- The Washington Times - Monday, October 2, 2006

TBILISI, Georgia — Georgia released four Russian officers whose arrest on spying charges angered its giant northern neighbor, but a vengeful Russia pushed ahead yesterday with punitive sanctions aimed at dealing a painful blow to the economically struggling Caucasus nation.

Georgia’s agreement to release the men — even as it reaffirmed the spying accusations against them — appeared to be a capitulation that underscored its vulnerability.

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 renewed violence.

Infuriated by Wednesday’s arrests, Russia 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.

In a potentially even 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 — at about 1 million. Georgia’s population is 4.7 million.

Russia’s lower house speaker, Boris Gryzlov, said yesterday that Georgians living in Russia send home an estimated $1 billion a year. In June, Mr. Putin put the amount at $1.5 billion to $2 billion annually — an amount comparable to Georgia’s state budget.

Yesterday’s sanctions follow a government session at which Mr. Putin denounced the arrests as “state terrorism involving hostage-taking” and ordered top Cabinet members to draw up retaliatory measures. “These people think that under the roof of their foreign sponsors they can feel comfortable and secure. Is it really so?” Mr. Putin questioned ominously.

Russia’s chilly relations with Georgia have worsened steadily since President Mikhail Saakashvili came to power after Georgia’s 2003 “Rose Revolution,” vowing to take the country out of Russia’s orbit, bring breakaway provinces back into fold and join NATO in 2008.

The Kremlin said Mr. Putin discussed the situations in both Georgia and Iran with President Bush in a phone conversation yesterday.

Mr. Putin underlined “the unacceptability and danger of any actions by third nations that could be interpreted by the Georgian leadership as an encouragement of its destructive policy,” the Kremlin said in an apparent reference to U.S. support for Mr. Saakashvili’s government.

Russia last week tried to exert international pressure on Georgia by proposing a U.N. Security Council statement expressing grave concern at Tbilisi’s actions. But the United States balked — adding to Russian suspicions that it was behind the latest tensions.

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