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Western-leaning Georgia feeling heat from Russia

TBILISI, Georgia—Some Russians believe the small former Soviet state of Georgia is looking for a fight to challenge the power of the Russian bear.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has been saying that Georgia, nestled between the Caucasus Mountains and Black Sea, is gearing up for war to challenge Russia. Russia deported some Georgians, and the Georgian flag was burned in Moscow.

Georgian leaders have fired back. U.S.-educated President Mikhael Saakashvili urged Georgians not to be bullied by the "Lillu-Putins" from the north.

The latest salvos are a result of Georgia's turn away from its Soviet roots towards the United States and Western Europe. A big part of that shift involves Georgia's negotiations to join NATO, perhaps by 2008.

Georgians believe Russia, fueled by billions in oil and gas revenue, is using their nation to teach a lesson to all former Soviet republics: cozy up to the West at your peril.

"That's just what Russia does. It really doesn't have much to do with us," Malkhaz Matsabeeidze, a citizen of Georgia, said matter of factly. "We're a small nation. What we do is survive."

It's a lopsided matchup. Georgia has about 4 million people on land about the size of South Carolina. Russia covers 11 time zones, with 143 million people.

This year alone—and tense relations here stretch back more than 200 years—Putin cut off Georgian wine and mineral water imports, banned direct flights and mail service between the nations, and through Kremlin-controlled energy supplier Gazprom more than doubled Georgian energy costs. He has accused Georgia of moving "in the direction of possible bloodshed" in two secessionist regions where Russian troops act as peacekeepers. He also called Georgia's arrest in September of four Russians suspected of espionage "an act of state terrorism with hostage taking."

The belief here is that Putin is fabricating evidence about a Georgian threat.

Putin has said that Georgians "clearly want to pinch Russia in the most painful way. These people think that under the roof of their foreign sponsors, they can feel comfortable and secure."

Georgians have an enduring Orthodox faith (polls indicate that more than 80 percent of Georgians consider the church the most trustworthy organization in the country) and a delight in their thick, sweet wines and the beauty of their green hills rolling into the Black Sea and snow-capped peaks. But they've never felt very secure. The capital shows signs of the remains of the Mongolian, Persian, Ottoman and Russian empires, as well as the Soviet Union, buildings as old as 1,400 years near wide Soviet boulevards.

Georgia threw off the last of its Soviet political leadership in the non-violent Rose Revolution in 2003.

While politically the nation leans west and angers Russia by talking about NATO and European Union membership, the people deal with the punishment of the powerful as they always have.

When Putin stopped mail between the countries (he claimed as an effort to force the Georgian mail system to modernize), it meant the estimated 1 million ex-pat workers in Russia could no longer send home their wages. They came up with a network of sending their mail and money-wires to Germany and then on to Georgia.

Georgians also have found new markets in Turkey, China and Europe for their wine and mineral water.

Still, they believe they're alone in this fight at the moment, since their primary Western sponsor, the United States (they've named a capital boulevard in honor of George W. Bush), is busy with Iraq, Iran and North Korea.

Russia, which was an imperial power for 400 years, is reasserting itself in the region, including in such oil and gas rich states as Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, as well as other independent nations that used to report to Moscow.

"Russia without an empire now feels like a man with a missing limb," said George Mosidze, foreign affairs secretary for Georgia's Western-oriented New Rights Party. "They can still sense its presence, and they want it back. In the case of Georgia, we are more like a missing fingertip to them."

Most worrying here, Georgians see Russia raising stakes in the territories of South Ossetia (where a vote on independence is due Sunday) and Abkhazia. Voters in South Ossetia voted overwhelmingly in a referendum earlier this month to break away from Georgia. Tensions flared recently as Georgia and Russia accused each other of responsibility for a series of shells that hit an Ossetian city.

Putin has accused Georgia of becoming increasingly militaristic in its approach to the regions, which have been problematic for most of the time since Georgia gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Abkhazia, officially recognized as part of Georgia, claims independent nation status. South Ossetia claims to be a part of North Ossetia, just across the border in Russia. Georgians hope to end the crisis by offering the areas autonomy inside the Georgian state. But they don't believe Russia wants a solution.

The Georgian Parliament has voted three times to ask Russia to remove troops and claims Russia has issued as many as 60,000 Russian passports to Georgian citizens to advance its agenda in the areas.

Nicholas Rurua, deputy chairman of Georgia's Committee on Defense and Security, dismissed Putin's statements, noting his army has 28,000 soldiers (850 of whom are based in Iraq, making Georgia the largest per capita force contributor to Iraq).

"We'd have to be insane to provoke Russia militarily," he said

Uwe Halbach, who studies Russian-Georgian relations at Germany's Institute for International and Security Affairs, said that experts in Europe still see Georgia as a state on the edge of failure.

Georgian President Saakashvili, while westward leaning, is considered more autocratic than his Soviet predecessor because he has changed elections dates and increased presidential powers.

Former Georgian Foreign Minister Salome Zourabichvili believes Georgia could lessen tensions.

But she said: "Russia has not come to terms with the independence of its neighbors. They feel frightened by the claims of freedom in Georgia and Ukraine, but it's really a fear of itself, a sign that they're unsure about what they'll become."

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(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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