MOSCOW – Russia has tightened the pressure on ethnic Georgians living in Moscow, ordering schools to compile lists of children with Georgian surnames to detect illegal migrants and deporting more than 100 people, officials said Friday.
Russia and the former Soviet republic have been locked in a bitter dispute since the arrests of four Russian officers by Georgia last week on charges of spying. Despite their release, Moscow has slapped a range of punitive sanctions on Georgia.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said Friday that Georgia was to blame for the dispute and spurned Western calls to lift the sanctions. Putin said international mediators should focus on curbing Georgian conduct he claimed was “aimed at escalating tension.”
Alexander Gavrilov, a spokesman for the Moscow City Hall’s education department, said some, but not all, Moscow schools received the request for children with Georgian names on Thursday. He criticized the police action, saying all children, regardless of nationality or religion, have an equal right to education.
“If the law enforcement bodies carry out work searching for illegal migrants, it’s their business and there is no way schools must be involved in this process,” Gavrilov said.
Nina Zubareva, an official from school No. 1289 in northern Moscow, said the local police station had telephoned Thursday and demanded a list of pupils with Georgian surnames.
“There are very few pupils with Georgian surnames in our school and we have honored the police request. I must say that our pupils are Russian citizens and have Moscow registration. Their families have been living in Moscow for years,” she said.
Inna Bashkirova said her brother, Shota Georgadze, 32, was detained outside the Georgian consulate in Moscow on Friday on suspicion of lacking a valid residence permit. Bashkirova said her brother is married to a Russian citizen and has all his documents in order, but police accused him of faking the paperwork and were preparing to deport him.
“They’re crushing people, they’re destroying families. They used to persecute Jews like this. Now it’s the Georgians’ turn,” Bashkirova said, on the verge of tears. “If (Georgian President Mikhail) Saakashvili did something wrong, why do common people suffer?”
Relations between the neighbors have been strained since Saakashvili came to power following the 2003 Rose Revolution, vowing to take the country out of Russia’s orbit and join NATO. Georgia also accuses Moscow of backing two breakaway Georgian provinces – an allegation Russia denies.
On Thursday, Russia said it would abolish quotas allowing a number of Georgians to obtain residency and work permits each year. Several Georgian-run casinos, restaurants and other businesses have been raided and closed for alleged regulatory violations.
Russian authorities have also begun targeting prominent ethnic Georgians living in Moscow, including award-winning author Grigory Tchkhartishvili, who writes under the pen name Boris Akunin. Akunin said on Ekho Mosvky radio that his publisher had been questioned by tax authorities over the writer’s finances.
“I didn’t think I would live to see ethnic cleansing in Russia,” Akunin said.
According to some estimates, about a million Georgians – more than a fifth of Georgia’s population – work in Russia, and their families rely on the hundreds of millions of dollars in annual remittances sent home.