the Georgian Embassy, and the International House of Music said a scheduled performance by a renowned Georgian dance troupe would be canceled.

It was unclear how far Russia would go to sever economic ties. All flights between Russia and Tbilisi were canceled, but Gazprom, Russia's gas monopoly, said it would not interrupt gas supplies.

In Georgia, Saakashvili said the potential effect of Russia's economic pressure was "grossly exaggerated." He defended the decision to arrest the Russian officers, and he remained defiant.

"We are prepared to live without Russia," he said.

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