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Russia's Putin sends birthday greetings to Georgian counterpart

MOSCOW, December 21 (RIA Novosti) - Russian President Vladimir Putin has sent a letter of greetings to Georgian counterpart Mikheil Saakashvili, who is celebrating his birthday, the Kremlin press office said Thursday.

Saakashvili, who turned 39 Wednesday, was swept to power on the back of the 2003 "Rose" revolution. The U.S.-educated leader took a course toward closer ties with NATO and the European Union, evoking discontent in Moscow and worsening the small Caucasus nation's relations with its more powerful neighbor.

Russia, angered by the brief detention in Tbilisi of four of its army officers on espionage charges in September, cut transportation and postal links with Georgia and deported hundreds of illegal Georgian migrants.

In the latest move, Russian natural gas monopoly Gazprom raised the price of its exports for Georgia to Western European levels. The state-controlled energy giant said Wednesday it will cut off the supplies if Georgia refuses to pay $235 per 1,000 cubic meters, a 125% increase on the current price of $110.

Saakashvili's government sees the move, as well as Moscow's earlier imposed ban on Georgian wines and mineral water, as "political blackmail" used by the Kremlin to punish the post-Soviet state for its Western-leaning policies.

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