Tbilisi - When three Georgian photojournalists were charged with spying for enemy Russia last weekend, it was not the first time Tbilisi has accused Moscow of running espionage networks on its territory.
The case has sparked protests in Tbilisi but analysts suggest that the Kremlin has been targeting its pro-Western neighbour for years, both before and after the ex-Soviet states fought a war in 2008.
The Georgian authorities claim that the latest spy suspects were operating at the very heart of President Mikheil Saakashvili's administration.
The Georgian leader's personal photographer and a foreign ministry photographer are accused of acquiring secret documents which another man working for a European picture agency sent to Russian military intelligence, although they strongly deny this.
The government says that three years after the war, the threat from Russia remains serious as Moscow seeks to prevent Georgia from moving closer to Europe and joining Western institutions like NATO.
“Nobody has any doubt that we are the main target for a giant country run by former KGB agents,” Saakashvili said after the arrests, speaking in an interview with Russia's Echo of Moscow radio.
He claimed that his arch foe Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, a former KGB employee, “personally plans intelligence operations” and “gets great pleasure from it”.
Some analysts agreed that Moscow is seeking regime change.
“It's clear that Georgia is a prime target of Russian intelligence,” said Russian military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer. “Many people here (in Russia) would be happy if Saakashvili was removed.”
Moscow has stationed troops in Georgia's rebel regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which it recognised as independent states after the war, and Georgia alleges that Russian officers based there have masterminded a series of bomb blasts and terror plots over the past year.
Russia's espionage activities extend broadly “across various sectors of the Georgian state and society”, said Svante Cornell, research director at the Stockholm-based Central Asia-Caucasus Institute.
Last year Georgia claimed to have busted a major spy ring by using a former Soviet army officer as a double agent to infiltrate Russia's military intelligence agency.
Moscow has dismissed Tbilisi's allegations as publicity stunts staged by an administration suffering from “chronic spy mania”, although it also made arrests in recent years of alleged Georgian spies.
“The authorities are working hard to convince the international community and their own public that Georgia is swimming with spies and saboteurs,” the Russian foreign ministry said.
The Georgian interior ministry habitually publicises videotaped confessions, undercover surveillance films and wiretapped telephone calls when it arrests espionage suspects - an attempt, it says, to discourage others.
But the ministry's hidden-camera videos have also featured opposition protest leaders, and critics say the relentless public exposure of alleged traitors could have political motives.
“The message is that the government can come after you at any time if you're doing something it doesn't like,” said Shorena
Shaverdashvili, editor of news magazine Liberali.
The charges against the photographers have caused much wider anxiety than previous espionage scandals.
Journalists have staged a series of rallies calling for the case, which has been classified as secret, to be opened up to public scrutiny.
“We are interpreting this case as a signal to the media, that any one of us who gathers information on things that are painful to the government could be subjected to something like this,” Shaverdashvili said.
The authorities have insisted however that this is a criminal case, not an attack on press freedom.
Whether the photographers are ultimately convicted or not, Georgia's hunt for Russian agents seems unlikely to stop now.
“Scandals like this can sometimes have negative effects, but unfortunately I am expecting Russia's spy games to continue,” said Tornike Sharashenidze of the Georgian Institute of Public Affairs. - Sapa-AFP