Georgia on Monday handed over to international mediators four Russian army officers whose arrest on spying charges triggered the worst crisis in years between the ex-Soviet neighbours.
As the handover was going ahead, Moscow ignored international appeals for a similar goodwill gesture and announced it would cut air, sea and land links between the two countries, alleging unpaid debts and safety violations.
At a ceremony in the courtyard of Georgia’s Prosecutor General’s office, the four Russians were told they were being deported for spying. They were then driven off in vehicles of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), said a Reuters reporter at the scene.
A Russian Emergencies Ministry aircraft was waiting on the tarmac at Tbilisi’s airport to take the men home.
”The message to Russia is: ‘Enough is enough’,” Georgian president Mikhail Saakashvili told reporters at the ceremony, which was conducted mostly in English for the benefit of international media.
”We want to have good relations. We want to have dialogue. But we cannot be treated as a second-rate backyard of some kind of emerging empire.”
Standing next to Saakashvili, OSCE chairperson-in-office Karel De Gucht called on Moscow to join Tbilisi in agreeing a meeting ”at the highest level” to defuse the crisis. Severing transport links would not help matters, he added.
Russia’s railways operator said trains would stop running to Georgia from Tuesday and Russia’s head of air traffic control Alexander Neradko said ”from 0000 on October 3 Moscow time air links between Russia and Georgia will be ceased”.
Severing transport links could cause severe hardship in Georgia, a small mountainous republic of five million people, which depends heavily on its former Soviet master for trade, energy, power and remittances.
Saakashvili dismissed the Russian moves, telling reporters he would not stand for Moscow bullying his country.
”The rules of the game should change,” he said. ”It’s no longer the Soviet empire and we are no longer a rebellious nation that is rebelling against its central government. We are an independent and free nation and should be respected as such.”
The handover did not mean Tbilisi was exonerating the Russian officers, he added. ”I want to make it very … clear. We have a very solid case of espionage, subversion, trying to destabilise my country.”
Bush and Putin discuss Georgia crisis
United StatesPresident George Bush called Russian leader Vladimir Putin on Monday to discuss the situation in Georgia, as well as Iran, Interfax news agency quoted Kremlin spokesperson Alexei Gromov as saying.
RIA-Novosti agency reported that Putin had told Bush it was unacceptable for other countries to take steps that Georgia could interpret as support for Tbilisi’s ”destructive policies”.
The latest crisis between Moscow and Tbilisi began after the Georgians arrested the officers last Wednesday, leading to a war of words between Moscow and Tbilisi, including a sharp verbal attack by Putin on Sunday when he accused Georgia of ”state terrorism”.
Since the crisis began, Russia has withdrawn its ambassador and dozens of officials from Tbilisi and stopped issuing visas to Georgians.
Analysts said Georgia had heeded the advice of its Western partners in deciding to hand over the Russians to the OSCE. — Reuters