Thu, Oct 05, 2006 - Page 6 News List

Russia rejects Western calls for end to sanctions on Georgia as row continues

AP , MOSCOW

An anti-Georgian campaign built up steam in Russia yesterday as the authorities followed up sweeping sanctions on neighboring Georgia with measures targeting the large diaspora in Moscow.

Russian lawmakers also tabled a motion expected to fiercely condemn Georgia's pro-Western leadership with the dispute set to persist after Russia rejected Western calls to end its blockade of its small, impoverished Caucasus neighbor.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said a transport and postal blockade slapped on Tbilisi on Tuesday would still stand despite the release by Georgia, on Monday, of four Russian officers whose arrest last week angered the Kremlin.

Lavrov said on Tuesday the measures were aimed at cutting off criminal flows of money he claimed was being used by the Georgian leadership to increase its military might in preparation for the "forceful seizure" of two pro-Russian breakaway regions.

But the real aim appeared to be to punish Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili for his defiance of Russia through the detention of its officers on spying charges. The dispute also reflects Kremlin alarm at Tbilisi's goal of NATO membership and the growing US influence in its former Soviet backyard.

A Kremlin official said the sanctions -- a suspension of air, road, maritime, rail and postal links -- would not be lifted until Georgia ended its "hostile rhetoric" towards Russia.

"The range of measures are a response to the situation and consequently their duration will depend on how long the hostile rhetoric [of the Georgian leadership] continues," Modest Kolerov, the Russian presidential administration's official charged with regional relations, said.

Later this week, the Russian parliament is set to consider a bill that would allow the government to bar Georgians living in Russia from sending money home -- which would deal a huge blow to Georgia's struggling economy.

According to some estimates, approximately 1 million of Georgia's 4.4 million population work in Russia and their families rely on the hundreds of millions of dollars in annual remittances.

Piling on the pressure, authorities in the Russian capital on Tuesday closed a popular casino and raided a hotel and a couple of restaurants run by Georgians, saying they could be closed over legal violations.

The Kommersant daily quoted police officials as saying that 40 Georgian restaurants and shops in downtown Moscow alone would be raided in the next few days. The Russian consulate in Tbilisi has also stopped issuing visas to Georgians.

"The patriotic campaign [in Russia] has begun," the Kommersant wrote on its front page, above photographs of posters of Saakashvili with a Hitler-like mustache.

At the UN, Russia ratcheted up diplomatic pressure on Georgia by circulating a draft UN Security Council resolution on Tuesday that would link the future of a UN observer mission with demands that the government stop "provocative actions" over Abkhazia.

The Russian move raises the threat that the latest dispute could jeopardize the future of the peacekeeping mission, whose mandate expires on Oct. 15.

Washington for its part urged Moscow to end the punitive measures, echoing a similar call from the EU.

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