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Russia - Georgia Standoff Shows No Sign of Ending Soon


A bitter dispute between Russia and Georgia shows no sign of ending soon following Moscow's decision last month to impose harsh sanctions against Tbilisi after authorities there arrested and expelled four Russian army officers on espionage charges. Observers say the relations between the two countries are at their lowest point ever, but note that neither nation seems interested in resolving their differences.

It has been a tough month for Georgians living in Moscow - their businesses have been shut down and more than one hundred Georgians have been deported, accused of being illegal immigrants.

Their problems began last month, when four Russian officers were arrested in Tbilisi on charges of espionage. They were quickly returned home but Moscow continues to maintain the sanctions. These include severing all transport and postal links, as well as evacuating some of its personnel from Georgia and suspending visas granted to Georgian nationals.

Some observers in Moscow, such as the Kremlin-connected political analyst Sergei Markov, say the United States and Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili are to blame for the escalation of tensions, not Russia. "Georgia is our country. There are probably more Georgians living in Russia than in Georgia itself. These people are the main victims of Saakashvili's insane policy that is unfortunately supported by the insane people in Washington."

American-educated Mikhail Saakashvili came to power in 2004 following the so-called "Rose Revolution" in Georgia. Since taking office, he has forged a closer alliance between Georgia and Western Europe. Recently, Tbilisi entered talks with NATO - a move that clearly angered Russia.

Nikolai Petrov, an expert with Moscow's Carnegie Endowment, says the cooling of relations between Moscow and Tbilisi is a sign of Russia's weakening influence in the post-Soviet territory. "It is quite irritating for the Russian leadership that next to its border, in the zone that it considers to be of vital Russian interest, Western countries are conducting an active policy. And Russia takes that as an unfriendly attitude towards the country, especially now, when it strengthened its positions economically and politically."

Sergei Lukyanov, Editor-in-Chief of the English-language news magazine "Russia In Global Affairs", says the Kremlin's sanctions are part of a government campaign to undermine the Georgian leader. "I think that one of the ideas behind the Russian behavior which is not very well calculated is to try to force a regime change in Georgia, because one of calculation is that the situation will deteriorate so extremely in Georgia that there will be some kind of uprising or coup d'etat."

Russia also has tense relations with Ukraine, which went through a revolution of its own two years ago. The popular uprising over fraudulent elections brought Victor Yushchenko, a pro-Western leader, to power, and relations between Moscow and Kiev reached a low point soon after.

Again, Sergei Markov. "Russia can only be friends with those countries which have bad relations with Americans. Because only those countries can afford to disobey Washington."

Yet tensions between Tbilisi and Moscow seem to serve the interests of the leaders of both countries. Observers say that by provoking Moscow, the Georgian president is trying to foster the image that he is under economic and political pressure from Russia as a way to divert attention from his country's internal problems.

And President Vladimir Putin -- by imposing what human rights activists call a "collective punishment" against Georgians in Russia -- is sending an unmistakable signal to Russia's former Soviet neighbors not to stray too far outside of Moscow's sphere of influence. Putin's actions also may be linked to the 2008 parliamentary and presidential election campaign, which are now getting underway.

Sergei Lukyanov of "Russia In Global Affairs" magazine comments. "Now we have quite a dirty and dangerous game within Russia which I would connect to our ongoing election campaign which already started this autumn. Before that, all the discussion connected to the elections was focused on prosperity, national projects, to investing in infrastructure, health care and so on. Now we see a different perspective. We see that nationalistic pride is again an important issue and that means that the whole climate in the campaign could be changed."

There is no indication that the Kremlin will ease its sanctions against Tbilisi any time soon, nor are there signs that Tbilisi will soften its anti-Russian rhetoric. As the standoff continues, both sides seem intent on scoring points off one another.