Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Newsline Items

RFE/RL Newsline items (October 3):

RUSSIA IMPLEMENTS TRANSPORT AND MAIL BLOCKADE AGAINST GEORGIA… Russia escalated its dispute with Georgia on October 2, despite the latter’s release of four Russian military officers accused of espionage to the OSCE (see Georgia items below). Moscow’s Transportation Ministry ordered air, road, rail and sea links to be closed as of midnight, RIA-Novosti reported. The Communications Ministry said mail services will also be suspended, the agency reported. Aeroflot announced that it has halted all flights to Georgia. On October 3, Ekho Moskvy radio and Russian news agencies reported that the blockade was being implemented and Georgian citizens traveling to Russia will have to reach Moscow via a third country. Moscow has not cut off natural gas to Georgia, which could be catastrophic for an economy still heavily dependent on Russian imports, according to the “Financial Times.” The newspaper added that the transport blockade, if it proves lengthy and if the State Duma follows through with threats to pass legislation suspending bank transfers, could create significant hardship. State Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov said on October 2 that the lower house will soon draft a bill that will allow the government to ban the wiring of money to certain countries, ITAR-TASS reported. Aleksei Malashenko, a Caucasus expert at the Moscow Carnegie Center, told “The Moscow Times” that Russia would be unwise to retaliate with sanctions. “Average Georgians, who will feel the brunt of the sanctions, will regard us as an evil empire,” Malashenko said. FF

…BUT RUSSIAN OFFICIALS AVOID LINKING BLOCKADE TO POLITICAL ROW.  Announcing the decision to start a transport and communications blockade with Georgia on October 2, Russian officials avoided making references to the political crisis sparked by the arrests, “The Moscow Times” reported. All Russian ministers instead alleged violations of various agreements by Georgia and declined to say how long the measures would last. Deputy Transportation Minister Sergei Aristov, interviewed by Channel One television, said Georgian air carriers owe $3.6 million for services provided at Russian airports. Railways chief Vladimir Yakunin said he will cancel a planned order worth some $3.75 million for spare parts for electric locomotives from Georgia, ITAR-TASS reported. He also said all rail traffic will be cut off. Information Technology and Communications Minister Leonid Reiman said postal links will be severed. The payment of postal money transfers sent from Russia has often been delayed in Georgia, Reiman was quoted by Interfax as saying. Russia has already banned the import of Georgian wine and mineral water, citing high concentrations of pesticides and the large amount of counterfeit products on the market. FF

DUMA SPEAKER, MIGRATION SERVICE CRITICIZE GEORGIAN IMMIGRANTS TO RUSSIA. State Duma Speaker Gryzlov said on October 2 that “it is also a provocation that some 300,000 illegal immigrants from Georgia work in Russia without official permission, and earn money without paying taxes,” “The Moscow Times” reported. The Federal Migration Service said the same day that more illegal immigrants have entered Russia from Georgia than from any other country, the newspaper reported. “Of the roughly 1 million Georgians who have crossed the border into Russia, just 1 percent are working here legally,” the migration service said in a statement. More than 300,000 Georgians work in Russia, many of them sending money home to relatives on a regular basis. FF

RUSSIAN, U.S. PRESIDENTS DISCUSS STANDOFF… President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President George W. Bush on October 2 discussed the situation surrounding the row between Russia and Georgia, the presidential website kremlin.ru reported. The conversation took place at Bush’s request, the Kremlin said. According to the website, Putin told Bush that any action by a third country could be interpreted by Georgia as encouraging its “destructive” policy. Putin also told Bush that such a situation would be “unacceptable and dangerous for peace and stability in the region,” kremlin.ru reported. Relations between Moscow and Tbilisi have soured since Saakashvili came to power in the Rose Revolution of November 2003 and moved Georgia out of Moscow’s orbit, pursuing EU and NATO membership. Russia has recalled its ambassador from Tbilisi and has evacuated dozens of its diplomats since the beginning of the crisis. Other issues, including Iran and Russia’s efforts to join the World Trade Organization, were also discussed during the presidents’ telephone conversation, according to kremlin.ru. FF

…AS EU URGES RUSSIA TO LIFT BLOCKADE. The European Union urged Russia on October 3 to lift its economic blockade on Georgia or risk deepening the crisis, Reuters reported. EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner told Reuters in an interview that the EU hopes “that Russia very, very soon lifts these sanctions because sanctions do not, particularly in this case, lead anywhere. There are so many irritants again on either side and therefore it is very important not to provoke and not to be provoked.” OSCE Chairman in Office Karel De Gucht, speaking the previous day in Tbilisi after his talks with Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, called on Russia not to carry through what was at that stage a threat to sever transport links with Georgia. FF

GEORGIA TURNS OVER DETAINED RUSSIAN OFFICERS TO OSCE…  Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili confirmed on October 2 that Georgia has turned over to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe OSCE) four Russian military officers recently arrested on espionage charges, Caucasus Press reported. In comments to reporters following a meeting with Belgian Foreign Minister and OSCE Chairman in Office Karel De Gucht, Saakashvili explained that “after intensive negotiations,” a decision was  adopted to “transfer the arrested Russian officers to the OSCE” as a “goodwill gesture.” A group of five Russian officers were arrested by Georgian security forces on September 27, with one later released, and a Tbilisi court recently sentenced the other four to a two-month term of pretrial detention (see “RFE/RL Newsline,” September 29 and October 2, 2006). In a televised handover, the Russian officers were escorted by Georgian police to an area outside the Prosecutor-General’s Office, where a statement was read aloud informing them that they have been “accused of the crime of espionage against Georgia” and explaining that they “are being deported from Georgia” and “forbidden to enter Georgian territory,” according to Imedi television. The Russians were then led away to OSCE vehicles parked nearby and soon thereafter departed Georgia via a Russian Emergency Situations Ministry aircraft, ITAR-TASS reported. RG

…BUT WARNS RUSSIA THAT ‘ENOUGH IS ENOUGH.’ In comments during the Tbilisi press conference with OSCE Chairman in Office De Gucht, President Saakashvili warned on October 2 that despite his “goodwill gesture” in turning over the detailed Russians to the OSCE, “the message of Georgia to our great neighbor Russia is, ‘enough is enough,’” Caucasus Press and Georgian Public Television reported.  Saakashvili also noted that “we want to have good relations” with Russia but stressed that “we cannot be treated as a second-rate backyard of some kind of, in the minds of some politicians, reemerging empire.” RG

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