Russian officials pull out of Georgia in spy row
Russia began pulling out some of its diplomats and their families from Georgia on Friday as the small ex-Soviet state pressed spying charges against a group of Russian army officers.
Nato, which pro-Western Georgia wants to join to the dismay of Russia, urged both sides to show restraint but said it had no clear role to play in helping defuse the row.
The first group from several hundred people to be evacuated from the Southern Caucasus country left on Friday on two Ilyushin cargo planes. Russian ambassador Vyacheslav Kovalenko, recalled by Moscow, was due to leave on one of the planes.
Four Russian army officers, whose arrest by Georgia on charges of spying for the GRU military intelligence sparked the crisis, were delivered on Friday to a Tbilisi court, which can order them held in jail or, as demanded by Russia, free them.
Relations with old Soviet master Russia have worsened dramatically since pro-Western President Mikhail Saakashvili came to power in the 2003 “Rose Revolution”.
Saakashvili’s pursuit of Nato membership particularly irks Russia. He himself has publicly attacked Moscow, saying it supports separatists who control two regions of his country in South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
Police in Tbilisi continued to surround Russian army headquarters, which controls two Russian bases, relics from Soviet times that are to be withdrawn in 2008.
A fifth Russian officer sought by Georgia in connection with the alleged spy ring remained inside the grey four-storey glass-and-concrete soviet-era building that has been the focus of the crisis.
“Russia will not hand over Lieutenant Colonel Konstantin Pichugin to Georgia,” Kovalenko, the ambassador, said.
Interfax news agency quoted an unnamed diplomatic source as saying Russia was also planning evacuation of some non-essential staff and members of families from its two bases—Batumi on the Black Sea coast and Akhalkalaki in the south.
The crisis in Georgia overshadowed a meeting between Nato defence ministers and their Russian counterpart Sergei Ivanov in the Slovenian coastal resort of Portoroz.
After months of hesitation, Nato agreed on September 18 to launch talks on closer ties with Georgia, leading possibly to membership, an outcome which angered Moscow.
Nato secretary general Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said after the talks that the alliance would not get involved in the row.
“This is of course a bilateral issue between Georgia and Russia and Nato does not have a direct role,” he told a news briefing.
“There was a call by me for moderation and de-escalation.”
Russian ministers and media have reacted angrily to what they have described as deliberate provocation from Saakashvili.
Apart from recalling its ambassador, Moscow has advised Russian nationals against travel to Georgia, a small mountainous republic of five million people.
President Vladimir Putin, away in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, has so far not commented publicly on the crisis.
Georgia has suffered serious economic hardship, aggravated by civil war, since independence from Moscow, with power cuts, shortages and unemployment. An estimated one million Georgians work in Russia and send money home, keeping the country very much in the sway of its huge neighbour.
Georgia also depends on Russia for gas supplies, giving Moscow another potential lever over its poorer neighbour. The Russian electricity monopoly UES controls the Georgian power grid and two hydro-electric plants.
Ordinary Georgians displayed a gamut of moods, ranging from bravado to apprehension.
“I’m afraid that Russia will start war against Georgia. Even if they don’t throw bombs on us, they can always cut gas and power supply,” Nunu Kvariani (47), a Tbilisi resident said.
“I have nothing against Russians, I have many friends in Moscow, but their militaries should leave Georgia and their peacekeepers should leave Abkhazia and South Ossetia. I think the Georgian president is right,” Dato Solomonashvili, 34-year-old doctor, said.—Reuters