Over the centuries, Georgia has been the object of rivalry between Persia, Turkey and Russia. It was eventually annexed by Russia in the 19th century. Following an interlude of independence after the 1917 Bolshevik revolution in Russia, it was invaded by the Soviet Red Army in 1921 and incorporated into the Soviet Union a year later.

I n recent years Moscow's key rival has been Washington. The US has a major interest in security and stability in the country, having invested heavily in an oil pipeline from Azerbaijan via Georgia to Turkey. The Georgian armed forces have been receiving US training and support.

Increasing US economic and political influence in the country is being watched closely by the Kremlin, as are Georgia's aspirations to join NATO and the EU. Tensions between Moscow and Tbilisi are never far from the surface and have flared sporadically since Mikhail Saakashvili became Georgian presiden

Following the collapse of communism in the USSR in 1991, Georgians voted overwhelmingly for the restoration of independence and elected nationalist leader Zviad Gamsakhurdia as president. However, Gamsakhurdia was soon overthrown by opposition militias which in 1992 installed former Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze as the country's new leader.

During his 11 years in office, the Georgian people felt increasingly at the mercy of poverty, corruption and crime. He was ousted in November 2003 following mass demonstrations over the conduct of parliamentary elections.

Once a relatively affluent part of the USSR, with independence Georgia lost the cheap energy to which it had access in the Soviet period. The rupturing of trading ties caused the economy to nose-dive.

Georgia has been heavily dependent on Russia for its energy supply. Like some other republics of the former Soviet Union, it saw the price of gas supplied by the Russian gas giant Gazprom rise sharply in January 2006. Gazprom has since doubled the price again. It is no coincidence that Georgia has started receiving an increasing proportion of its gas from Azerbaijan.

Moscow has also banned imports of Georgian wine and mineral water. It insists that it did so on health grounds but Tbilisi is equally adamant that the reasons were political. As relations deteriorate, Russia has shown that it will not flinch from tightening the economic screw.