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Russia-Georgia Tensions Flare

Relations between Russia and Georgia remain tense almost two weeks after Georgia released four Russian military officers charged with spying - an accusation denied by Moscow.

Mikhail Saakashvili was elected president of Georgia by an overwhelming margin in January 2004 following a grass roots movement known as the "Rose Revolution" that forced the resignation of the incumbent, Eduard Shevardnadze.

Robert Legvold, an expert on Georgia and Russia, says since coming to power, Mr. Saakashvili's main domestic policy has been fighting corruption.

"Because Georgia ranked at the lowest end, along with Azerbaijan, of Transparency International's ratings on corruption among the post-Soviet states or among all states, for that matter," says Legvold. "And although he's not - - not surprisingly - - been unable to solve the problem, he has made considerable progress in this area, particularly with things like the domestic police - - the militia - - which he's modernized and cleaned up, paid, put in good uniforms and so on - - with considerable Western assistance."

Georgia and NATO

On the foreign policy front, Mr. Saakashvili has focused his attention on moving Georgia away from Russia and toward Europe. His first goal is to make Georgia a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO. Negotiations are already under way.

Ronald Suny, a Russia and Caucasus expert with the University of Chicago, says Georgia's drive toward NATO membership is an extremely contentious issue between Mr. Saakashvili and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

"If you think back to Soviet times, and their victory over the fascists in 1945, all of the gains of that post-war victory, that military victory, are gone. The Soviets have lost Eastern Europe, their buffer zone there, the sort of satellite states they held for decades - and now Ukraine, the Baltics, and others are integrated into the western alliance," says Suny. "In other words, NATO troops could be right on the border of Russia. This is an enormous blow to Russian prestige. And Putin, if anything, aims at resurrecting Russia to get some of that power and prestige that the Soviet Union enjoyed."

Many experts, including Olga Oliker from the RAND Corporation, say from the very beginning, the relationship between presidents Saakashvili and Putin was bad.

"Saakashvili has made no secret of not being a big fan of Russian policies towards his country and the 'near abroad' [i.e. former Soviet republics] as a whole, whereas the Russians have tended to see Saakashvili's efforts to come closer to the West as antagonism towards Russia, which is a fairly fair assessment. That seems to be the way the Georgian foreign ministry sees it as well. The presidents have been able to cooperate when necessary in the past, but I doubt they are big fans of one another," says Oliker.

Abkhazia and South Ossetia

Robert Legvold from Columbia University says based on his talks with Russian officials, the relationship between Moscow and Tbilisi is far worse. "There is a fundamental hostility - in fact, I would argue that the Russian-Georgian relationship is the only purely hostile relationship within the post-Soviet space. Russia has problems with Azerbaijan; it has problems at times with Ukraine - -but these are mixed relationships. This is a purely hostile relationship right now," says Legvold.

Another major issue between Moscow and Tbilisi is that of Abkhazia and South Ossetia - two regions within Georgia but bordering Russia. Ronald Suny from the University of Chicago says it will be difficult to resolve that contentious question.

"Both Abkhazia and South Ossetia can be said to be de facto independent states - that is, no one in the world recognizes them as independent. They are officially, by international law, parts of Georgia as they were under the Soviet system, but in fact, Georgia has no control over them. They maintain this de facto independence and they do it because the Russians have soldiers around there," says Suny. "Georgia's army is too weak against this resistance by Russia and the secessionists - - and they have no interest, the Abkhazians and the South Ossetians, to come back to Georgia. So this is a kind of stand-off, a stalemate - - the two sides, neither one able to overcome the other given the fact that Russian troops are in the way."

Even so, President Saakashvili has vowed to bring Abkhazia and South Ossetia back into the Georgian fold. Experts say the current crisis between Georgia and Russia exemplifies the fragile state of affairs between the two countries.

Last month, Georgia released four Russian military officers arrested on spying charges. Moscow dismissed the accusations but responded with a series of sanctions, including transport and postal blockades. Russian officials say the punitive measures will stay in place until Tbilisi ends what Moscow calls "anti-Russian" behavior.

Ronald Suny says the Russian-Georgian relationship reminds him of another flashpoint. "I see this conflict in a way sort of like the conflict between the United States and Venezuela. Venezuela is in the hegemonic sphere of influence, the western hemisphere of the United States. It wants to be more independent," says Suny. "It wants to poke its fingers into the eye of the 'Great Satan' to the north. But you pay for that. You pay for that, even if you have enormous oil resources as Venezuela does. And Georgia has almost nothing to fight back against the Russians."

Suny and other experts hope presidents Putin and Saakashvili will be able to tone down the rhetoric and find a peaceful solution to a crisis that could otherwise escalate even further.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.