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."
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
"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. …