Georgian-Russian Spy Row Preceded Vice President Joe Biden’s Visit to Tbilisi

by Alexander Melikishvili

On Tuesday, July 21, on the eve of the U.S. Vice President Joe Biden’s July 22-23 official visit to Tbilisi, the Georgian television company Imedi aired a news report in which the Secretary of Georgia’s National Security Council Eka Tkeshelashvili stated that Georgia refused the entry to two unnamed Russian diplomats, who were supposed to assume their responsibilities at the Russian Federation’s interest section* in the Embassy of Switzerland in Georgia as part of the regular cadre rotation. According to Tkeshelashvili, the Georgian government’s refusal was based on the suspicion that the two were engaged in espionage activities and were affiliated with the Russian intelligence services. In her comments to Imedi regarding the diplomatic scandal, Tkeshelashvili noted,

“It is a sovereign right of any state to identify those people, who work at the diplomatic representations. Each country has the right to allow or to refuse the entry to diplomats, against whom there may be serious suspicions that they work for other services.”

In response, the Russian side ordered two Georgian diplomats, including the Consul of Georgia in the Russian Federation, Zurab Pataradze, who was declared persona non grata, to leave Moscow. According to the Imedi news report, the diplomatic row took place two weeks ago. Although, later an unnamed Georgian government source told The Moscow Times that the reciprocal expulsions occurred in May.

However, the Russian side disputed the details of the diplomatic row and provided a pointed interpretation of why it was publicized by officials in Tbilisi. A Russian diplomatic source told the Russian news agency Interfax that the “exchange of diplomats” occurred in April and that neither of the two Georgian diplomats was declared persona non grata. Officially they were simply recalled and the two sides agreed not to use the incident for public relations purposes against each other, according to a source in Interfax with contacts in Russian diplomatic circles. On July 21, responding to Tkeshelashvili, the official spokesman for the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Andrei Nesterenko stated,

“Any action taken by this side or that, which deviates from customary practice, is, of course, regretful. A diplomat’s work entails rotation of cadres and in this regard Russia follows the appropriate agreements. Usually in such cases, if a justification [for expulsion] is not based on logic or diplomatic explanation then, as a rule, adequate steps are taken in order to maintain the normal diplomatic parity.”

The significance of the row can also be judged by the fact that the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov found it necessary to comment on the sidelines of the 16th session of the ASEAN Regional Security Forum in Phuket, Thailand. Lavrov confirmed that the incident took place “some months ago” and added, “The Georgians had asked us not to publicize it, yet now they did it themselves and I have difficulties telling you why.” Finally, the Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin interpreted the diplomatic scandal as yet another demonstration of the Georgian government’s anti-Russian policy timed to coincide with Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to Tbilisi. Karasin derisively noted, “The Georgians are clumsily trying to use the spy theme to show their high-ranking guest their presumed strength and resolve.”

* NOTE: Since the August 2008 war, diplomatic relations between Russia and Georgia have been significantly downgraded to the level of interest sections which mainly handle consular and limited diplomatic affairs. At present the Georgian interest section at the Embassy of Switzerland in Moscow and the Russian interest section at the Embassy of Switzerland in Tbilisi represent the only diplomatic presence of the two countries on each other’s territory.