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Caucasus Reels from Moscow-Tbilisi Fight

As Russian-Georgian relations hit a new low, the whole region is nervous.
By Mikhail Vignansky
"I have a ticket to fly to Moscow tomorrow. Will I be able to fly?" enquires a caller to Tbilisi airport’s information bureau. "There are no flights to Russia right now. Could you call later? Things may change," comes the response.

Over the past few days, operators at the bureau have had to deal with a flood of such calls.

With Russia and Georgia experiencing probably their stormiest row since the collapse of the Soviet Union 15 years ago, Moscow has effectively declared a blockade of Georgia, cancelling all transport and postal links with its southern neighbour. The shutdown is also hurting ordinary people and businesses in Armenia and the North Caucasus.

The tough measures followed the very public arrest on September 27 of four Russian military officers whom the Georgian authorities accused of spying – and continued to do so even after their release.

Initially, Georgia refused to return the arrested, later changing its mind. But even the nature of the handover of the four was insulting for Moscow. Lieutenant colonels Dmitry Kazantsev, Alexander Savva, Alexander Baranov and Captain Alexander Zavgorodny listened to the accusations of espionage against them outside the Georgian general prosecutor's office on October 2 and were then told they were being deported.

Georgian foreign minister Gela Bezhuashvili and current OSCE chairman in office and Belgian foreign minister Karel De Gucht, who had come to Georgia specially to resolve the crisis, were present for this rather theatrical ceremony.

Russian defence minister Sergei Ivanov who met the officers at the airport in Moscow stressed that the men who were "spies" in Georgia were heroes in Russia.

President Mikheil Saakashvili said "there are no threats that can intimidate Georgia", but also pointed out that he wanted a good relationship with Russia. "We do not need Russian military officers but we need Russian tourists. We do not need Russian spies but we need Russian business. Russia and Georgia are historic partners. Our countries are linked by cultures and national traditions and have always lived side by side," said the Georgian leader.

In a conciliatory gesture, Georgia has also agreed to allow Russian peacekeepers in Abkhazia to monitor the Kodori Gorge region alongside UN peacekeepers, something it had previously opposed.

Karel De Gucht urged Moscow to cancel its blockade and "defuse the situation".

Russian president Vladimir Putin had earlier accused “foreign sponsors” of being behind an attempt to "pinch" his country "as hard as possible." And he reportedly told US president George Bush that "any actions by third countries that could be interpreted by Georgia as encouragement of its destructive policy are unacceptable".

Political analyst Ramaz Sakvarelidze said it was significant that the men had been handed over to an intermediary, not directly to Russia. “So even if this was a concession on Georgia's part, it was made to the international community. The international community wanted to regulate the crisis and we decided not to cause them problems. It means that Georgia needs a mediator to speak with Russia," he said.

Georgian politicians dismiss the charge that they are being encouraged in Washington. Georgian parliamentary speaker Nino Burjanadze told IWPR, "Russian political circles seem to be running short of imagination…. Even if we presume that all this is being dictated from overseas, which is absolutely untrue, it nevertheless becomes clear how weak Russia's position is. This means that Russia cannot dictate to Georgia what is advantageous for it but the United States, which is thousands of kilometres away can do this."

Flights between the two countries were halted at midnight Moscow time on October 3 and Russia has also severed maritime, road, and railway links as well as postal communications with Georgia.

Russian parliamentary speaker Boris Gryzlov said, "The sanctions that Russia is imposing are directed against the Saakashvili authorities, not against the Georgian people."

However, it is ordinary Georgian citizens who are suffering the most. "I couldn’t go to my brother's funeral to Moscow. My heart is breaking with grief," said Shota who had not left Tbilisi airport for three days, waiting for a flight to Moscow.

Citizens of landlocked Armenia are also desperately worried about the blockade on Georgia, as Georgia provides them with their main land route to Russia. Businessmen are complaining of halted cargos and potentially huge losses.

“In the long-term this could do serious damage to the economy of Armenia as our route not only to Georgia itself but to the countries of the CIS and Europe lies via Georgia,” said Tatul Manaserian, economist and member of the Armenian parliament.

Vahan Hovhannesian, deputy speaker of parliament, said, “I think it is not the first time that Russia is defining its relations with Georgia and not taking into account the interests of Armenia. Maybe they expect understanding from us, but I for one don’t have any. Because Russia, which is our strategic ally, whether it wants it or not, is taking part in the blockade of Armenia.”

Many in the Russian North Caucasus are also unhappy. The main border crossing between North Ossetia and Georgia at Verkhny Lars has been closed since July for “repair work”. A demonstration was held in Vladikavkaz in September calling for the crossing to be reopened. “Not just Georgians living in North Ossetia but also Ossetians took part in it,” said Alexander Rekhviashvili of Vladikavkaz University. “Both are losing a great deal because the border is closed.”

In Georgia, people are afraid above all of a cold winter without the electricity and gas that Georgia mainly receives from Russia.

Although the Georgia’s energy ministry frequently reassures people with statements about alternative energy resources in the event of an energy blockade by Russia, on the very first day of the downturn in Russian-Georgian relations, pensioner Nelly Kakabadze found time to go to the marketplace and buy a kerosene heater.

"I should also stock up on kerosene and flour. Warmth and bread are the only things that I need," she told IWPR.

The Russian Duma is also considering banning money transfers to - and other banking operations - with Georgia. This information was especially painful news in Georgia. According to information here, during the first eight months of this year, 324 million dollars in transfers was sent to Georgia from foreign countries. By far the largest amount - 219 million dollars - was transferred from Russia and 61 million dollars was sent from Georgia to Russia during the same period. According to Russian data broadcast by the Russian television channel NTV, the remittances to Georgia from Russia are worth 330 million dollars, which is equal to US assistance for Georgia over the last three years.

Georgians living in Russia say that restrictions are already being imposed on them. "Yesterday (October 3), there were long lines of Georgians in almost all banks in Moscow, as we knew that money transfers would soon be stopped," Nani Baramidze who lives in Moscow, told IWPR. “However, by four o'clock yesterday, we were told that it is already impossible to transfer money to Georgia. I have parents there and I send them a small sum every month. I do not know what to do.”

There are also expectations in Tbilisi of a rise in the price of energy resources and food products, including bread.

Economic expert Niko Orvelashvili said it was quite possible Russia would move to raise the price of the energy it supplies to Georgia or suspend supplies altogether. "If Russia uses the lever of energy resources for political purposes, it will show the entire international community that it cannot be a reliable partner in this field," he said. "Anyway, our authorities should already be thinking about creating stocks of oil products and people about how to survive one more 'dark' winter."

The crisis has also changed the domestic political climate in Georgia. Ahead of the October 5 local elections, almost all political movements, including the opposition, stated that, despite internal divisions, they had no differences from the government on policy towards Russia. Opposition Conservative Party leader Koba Davitashvili called for a “human chain” to be made round the Russian embassy on October 4 as a demonstration of Georgian unity.

"Russian politicians should not harbour any illusions that any pressure not only on the government but also Georgia and the Georgian nation will achieve results, and forces that will agree to succumb to Russia's will can emerge in this country," he said.

Mikhail Vignansky is a correspondent for Spanish news agency EFE and the Moscow newspaper Vremya Novostei. Armenian journalists Tatul Hakobian and Diana Markosian and IWPR North Caucasus coordinator Valery Dzutsev also contributed to this report.

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