Georgians Endure Painful Russia Blockade

Customers prowling through the Georgian capital's central food market grumbled when they came to Lolita Cherkezishvili's candy stand. She was out of the Russian stuff.

The disappearance of the hand-wrapped, much loved candies is just one of the signs that two weeks of Russian sanctions, imposed on this former Soviet Republic over an espionage scandal, have begun to bite.

The measures have effectively severed the Caucasus nation from its biggest market and supplier. Transport and postal links are suspended. Russian canned foods, cooking oil, and sausage are disappearing from store shelves; Newsstands report a run on popular Russian-language magazines, especially women's journals that don't appear in Georgian translation.

Georgian businesses say millions of dollars worth of orders are stuck at Russian checkpoints. Georgian Airlines, banned from flying into Russia, predicts its losses will exceed $600,000 by month's end.

Hundreds of Georgians have been deported as allegedly illegal migrants, and more are rumored to be on the way, putting at risk the estimated $2 billion that Georgians in Russia send home annually to feed their families. Some analysts predict the blockade could shave a percentage point off the country's GDP growth rate of around 6 percent.

CountryWatch: Georgia

And no one knows how long Russia's fury will last, even though Georgia has released the four Russian military officers it arrested Sept. 27 on suspicion of spying

For now, Cherkezishvili has stocked up on Ukrainian chocolate and is being stoical. "Georgians love Russian candy, but what can I do," she said. "They'll learn to like Ukrainian."

Zauri Kbakhadzhelidze, 54, a cheese merchant in the sprawling Tbilisi market, was defiant.

"Is this going to bring us to our knees? Nonsense," he said. "Come back next year and find me and see if I'm worse off. It's all nonsense."

Russia and Georgia have had a history of friction since they went their separate ways with the collapse of the Soviet Union 15 years ago, but this time pain is unavoidable, experts predict.

Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili dreams of getting his country on the Black Sea into NATO and the European Union, but Georgia remains very much dependent on Russia. Estimates suggest that a quarter of the population of 4.7 million works in Russia, and many Georgian imports — from candy and Western-brand cigarettes to wheat — come via Russia.

Russia buys 60 percent of Georgia's famed mineral water and 70 percent of its leading export, wine. These were already being barred in May, purportedly because of quality concerns, but Georgians insist it's retaliation for their pro-Western ambitions.

Georgians say they have learned to cope with hardships. Power cuts are routine, so they stock candles. They maneuver their cars over axle-busting potholes. Some apartment blocks get running water only two hours a day.

Near the Iliava underpass, laborers can wait for days for casual work, their tools covered in plastic sheets against the rain. The official unemployment rate is 13 percent and thought to be unrealistically low. The average salary is about $75 a month.

Deporting Georgian workers from Russia would only make things worse.

"Most of us already go home at the end of the day with empty pockets," said Kuran Sagadze, 51, a jobseeker waiting near the underpass.

Moscow, meanwhile, is enjoying a boom fueled by high oil prices, and Georgians say it is easy to find construction or security jobs there. But with Russian police carrying out aggressive sweeps to find allegedly illegal migrants and conducting tax checks into Georgian-owned businesses, pressure is rising.

Now there are fears the dispute also will disrupt the flow of money sent home by Georgians in Russia.

Irakli Chervigiya, his mother and wife rely on the $200 that his father, working as a security guard in Moscow, sends home every couple of months. Chervigiya said he can't even find a job that would pay him enough to cover his bus fare to and from work. He's looking to friends in Ukraine to help get his father's money to the family.

"It is bad that we depend so much on Russia, but we do," he said. "It has to be acknowledged."