Putin pinched by Russia-Georgia crisis

He faces pressure to back off before Friday's EU-Russia summit.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

President Vladimir Putin, headed for an informal EU-Russia summit in Finland Friday, faces a gathering storm in the West over Moscow's economic blockade of Georgia and a related harsh crackdown against Georgians in Russia.

European Union foreign ministers offered a taste of what Mr. Putin can expect in a sharply worded statement Tuesday, which warned Russia "not to pursue measures targeting Georgians" living in Russia, and to reconsider its embargo of the tiny post-Soviet republic of 5 million. But gauging by recent polls, the moves have proved popular with Russians, putting Putin in a tough spot.

"Putin's position is dramatic," says Andrei Ryabov, an expert with the Gorbachev Foundation, a Moscow think tank run by the former Soviet leader. "Nationalist moods are difficult to manage once unleashed, and the state is losing control over this domestic campaign [against Georgians]. Now Putin finds himself caught between pressure from the EU, which deeply affects Russia's strategic interests, and from radical nationalists in his own circle. His space for maneuvering is shrinking."

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Experts say the escalating confrontation is rooted in Russian concerns over Georgia's westward drift under US- educated President Mikhael Saakashvili, and particularly the little Caucasian state's recently intensified dialogue with NATO about gaining membership.

A brief spy scandal earlier this month prompted Russia to withdraw its ambassador, cut transport and postal ties with Tbilisi, and initiate naval war games off Georgia's Black Sea coast. Over the past 10 days, dozens of Georgian-owned businesses across Russia have been closed down, for stated reasons ranging from sanitary violations to tax evasion. Nearly 1,000 Georgian "illegals" have been rounded up and flown to Tbilisi. Russia has also moved to curtail $2 billion in remittances sent home annually by the more than 1 million Georgian "guest workers" in Russia. The crackdown has also extended to Russian citizens with Georgian roots, some of whom have been targeted with tax audits and other official scrutiny.

"This anti-Georgian campaign concerns us all," says Nikolai Svanidze, a leading Russian television personality of Georgian heritage. "It has led to a wave of xenophobia, which is very dangerous in a multiethnic state."

Mr. Saakashvili has insisted that Georgia will weather the Russian blockade, but some are not so sure, especially with winter coming.

"We expect gas prices to double, electricity prices will go up, and this will affect every Georgian," says Archil Gegeshidze, an expert with the independent Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies in Tbilisi.

The crisis has been brewing since the early 1990s, when Moscow backed successful separatist insurrections in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two breakaway Georgian regions. When Saakashvili came to power in the wake of the anti-Moscow "Rose Revolution" in 2003, pledging to reunite his fractured country and lead it into NATO, Russo-Georgian relations took a dramatic turn for the worse.

"Russia's major concern is that Georgia has irreversibly embarked on integration with the Euro-Atlantic community," says Mr. Gegeshidze. "Moscow has decided that it must move to destabilize Georgia and overthrow the Saakashvili government to prevent Georgia's membership in NATO."

Russian experts accuse Saakashvili of aggravating relations in order to obtain Western support in his drive to force Abkhazia and South Ossetia back under Tbilisi's control. Over the summer, Georgian forces successfully invaded the Kodori Gorge, a remote territory of Abkhazia, where they installed a pro-Tbilisi shadow government for Abkhazia. Earlier this month, Saakashvili's security police arrested four Russian officers and charged them with spying on Georgia's military defenses. When Moscow reacted furiously, Saakashvili released the men to European mediators, but that gesture only led the Kremlin to step up its economic blockade and order the Russian Navy's Black Sea fleet to hold war games near Georgia's coast.

Last week the UN Security Council passed a resolution warning both sides to show restraint, but it confirmed the status of Russian peacekeeping troops – which effectively defend Abkhazia and South Ossetia – for a further six months.

"The international reaction to this crisis has so far been very cautious," says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a leading Russian foreign policy journal. "Many big countries are not interested in wrecking their relations with Russia over Georgia."

Georgian experts say Tbilisi's biggest fear is that Russia might unilaterally recognize the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, leading to the permanent division of Georgia. This week Abkhazia officially appealed to Moscow to do just that, while South Ossetia will hold an independence referendum on Nov. 12.

"No one in the world has so far recognized these two [breakaway statelets], but if Russia breaks the unanimity, the whole situation will change," says Georgi Khutsishvili, chair of the International Center on Conflict and Negotiation in Tbilisi.

There is also growing talk of war, though experts say it is mostly posturing at this stage. Last week Georgian Defense Minister Irakly Okruashvili appeared to taunt Moscow, saying, "We aren't afraid of war, but I don't think we'll have to fight because Moscow's army is a paper tiger." Russian General Vasily Klychenok slammed back: "I wouldn't recommend to Okruashvili that he test the power of the Russian military," the independent Interfax agency reported.

Experts worry that neither side is likely to back down. And the EU is unlikely to push any harder at the summit this weekend, focused on Europe's growing dependence on Russia for oil and gas – a dependence that both EU leaders and Putin are acutely aware of.

"Georgia hopes that the EU summit will give Putin a strong message – to stop trying to intimidate Georgia. But that won't be enough to rein in Russia; there needs to be a wide international effort ... because Georgia does not have the resources to resolve this crisis alone."

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