Confident Russia Shrugs Off Bad PR From Georgia Row

MOSCOW, Russia -- Russia's economic sanctions against Georgia have once again left the Kremlin looking to many in the West like a bully.

Georgia's President Mikhail Saakashvili

Russia strongly disagrees but in any case is not too concerned: whatever the West might think, it will still rely on imports of Russian oil and gas.

"The attitude is that 'Alright, they (the West) might hate us and criticise us, but they will respect us too'," said Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of the journal Russia in Global Affairs.

Russia cut off air, rail and postal links to its ex-Soviet neighbour after Tbilisi arrested four Russian army officers on spying charges.

Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili let them fly home on Monday, but Moscow -- defying calls from the United States and the European Union to accept Georgia's olive branch -- pressed on with those sanctions and promised more.

The row with Georgia was almost a re-run of a dispute with Ukraine in January this year. In sub-zero termperatures, Moscow cut off gas exports to Kiev in a pricing dispute.

The West saw the cut-off as a sign the Kremlin was trying to blackmail its ex-Soviet neighbours. Russia was slow to put its side of the story and suffered a mauling in the Western media.

"The outcome of the Ukrainian saga demonstrated for Russia that yes, its image suffered," Lukyanov told Reuters. "But on the other hand, so what? What happened? Did someone say 'We will not buy Russian gas'? ... No they didn't."

At that time, Western criticism focused on whether Russia's behaviour was appropriate for a country that this year is chairing the Group of Eight rich democracies.

The Kremlin hired Western public relations advisers who helped ensure the issue did not overshadow the G8 summit hosted by Russian President Vladimir Putin in St Petersburg in July.

SCATHING EDITORIALS

The advisers' influence was on display on Tuesday when Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov put Russia's side in the row with Georgia at a specially arranged briefing for foreign journalists.

That appeared to be an attempt to seize back the public relations iniative from Saakashvili, whose attacks on the Kremlin, in fluent English, have been beamed around the world.

But editorials in Western newspapers have been scathing of Russia.

"It is time for Mr Putin to stop ... bullying and undermining the Georgian government," said Britain's Guardian daily. Other newspapers took a similar line.

Even a Russian newspaper which is usually deferential to the Kremlin questioned the wisdom of the sanctions.

"The Kremlin ... it seems, has lost," the Moskovsky Komsomolets daily said.

"Our bureaucrats' customary sluggishness has allowed President (Saakashvili) to not only brilliantly execute a provocation but also to come out of it looking like the wronged victim."

Overall though, the tough line on Georgia seemed to be playing well inside Russia. Many Russians already dislike Saakashvili for his outspoken attacks on the Kremlin, and polls show they like to see Russia assert itself abroad.

While it may not worry about damage to its image abroad, Russia does have a problem, foreign policy expert Lukyanov said.

If sanctions fail to chasten Saakashvili -- and many analysts say they will have the opposite effect -- the Kremlin will look bad. But it has no obvious way of rolling back the sanctions without losing face.

"In my view, Saakashvili has outmanoeuvred Russia," Lukyanov said.

Source: Reuters

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