President Putin accuses Georgia of criminal blackmail

Russia tightened the squeeze on Georgia Thursday with measures to restrict the right of Georgians to live and work in Russia, in the latest retaliation aimed at the small, impoverished Caucasus nation.

Russia severed transport and postal links with Georgia on Tuesday after a dispute over arrested Russian military officers, paralyzing trade with its economically dependent neighbor, and police began to target Georgian businesses and restaurants in Moscow with a series of raids.

Mikhail Tyurkin, deputy head of the Federal Migration Service, said in comments televised Thursday that Russia had decided to abolish quotas allowing a certain number of Georgians each year to obtain residency and work permits.

He also said that the validity of multi-entry visas held by Georgians would be cut from 180 to 90 days, NTV television reported. Moscow has stopped issuing visas to Georgian citizens since the dispute, so this measure would affect those already in Russia.

In yet another tightening of controls, the official said Moscow had asked Belarus to impose visa restrictions on Georgia because Georgians could sneak into Russian territory through that country, which has loose borders with Russia.

According to some estimates, over one-fifth of Georgia's 4.4 million population work in Russia, and their families rely on the hundreds of millions of dollars (euros) in annual remittances. Tyurkin said that more than half of Georgians in Russia were working illegally.

Russian lawmakers this week are due to examine a bill that could bar Georgians living in Russia from cabling money home.

Relations have grown progressively worse between Tbilisi and its former Soviet master since pro-Western President Mikhail Saakashvili came to power after the 2003 Rose Revolution vowing to move away from Russian influence and join NATO.

But the Georgian detention last week of four Russian officers accused of spying appeared to be have been the last straw for Moscow, which has become alarmed at the growing U.S. influence in its former Soviet backyard.

President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday accused Georgia of blackmail and lawmakers threatened further sanctions, as Russian fury showed no signs of abating despite Georgia's decision to set the four officers free, reports AP.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Wednesday rebuffed a renewed appeal from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to lift the sanctions. The OSCE had brokered the release of the Russians.

"The prospects of an improvement in overall relations with Georgia depend completely on the future behavior of the Saakashvili regime," the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement after telephone talks between Lavrov and Belgian Foreign Minister Karel De Gucht, who holds the rotating OSCE chairmanship.