The espionage dispute between Georgia and Russia intensified September 29, with a statement from the Georgian Interior Ministry that Russian military "movements" had begun in territory bordering Georgia, and accusations from Moscow that the arrest of four Russian officers is part of a scheme to advance Georgia's ambitions to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Preliminary hearings for the four Russian officers in Georgian custody have been held, while an evacuation of the families of Russian diplomats from Tbilisi has begun.
The Georgian Interior Ministry claimed that the government had detected signs of movement among Russian forces near the Georgian border, and preparations for "large-scale navy maneuvers in the Black Sea."
"Russia's 58th Army, which is deployed in North Ossetia, is being mobilized and there is information that [the Army] is moving in [the] direction of Georgia," Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili told a news conference late September 28, according to a bulletin posted on the online news site Civil Georgia. "In addition, certain movements are being noticed on the Russian military base in Akhalkalaki [in southern Georgia]. I cannot understand why Russia needs [these] moves."
Moscow did not initially respond to the claim.
A Tbilisi city court September 29 ordered two Russian officers arrested in the Georgian capital, Dmitri Kazantsyev and Alexander Savva, and seven Georgian citizens to be held in pre-trial detention. The Russian consul in Georgia, Valeri Vasiliyev, told Rustavi-2 television that a lawyer for the officers had not been allowed into the courtroom. The Georgian Interior Ministry did not immediately comment on the allegation.
The court also passed the same ruling for Konstantin Pichugin, who has been accused of espionage, but who is believed to be inside Russia's regional military headquarters, which remained surrounded by police for a second day. Moscow has refused to surrender Pichugin.
The two other officers in custody, Alexander Zavgorodny and Alexander Baranov, were arrested in the Black Sea port town of Batumi, and will have a separate hearing.
Russian Ambassador Vyacheslav Kovalenko, who has been recalled to Moscow for consultations, told local media that he would not return to Georgia until the four officers are released. "Georgia should release the Russian officers immediately and should apologize for their arrest," Kovalenko told reporters at Tbilisi airport.
A Russian plane left Tbilisi at 4:35pm carrying 51 Russian citizens, including 25 children. A second evacuation is planned for September 30, Andrei Popov, commander of Russian forces in the Caucasus, told the Russian news agency RIA Novosti.
Television footage of the departure showed mostly women and children, dogged by photographers and television cameras, preparing to board an Ilyushin plane, while personnel loaded luggage and what appeared to be cases of Borjomi spring water, a key Georgian export that has been banned by Russia for alleged impurities. In response to questions from Georgian reporters, most departing Russians asserted that they plan to return.
Commenting on the evacuation, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili termed the event "an excessive move" and "a propagandistic gesture."
"Everyone knows that the Russians will never face any threat in Georgia," Saakashvili told reporters. "The Georgian people are very hospitable, and this is widely known. In Georgia, they are probably more secure than in their own state."
Meanwhile, attempts at dialogue continued to falter. A previously scheduled meeting between Georgian Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Giorgi Manjgaladze and Russian Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Grigory Karasin was canceled.
Russia on September 28 asked the United Nations Security Council to condemn Georgia for taking "dangerous and unacceptable" steps that could destabilize the region, but the initiative was not carried. Members have requested greater information about the situation.
While the international community considers its response, Moscow has criticized Georgia's NATO ambitions for contributing to the crisis. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov implied that the arrest of the officers was part of Georgia's plan to secure membership in the Western defense alliance, adding that Saakashvili had chosen the "military way" to resolve conflicts with the breakaway Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. "First, they want to get out the Russian peacekeepers by any means possible . . . then use force to resolve the conflicts . . . and then, submit their application to NATO," he told a news briefing in Slovenia broadcast by Russian State Television.
At a meeting between the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the Russian Council in Slovenia, Ivanov charged that unnamed NATO members have been supplying Georgia with military equipment. "Some members of NATO - shall we call them the younger generation? - are supplying Georgia with arms and ammunition of Soviet production," news agencies quoted Ivanov as saying in an apparent reference to Eastern European countries who joined the alliance in 2004.
Western members of NATO are reacting with caution. NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer called for "moderation and de-escalation" by both Georgia and Russia. De Hoop Scheffer went on to stress that "this is not an issue in where NATO will play any direct role."
US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told reporters that he had discussed the topic with Ivanov, and stated that the situation is "a subject of great interest" to Washington, the American Forces Press Service reported.
Reactions among Georgians to the spy spat differed.
"I am glad these spies were arrested. I hope that Georgia will not step aside from the chosen strategy in the future," Nuka Basharuli, a refugee from Abkhazia who now lives in Moscow. "But the recent developments are likely to have a negative impact on me and my family," he added referring to a possible worsening of attitudes among Russians towards the thousands of Georgians living and working in Russia.
The daily Georgian newspaper Rezonansi (Resonance) played on this worry with a front-page story September 29 that warned readers that massive deportations and arrests of Georgians in Russia will begin soon.
Others saw a political angle. "This spy arrest suits both countries in their struggle for votes," Giorgi Lezhava, a 26-year-old Tbilisi resident, said, "Russia pretends that it has no spies, while Georgia pretends that there is something extraordinary about Russian spies in Georgia. It's all about politics."
Some Georgian opposition members have evaluated the recent developments as part of the government's campaign strategy for nationwide local elections scheduled for October 5, while others maintain that Georgians should stand together in the face of Russian "aggression."
"The arrest of the Russian officers is definitely connected to the election campaign," David Berdzenishvili, a leader of the Republican Party, commented to EurasiaNet. "The authorities want to show that they are strong and able to destroy any enemy of Georgia."
David Zourabichvili, a parliamentarian from the Democratic Front uniting the Conservative and Republican Parties, took a different tact. The Russian officers' activities constitute "an [act of] aggression and [a] threat towards the entire state and the Georgian people," Zourabichvili told a September 29 news briefing, Civil Georgia reported. "Against this background, we call on everyone [to unite] in order to avoid giving Russia a reason for speculation about alleged . . . fighting inside Georgia."
Diana Petriashvili is a freelance reporter based in Tbilisi.