Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Georgia Nabs Russian 'Spy Ring,' Angering Moscow

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Georgia Nabs Russian 'Spy Ring,' Angering Moscow

Article excerpt

Georgia on Friday accused 13 people, including four Russians, of spying for Russia after a four-year investigation.

Georgia on Friday accused 13 people, including four Russian citizens, of passing information to Russia's GRU military spy agency during the brief August 2008 war between the two countries.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin immediately denounced the Georgian claims as "a political farce." The charges, rumors about which first started circulating a week ago, have struck many as bizarre. But most analysts see at least some truth in the charges, though they caution that the broader domestic and regional dynamics involved must be factored in.

"Of course spies exist, but there is also a propaganda side to this," says Alexander Iskanderyan, director of the independent Caucasus Institute in Yerevan, Armenia. "Georgian authorities constantly utilize Russia as an 'enemy image' and try to tar their domestic political opponents with this brush. You have to take these stories with a grain of salt."

Four-year investigation

In a press conference announcing the arrests Friday, Georgian officials said the investigation into the alleged spy ring had been going on "for years."

"Not only did they monitor secret military information but they continued to do so during the war," said Interior Ministry spokesman Shota Utiashvili. "They wanted to know how many weapons we had, where we had them, and planted agents everywhere to seek information...

"We think it is one of the most serious spy rings we have caught in this country," he added.

Georgia's deputy counterintelligence chief Otar Orjonikidze told journalists at the press conference that the investigation began in 2006, after Georgian authorities offered an amnesty to any citizen who came forward and admitted working for the Russians.

He added that the spy ring included dozens of others who have still not been detained, and that it had been infiltrated and betrayed by a Georgian double agent who had won the trust of the GRU.

'An odd story' that has deeply angered Moscow

Six of the arrested Georgians are air force pilots whom the ministry said were recruited by the GRU a decade ago when they were stationed in the autonomous Georgian region of Adjaria which, under local strongman Aslan Abashidze, was in rebellion against Tbilisi's rule until 2004. Another was a naval radio operator who allegedly passed on secret communications codes to Russian intelligence.

"It's an odd story, since the people who've been arrested are either old, or former employees of the ex-leader of Adjaria, Abashidze, who had bad relations with Georgian leaders," says Mamuka Nebieridze, director of the independent Center for Euro-Atlantic Studies in Tbilisi. "We've had these spy scandals in the past, and they only bring a predictable reaction from Russia. …

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