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A Time for Some Restraint on All Sides

Tbilisi's decision last week to arrest four Russian military officers on espionage charges appears to be an attempt to escalate a dispute with Moscow to a level where Western powers will have no choice but to intervene.

There are not, however, any quick solutions.

In his first public comments about the crisis, President Vladimir Putin on Sunday accused unidentified foreign sponsors of encouraging the Georgian leadership.

It is hard to believe the Georgian leadership, which is angling for NATO membership, would have triggered the crisis without consulting with Western powers they view as allies against Russia.

Western intervention, among other things, could help to sideline Russia from the resolution of the "frozen conflicts" in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the two separatist regions of Georgia that are supported by Russia.

Whoever the Western powers might be, they should avoid supporting confrontation here if they want to maintain stability throughout the former Soviet republics. They should instead help to mediate and diffuse tensions .

The problems run deep. Russia and Georgia have been engaged in a war of words since the later years of Eduard Shevardnadze presidency in Tbilisi. But sparks really began to fly after Mikheil Saakashvili, the Western-leaning president, took office after the 2003 Rose Revolution. Among the sore points are Russia's ban on Georgian wine and other goods; Russian troops on Georgian soil; and Moscow's support of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

In the longer term, Georgia would benefit if its leadership focused on making the country so prosperous that the people of South Ossetia and Abkhazia stopped daydreaming about being part of Russia. Georgia also should abandon illusions of luring the two regions with offers of broad autonomy and start thinking in earnest about significant concessions that could be made to induce the separatist regimes to make peace with Tbilisi.

If these concessions aren't enough, it is doubtful that anything will work. Any kind of military action to take back Abkhazia and South Ossetia would mean unacceptable losses for the Georgian military.

For its part, Russia has the right to demand that Georgia release the officers. But it should shun calls from hardliners to resort to force or other disproportionate measures. The Kremlin should be supported in seeking mediation by international organizations or individual countries to defuse tensions.

In the longer term, Russia should resist the temptation to seek regime change in Georgia. The result of such a policy would be an unfriendly Georgia, because some 80 percent of Georgians support Saakashvili in the standoff with Russia. The more likely result would be a failed state divided by civil war that could again become a springboard for insurgent groups targeting Russia, as has been the case previously in Georgia's Pankisi Gorge.

(The Moscow Times 02.x.06)

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