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Putin Accuses Georgia of Employing Stalinist Tactics

The president equates the arrest of four Russians on spy charges with hostage-taking.

October 02, 2006|David Holley | Times Staff Writer

MOSCOW — Russian President Vladimir V. Putin used exceptionally harsh language Sunday to criticize Georgia for its arrest last week of four alleged Russian spies, accusing the former Soviet state of resorting to hostage-taking and Stalinist tactics.

In televised remarks made at the opening of a meeting with top security, defense and foreign policy officials, Putin said the Georgian government's actions followed in the path of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin's infamous secret service chief, Lavrenti P. Beria.

"It is absolutely clear that attempts are being made to sting Russia as painfully as possible and to provoke it," Putin said. "And, by all appearances, those who are doing it believe that this anti-Russian bias of foreign policy meets the interests of the Georgian people. But I do not think so."

Relations between Russia and Georgia have grown increasingly tense since the election in 2004 of pro-Western Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, who came to power after a nonviolent people's revolt dubbed the Rose Revolution. Among the top aims of his administration has been to recover control of pro-Russian breakaway regions and to bring Georgia into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

The heated rhetoric raised concerns about the risk of a military clash between Georgia and Russia, which has troops on peacekeeping duty in the breakaway regions. Russia also has two Soviet-era bases in the part of Georgia controlled by the central government.

In an apparent reference to the close ties that Georgia has with the United States and the European Union, Putin said that the Georgian policymakers "believe that, being under the cover of their foreign sponsors, they can feel comfortable and safe."

"But is it really so?" Putin continued. "Today, I would like to hear representatives of both the civilian departments and the military."

Putin then met behind closed doors with members of the country's security council.

After the meeting, the presidential website posted a statement that "the president termed the actions of Georgia's leadership as an act of state terrorism with hostage-taking."

Despite the angry words from Putin, his spokesman, Alexei Gromov, issued a brief statement Sunday evening that the president had ordered the Defense Ministry to continue the pullout of Russian troops from the two Soviet-era bases, in keeping with earlier agreements. The Russian military had announced Saturday that it had suspended closure of the bases in response to the spy dispute.

The four espionage suspects held by Georgia are among five Russian military officers arrested Wednesday. One of the five was released Thursday for lack of evidence. Ten Georgian citizens also were detained. Georgia has demanded that Moscow hand over a sixth officer believed to have taken refuge in Russia's military headquarters in Tbilisi, the Georgian capital.

Gen. Andrei Popov, the commander of Russian forces in Georgia, said Sunday that if provoked, his troops would respond with "any means necessary, including shooting to kill," the Russian news agency RIA Novosti reported.

Various top Russian officials besides Putin also have bitterly denounced Georgia's arrest of the spying suspects. But most of those statements, like Putin's, avoided direct comment on whether the detained officers were in fact intelligence agents.

Russia recalled its ambassador, Vyacheslav Kovalenko, in protest of the arrests, and he told reporters upon his arrival here Friday that the spying charges had "no solid basis at all." The Georgian government has released videotape that shows an exchange of money during a meeting of the alleged Russian spies and their Georgian contacts.

Putin is a former KGB agent, and before becoming president he headed its main domestic successor agency, the Federal Security Service. That personal background opened him to a bitterly sarcastic counterattack from a leader of Georgia's parliament, Giga Bokeria.

"Coming from Putin, it seems that the comparison with Beria is a compliment, because he is a direct successor," Bokeria said in comments broadcast on Georgia's Rustavi-2 television.

"However, of course this is an insult for us," Bokeria continued. "We are not proud of any legacy left by any Soviet executioner."

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david.holley@latimes.com

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