At least 130 Georgians were rounded up in in Russia this week, and on Friday they were taken to a military airport where a plane was waiting to fly them back to the Georgian capital of Tbilisi.
The deportations were for alleged immigration offences, but they were clearly provoked by a bitter ongoing row between the two former Soviet nations. It's the latest in a series of Russian measures against Georgians this week: There has also been a crackdown on Georgian businesses in Moscow, and now Moscow police are reportedly asking schools to draw up lists of pupils with Georgian surnames.
Georgia's pro-Western president, Mikhail Saakashivili, has accused Moscow of "bullying." Russian Deputy Foreign minister Alexander Yakovenko accused Tbilisi of "anti-Russian" behavior. "Russia does not want to be provoked," he said. "Russian wants to be respected. Russia wants the anti-Russian campaign to stop."
The Russian media reports that authorities in Moscow have asked schools to provide lists of pupils with Georgian surnames, in an attempt to catch illegal immigrants. A spokesperson for the Moscow education department, Alexander Gavrilov, confirmed to the Associated Press that lists had been demanded from some schools, though a Russian interior ministry spokesman denied the claim.
Historic east-west tensions
The latest row was sparked by the arrest on Sept. 27 of four Russian officers on espionage charges. Georgian authorites went on to block the Russian military headquarters in Tbilisi, demanding the handover of another two officers. Despite the fact that the men were released on Monday, Russia responded by cutting most ties with Georgia. It suspended air, sea, road, rail and postal links with its southern neighbor and tightened visa restrictions for Georgians.
Since Georgia is economically dependent on Russia, the smaller nation will certainly feel the squeeze. An estimated one million Georgians live in Russia -- more than a fifth of Georgia's population -- and many families depend on the millions of Euros in remittances they send home.
Georgia has attempted to free itself from Russian influenceever since the so-called Rose Revolution in 2003, when President Saakashavilli ousted the pro-Russian president Eduard Shevardnadze. Georgia wants to forge closer ties with the West with the aim of joining NATO and the European Union.
This week's spat is the latest of many between Moscow and Tbilisi over the past few years. Russia doubled the price of natural gas for Georgia back in November 2005, and when a pipeline explosion left Georgia without gas for a week in January this year, Saakashvili blamed Moscow. Georgia has also accused Russia of supporting separatists in the breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. In September, Georgian authorities cracked down on opposition groups accusing them of plotting to overthrow the government at the behest of Russia.
With increased mutual loathing and ever more drastic tit-for-tat measures, the prospects for good relations between the two countries seem remoter than ever.