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Russia Deports Georgians Amid Rising Diplomatic Tensions

  • Bill Gasperini

Russia has deported a planeload of Georgians it accused of being illegal migrants, and continued a crackdown on Georgian-owned businesses. The actions mark a further deterioration in relations following Georgia's arrest last week of four Russian army officers it accused of spying.

Police in Russia have conducted raids against Georgian-owned markets, shops and restaurants and cracked down on illegal immigrants. Officials said at least 140 Georgians were deported by plane Friday.

A spokesman for the Moscow city education department said police were asking schools for lists of students with Georgian names, whose parents might be in Russia illegally.

Several major Georgian businesses have been closed, as state television broadcasts video footage showing police agents in ski masks looking through casinos and other establishments run by Georgians.

Immigration officials say laws will soon be tightened to restrict the flow of any new immigrants from the Caucasus Mountain nation, while those found to lack proper documents will be deported.

About one million Georgians work in Russia, many of them illegally, and their families rely on the money they send home.

Mikhail Tyurkin of the Federal Immigration Security service says a long-standing quota system allowing Georgians to work in Russia will be changed, and that new residency and labor permits will no longer be granted to people from the neighboring country.

The crackdown follows Georgia's detention last week of four Russian military officers. The four men were later released, and flew home on Monday. But that did little to appease President Vladimir Putin and other top Russian officials.

The Russian leader has met with his Cabinet almost daily to discuss new measures against what he calls a "bandit state," he accuses of implementing an anti-Russian policy.

In his latest meeting, Mr. Putin called on law enforcement agents to seek out what he called groups with "mafia ties," who, he said, are known to control certain outdoor markets.

The crackdown began earlier this week when Russia cut off all transport and postal links with Georgia, an action criticized as "disproportionate" by the European Union.

The United States has also called on the two countries to settle their differences.

Russia's parliament is debating a measure that would cut banking links with Georgia, an action that is sure to have an economic impact given the huge number of people working in Russia who send money home to relatives.

Meanwhile, Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili claimed victory for his party in municipal elections on Thursday, although several opposition political figures say the voting was unfair.

Tensions with Russia have been on the rise since Mr. Saakashvili came to power almost three years ago, pledging to implement more pro-Western policies, including a bid to take his former Warsaw pact country into the NATO military alliance.

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