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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 / October 19, 2006



MOSCOW

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.

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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."

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.

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