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29 Oct, 2010 13:54

Georgia detains alleged Russian spies – report

Twenty people have been detained in Georgia, suspected of spying for Russia, according to a Reuters report.

All the suspects are Georgian citizens, a source told the news agency.

The report has not yet been officially confirmed. The Russian news agency Interfax quotes Georgia’s foreign ministry as saying it will comment on the information at a special news conference on November 5.

According to Interpressnews news agency, two of the detainees have been sentenced to two months in prison. The men, detained on October 17, run a company that inspects cargo.

This is not the first spy scandal between the two countries. In March 2010, two Russian military officers and a Georgian citizen received lengthy prison sentences in Russia after being found guilty of spying for Tbilisi.

In 2006, Georgia detained Russian military officers over allegations of spying for Moscow. The men were later freed and ordered out of the country. In response, Russia recalled its ambassador and suspended all means of transport to and from Georgia, as well as postal communication. Services resumed in April 2008.

Relations between Russia and Georgia have been strained for the last several years – deteriorating badly during the 2008 military conflict in South Ossetia.

Commenting on the latest events, Gennady Gudkov, a deputy at the Russian State Duma and member of the national security committee, told RT that Moscow simply doesn't need a spy ring in Georgia.

“This looks like another of Georgia’s internal political battles and Russia is used as the bogeyman as usual,” Gudkov said. “Russia doesn’t need a spy network in Georgia. It would be a waste of resources. Russian officials can get all the information on Georgia without leaving their desks. There is a massive Georgian diaspora here in Russia with strong ties to their homeland, so there’s absolutely no need for any old spy methods to gather intelligence. It is obviously nothing more than part of Georgia’s internal politics.”

One of the country's opposition leaders says Tbilisi uses the slightest link to Russia as an excuse to prosecute.

“These kind of charges – Russian links, Russian ties, Russian espionage – is always used in Georgia as political propaganda. I do not know anything about these people but I know that in Georgia it is quite enough to be somehow linked with Russia,” said Kakha Kukava, a leader of the Conservative Party of Georgia. “You have business in Russia, or family in Russia, and you are visiting Georgia – it is quite enough for Georgian law enforcement officials to make a criminal investigation about that.”

The Georgian regime is trying to draw people’s attention away from the worsening economic situation in the country, said Aslan Abashidze, an international law professor at Peoples’ Friendship University of Russia. Tbilisi is only looking to provoke Moscow, Abashidze added, and is aspiring to slander Russia’s image in the eyes of the US and NATO.

However, Abashidze believes that as Russia is becoming a strategic partner of the US and NATO in the fight against terrorism, the Georgian provocation will not hinder the establishment of these relations.

Dr. Irina Kobrinskaya from the Institute of World Economy and International Relations, a Moscow-based think tank, shares this point of view. She thinks this latest development is unlikely to “diminish the weight of Russia in the world affairs” and might even have the opposite effect.

When asked to comment on speculations that this latest spy story could actually be a message Georgian authorities are sending to the opposition, Kobrinskaya said the country’s authorities are doing everything possible to keep ahead of their rivals.

Georgia’s ruling regime is losing power in the world, while the local opposition is extremely active, she explained.

“They are very active in Russia, they are active in the West – in the United States and in Europe,” Kobrinskaya stated. “The regime of Saakashvili doesn’t feel safe. And they use any possible tool in their struggle against the opposition.”

Fred Weir from the Christian Science Monitor says the reported arrests may be revealing the authoritarian nature of Georgia.

“They are entitled to due process. That means they can call a lawyer, family members can be contacted. Therefore arrests are announced. And it never happens… I can’t tell you how bizarre it is to have the police spokesman say, ‘I can neither confirm nor deny that arrests have taken place.' Secret arrests are the hallmark of a police state,” Weir said.

“There is a new lobby for the Georgian parliament that is called the Freedom Charger. It will drastically increase the powers of the security service. It passed the first reading in the Georgian parliament recently – and it is possible that someone is trying to stir up a social mood to support that,” he explained.

Political analyst from Moscow State University, Aleksey Urazov, says the story may be a PR stunt by Georgian president Mikhail Saakashvili, who is desperate to find approval in his home country.

“He [Saakashvili] has some real problems with the protests that are going to take place in Georgia in November. His personal rating of political approval is less than 50 per cent,” Aleksey Urazov explained to RT. “About 80 per cent of Georgians say that they want to have a détente with Russia. They want good relations with Russia. So he needs to find some approval. The easiest way is find an enemy somewhere,” he added.

Andrey Kortunov from the New Eurasia Foundation described the current state of relations between the two countries as a “stalemate.”

We seem to be moving nowhere,” he said. “It seems that each side is waiting for some change to come from the other side.” And no such changes are likely to happen soon, Kortunov believes.

If we can’t resolve big questions like Georgia’s territorial integrity or the recognition of the newly-established states in the Caucasus [South Ossetia and Abkhazia] we should start with small issues,” Kortunov said, specifying cultural ties, business relations and environmental issues as possible starter points.

The question is whether the two sides have political will,” Kortunov added.