Relations between Georgia and Russia sharply deteriorated September 28, as Russia announced that it is recalling its ambassador to Georgia, and plans to start a partial evacuation of diplomatic personnel and their families from the South Caucasus state. The decision followed Georgia's move the previous day to arrest four Russian military officers and 11 Georgian citizens on charges of espionage.
An unarmed police cordon was established around Russia's regional military headquarters in Tbilisi in an attempt to force the handover of a fifth Russian military officer also wanted for espionage.
The Russian Foreign Ministry announced September 28 that it will start a "partial evacuation of Russian personnel in Georgia and their family members in connection with a growing threat to their security." The evacuation is scheduled to begin on September 29 at 4pm with the use of a plane from the Russian Ministry of Emergency Situations, and will include the families of Russian diplomats who desire to leave, Ivan Volynkin, an advisor at the Russian embassy in Tbilisi, said. Russian news agency RIA Novosti has reported that Russian Ambassador Vyacheslav Kovalenko will also be on the plane; the Foreign Ministry has stated that families of the detained officers will leave as well. The ministry has also advised ordinary Russian citizens not to travel to Georgia.
Speaking to reporters late September 28, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili termed Moscow's decision to begin an evacuation "hysteria."
"Georgia acts [within] the frame[work] of international agreements and follows its commitments, but Georgia also wants everyone else to respect its laws," a transcript of Saakashvili's remarks posted on the Civil Georgia online news bulletin site read. "It is high time for everyone to remember that we have [an] effective state apparatus."
Georgian Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili announced late on September 27 that the ministry's counterintelligence unit had uncovered a spy network run by Russian military intelligence, known as GRU (known as the GRU or Central Intelligence Department), that had allegedly acted on Georgian territory under the cover of the Russian military headquarters for the Trans-Caucasus. The detained are accused of obtaining information regarding Georgia's defensive capabilities, strategies for integration with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Georgian ports, railways, and opposition political parties, among other targets.
According to Merabishvili, the network was headed by Russian military intelligence Col. Anatoly Sinitsin, who the Georgian government suspects of being connected to the February 2005 bomb blast in Gori, not far from the border with the breakaway region of South Ossetia, which killed three people. [For details, see the Eurasia Insight archive.]
Two of the arrested Russian military personnel were detained in Tbilisi, two others in the Black Sea port town of Batumi, Merabishvili said. The minister stated that all four are high-ranking GRU officers.
Efforts continue to secure a fifth Russian military officer identified as GRU Lt. Col. Konstantin Pichugin who Merabishvili claims is hiding in the headquarters of the Trans-Caucasus Forces. The entrance to the building has been blocked by Georgian military police vehicles and is surrounded by unarmed city policemen. Georgian media have reported, however, that the number of police surrounding the building has decreased. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov have demanded that Georgia immediately release the four military officers.
"[Russia's] reaction will be adequate, and I think you will soon learn about it," Ivanov told reporters on September 28, Russian news media reported. The defense minister claimed that the arrests had been prompted by the Georgian government's desire "to push out Russian peacekeepers [from the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia] by all means, to make their status illegitimate, violating all agreements regarding the peacekeepers and [Russian] troops' withdrawal from Georgia."
Speaking to reporters on September 27, Foreign Minister Lavrov termed the arrests "another display of anti-Russian policy," and repeated Ivanov's pledge that Moscow "will use all means available" to secure their release, the Russian news agency RIA Novosti reported.
Diplomatic pressures have already been added to the Kremlin's response. As it has done periodically in the past, the Russian embassy in Tbilisi issued a press release on September 28 stating that its consulate had stopped accepting Russian visa applications from Georgian citizens. Russia is a top destination for thousands of Georgian laborers who send remittances back home to support their families.
The arrests come on the heels of President Mikheil Saakashvili's September 22 appeal to the United Nations General Assembly to replace Russian peacekeepers in the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia with an international contingent, warning that Russia is attempting to annex both areas. On September 27, the Georgian leader traveled to the Kodori Gorge, a Georgian-held strip of territory in Abkhazia, to announce the start of work by the Abkhazian government-in-exile there. In a televised speech, Saakashvili termed the opening of the exiled government's office in Kodori "the start of the return of Abkhazia."
Pro-government politicians have been quick to cite the arrests and Moscow's reaction as confirmation of the claim that Russia is working to undermine stability within Georgia, including the breakaway Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
Influential parliamentarian Giga Bokeria, a member of the ruling National Movement Party, told reporters on September 28 that Russia "is implementing a large-scale aggression against Georgia."
"This crisis did not begin yesterday," Bokeria said. "It began as soon as Russia failed to accept Georgia's independence and sovereignty."
Parliamentary Speaker Nino Burjanadze characterized the arrests as a necessary response to preserve that sovereignty. "Georgia is a state which has the power to protect its state interests, and its state secrets," Burjanadze said in a brief comment to the media on September 28. "[These interests] should be honored by any other state, regardless of how big it is," she stressed.
On September 28, Merabishvili released video and audio recordings that the ministry claims provide part of the evidence for its charges against the detainees. [Information about the recordings can be found on http://www.police.ge]. The audio recordings include phone conversations between alleged GRU officers and alleged local Georgian operatives about Georgian military warehouses and requests for information. Released video footage shows meetings between the detained officers and some of the 11 Georgians arrested.
While the government appears confident in its evidence, one local observer argues that Georgia would not have decided to make the arrests without strong support from Western allies. "We are not alone," independent political analyst Ramaz Sakvatrelidze said. "There are many other countries opposing Russia. We are engaged in a difficult political fight, but we are supported [from abroad] as we are Russia's opponent."
On September 28, US Ambassador to Russia William Burns met with Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin to discuss the situation in Georgia, the Russian Foreign Ministry reported.
The opposition, increasingly at strong odds with the Saakashvili administration and the National Movement Party, supported the government's claim that an espionage network is at work in Georgia, but cautioned against any attempt by the ruling party to use the arrests for political advantage in the upcoming October 5 local elections.
"It will be very positive if all the guilty are punished, but these developments should not represent part of [the authorities' pre-election] PR actions," David Usupashvili, one of the leaders of the opposition Republican Party, told local media on September 28.
Others warned the government to proceed with caution, and in accordance with international law, expressing concern about a "dangerous" and "sensitive" situation.
"Georgia's relations with Russia are not [the same as] Georgia's relations with New Zealand," concluded Conservative Party member Kakha Kukava.
Diana Petriashvili is a freelance reporter based in Tbilisi.