Do not provoke us, Putin tells Georgia

President Vladimir Putin warned Georgia on Wednesday not to provoke or blackmail Russia as Moscow tightened the screw on its southern neighbour.

Discussing a dispute with Georgia over the arrests of four Russian officers, who were later released, Putin told lawmakers: “I would not allow anyone to talk to Russia in the language of provocation and blackmail.”

In Georgia, the head of the central bank said his country would block Russia’s bid to join the World Trade Organisation (WTO) as long as economic sanctions were in force. Russia was hoping to end talks on WTO entry this month.

The officers’ arrests on spying charges last week triggered a wave of Russian retaliatory measures, which included severing all transport and postal links with Georgia and halting visas for Georgians wishing to visit Russia.

Moscow has long been unhappy with Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili’s pro-Western foreign policies and public attacks on its old Soviet master.

“The action of the Georgian authorities in recent months and years is very clearly anti-Russian. This is a political line drawn up by the Georgian government,” Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters during a visit to Strasbourg.

Russian Defence Minister Sergei Ivanov brushed off a Georgian plea for Moscow to halt naval exercises in the Black Sea off Georgia’s coast and Moscow police raided Georgian businesses in the capital on Tuesday.

Authorities shut down two Georgian-owned casinos, occupied a Georgian guest house and seized half a million bottles of Georgian wine in separate operations.

The Interior Ministry described the raids as “routine, planned work ...
to combat ethnic organised crime groups”.

But a law-enforcement source told Reuters that officials had received oral instructions to step up action against Georgians.

Russia’s State Duma, the lower house of Parliament, passed a resolution blessing any further Kremlin action against Georgia.

“If anti-Russian actions threatening stability and security of the region continue, Russia has right to undertake a number of other, even tougher measures,” the resolution said.

WTO threat

As a WTO member, Georgia technically has the power to block new entrants to the organisation. Russia is the only major world economy still outside the 149-member body.

Georgian National Bank President Roman Gotsiridze told Reuters: “Georgia will never support Russia’s accession to the WTO as long as sanctions remain.”

One million Georgians live in Russia and the estimated $300-million a year Georgians send home is vital to the economy of their home country of five million people, which depends on its former Soviet master for trade and energy.

In Tbilisi, the mood remained defiant although ordinary Georgians were increasingly worried about the human and economic impact of the Russian sanctions.

Kakha Bendukidze, Georgia’s State Minister for Economic Reforms, told Reuters the Russian measures could take 1,5 percentage points off his country’s GDP growth.

Russians holidaying in Georgia were left stranded by the cutting of air links.

Outside the closed Russian embassy in Tbilisi, Svetlana (48) was trying to find out how to get home. “My father in Russia is worried about me here,” she said. “No matter how much I try to explain to him that we are safe here, he doesn’t believe me.”

Moscow still holds a number of cards it can play against Georgia.

Gas supplies to Tbilisi by Russian state monopoly Gazprom are still flowing. Russian ministers insist Moscow will honour its commitments to pull its remaining 2 000 to 3 000 troops out of Georgia by 2008 and might even speed up the withdrawal.—Reuters

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