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Georgia released four Russian officers arrested last week on espionage charges to the world's largest regional security organization Monday
Georgia released four Russian officers arrested last week on espionage charges to the world's largest regional security organization Monday, but the continuing spat with Moscow deteriorated as Russia suspended transport links with its southern neighbor. Karel De Gucht, the chairman-in-office of the 55-nation Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, flew into the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, for talks with President Mikheil Saakashvili in a bid to defuse a crisis that has provoked reciprocal strong-worded accusations and even the specter of military operations. OSCE representatives received the quartet of handcuffed officers who were accompanied by police to cars waiting to take them to Tbilisi airport after being told they were personae non grata in Georgia. "You, Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Savva, Major Dmitry Kazantsev, Lieutenant Colonel Alexei Zavgorodny, Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Baranov have been charged with espionage against Georgia... You are being deported from the country, and will from today be banned from entering Georgia's territory," a spokesperson told them. Russia's military command in the South Caucasus, which is based in Tbilisi, later announced that a fifth officer wanted by the Georgian authorities, Lieutenant Colonel Konstantin Pichugin, had joined his colleagues on the flight home. But although the Russian officers are expected in their homeland later tonight, Moscow, which dismissed the spying charges from start of the scandal on Wednesday, had already said it was temporarily closing transportation routes with its former Soviet stable mate and suspending postal services. It also hinted at the possibility of suspending banking operations and money transfers between the two countries. Freezing links Senior Russian politicians clamored for economic sanctions to be imposed on Georgia at the end of last week and today two ministries responded by suspending services in a move that is bound to affect Georgia's economy. The Transportation Ministry announced it was suspending travel links with Georgia. "We have suspended air, railways, road, sea and bus transportation to Georgia," a statement said. Aeroflot, Russia's national air carrier, soon announced it was suspending its six flights a week from early Tuesday morning, and railroad monopoly Russian Railways said its services would also be put on hold on the same day. The Information Technologies Ministry followed suit by saying mail links had also been temporarily stopped. The move, which comes after a ban on Georgian mineral water and wine earlier in the year, will almost certainly hit Georgia's economy hard given that many Georgians come to work in the Russian capital and send money home to relatives. Earlier Monday, Vyacheslav Volodin, a deputy speaker of Russia's lower house of parliament, said more than 300,000 Georgians worked in Russia. "The Russian capital gives them the opportunity to work and resolve their living problems," he said. "And this is despite only 0.7% of them having the official registration documents required to work in Russia." Volodin added that the Georgian diaspora in Russia transferred huge amounts of money from Russia to support their families in Georgia. The Central Bank of Russia said last week that money transfers from Russia to Georgia made up about 4% of Georgia's GDP. Another official, Alexander Neradko, the head of the Federal Air Transportation Agency, tried to play down the political overtones of the decision to suspend air traffic with Georgia, saying it was based on the South Caucasus country's outstanding debt. Georgia's overdue debt stood at more than $3.6 million in addition to the current figure of $176,000, he said. Presidents speak Russia's reaction to the scandal had been expected since several ministers and senior members of parliament spoke in favor of retaliating to the Georgian move last week. Many favored the imposition of economic sanctions - Georgia is all but reliant on Russian natural gas and electricity - but President Vladimir Putin called a meeting of his security council Sunday to discuss all possibilities. Addressing the session, he was scathing of the Georgian authorities, comparing them with Stalin's head of the secret police, Lavrenty Beria. Like the Soviet strong-man, he was an ethnic Georgian and is generally held responsible for the imprisonment and deaths of millions of Soviets in the immediate pre- and post-war periods. "It seems as if Georgia is trying to follow Beria's policy both internally and on the international arena," Putin said. Russia recalled its ambassador to Tbilisi and evacuated the vast majority of its embassy staff and their families late last week. And with the situation spiraling, Saakashvili sought to defuse tension Monday by saying he only wanted Moscow to treat his country in the manner it conducted relations with other former communist-bloc nations. "Problems between Georgia and Russia will end after Russia accepts us as we are," he said. "The way it accepted Poland and Estonia..." He also told reporters at a later news conference with De Gucht, who is also Belgium's foreign minister, that he thought military action was unlikely, though he added his country of 5 million would not be easily cowed by its bigger northern neighbor. "I rule out any military steps from Russia but we are not afraid of them," he said. Putin had criticized Georgia for its links with the United States on Sunday and seemed to hint the military operations were not out of the question at the Security Council meeting, attended by the defense minister and the chief of the General Staff. It is perfectly clear that Russia is being provoked, the president said. "Evidently those who are doing this believe that an anti-Russian direction in foreign policy serves the interests of the Georgian people," he said. "I do not think this is so. These people think that, being under the protection of their foreign sponsors, they can feel comfortable and safe." Situated at the strategically important crossroads between the Caspian and Black seas, Georgia has become a subject of serious rivalry between Moscow and Washington in recent years. The U.S. has invested heavily in an oil pipeline from Azerbaijan via Georgia to Turkey and provided financial support and training for the Georgian armed forces. The Kremlin announced Monday evening that Putin had held a telephone conversation with U.S. President Bush during which he issued an oblique warning over the situation. "The Russian side highlighted that any actions of third countries that Georgia's leadership could interpret as encouraging its destructive policy were unacceptable and dangerous for peace and stability in the region," the news service said. A long-running dispute Since early 1990s, Georgia has endured periods of violence related to bloody conflicts with the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which both have close ties with Russia. Russia's involvement in peacekeeping operations on the Georgian territory has been a constant cause for tension between the two countries. Tbilisi has accused Moscow of siding with the separatists and demanded that the Russian peacekeepers in both regions be replaced by an international peacekeeping contingent. Another irritant in relations has been two Soviet-era bases manned by Russians that Moscow has said it will withdraw from by 2008. Tbilisi has consistently demanded that the pullout be completed from the southern city of Akhalkalaki and Batumi in the west as soon as possible, but Moscow has defended its right to stick to the agreed timetable by saying it did not want to repeat the mistakes of eastern Europe. Thousands of soldiers returned to their homeland after the collapse of the iron curtain only to find there was no accommodation for them. Commander of the Russian military contingent in South Caucasus, Major General Andrei Popov said that according to Russian law, military bases abroad are treated as Russian territory, and any attack on them by a foreign state is considered an act of aggression against Russia, which must be countered by any means necessary. "In the case of a contingency situation or a provocation, troops are ready to counter them by any means necessary, including shooting to kill," he said. He also said Monday that the two bases remained on high alert in the wake of the espionage spat. But at his news conference with De Gucht, Saakashvili seemed to go to great lengths to defuse the problems. "We do not want the Russian military but we want Russian tourists," he said. "We do not want Russian spies but we want Russian business."
Print Georgia released four Russian officers arrested last week on espionage charges to the world's largest regional security organization Monday Bookmark Georgia released four Russian officers arrested last week on espionage charges to the world's largest regional security organization Monday

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