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The Russian Defense Ministry has criticized as "counterproductive" a unanimous vote by the Georgian parliament pressuring Moscow to close two Russian military bases in Georgia. The nonbinding resolution, passed yesterday, demands that Russia agree a timetable by 15 May for vacating the bases and withdrawing some 4,000 troops. Should Russia fail to do that, the Georgian lawmakers have vowed to outlaw any Russian military presence in their country from 1 January 2006. The dispute is at the heart of ongoing bilateral negotiations. But the Georgian side appears convinced that the Kremlin's heart is not really in those talks.
Prague, 11 March 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The Georgian parliament is trying to force Russia to remove its bases from the country.
Yesterday's move carries a threat of sharp curbs on Russian troop movements from January. Those steps would effectively render the Russian bases in western and southern Georgia nonfunctional.
Georgian lawmaker Giga Bokeria said after the parliamentary vote yesterday: "In this statement, we are giving more time for diplomacy despite the fact that Russian diplomacy has proved time and time again that there is not yet the political will in Russia to withdraw its bases -- which remain here as an echo of Soviet rule and which are here against the will of the Georgian people."
Georgian parliamentarians say that if Russia fails to meet the deadline, its bases will be declared illegal and the Georgian government will stop issuing entry visas to Russian troops. The measures also include strict curbs on the movement of vehicles and equipment.
Moscow had warned that the resolution would obstruct discussions aimed at forging a compromise on the pullout. Once it passed, the Russian Defense Ministry described the Georgian resolution as counterproductive. Ministry spokesman Vyacheslav Sedov told ITAR-TASS that the "Georgian parliamentary deputies lost their sense of reality." He added that the problem cannot be resolved through "ultimatums."
Konstantin Zatulin, chairman of the Russian State Duma's CIS Affairs Committee, took a tougher stance. He said Russia would respond by pressing Georgia to pay higher prices for energy supplies and "toughening its position regarding the Georgian-Ossetian and Georgian-Abkhaz conflicts," where the Georgian government is facing local pressure for independence or autonomy.
So why are Russian troops still in Georgia, more than a decade after that country gained independence from the Soviet Union?
Aleksandr Goltz, a Russian military expert, explained: "To tell the truth, these two basis in Georgia are more designed to safeguard [weapons]. Different kinds of military equipment are stocked there, and [the equipment] is rather outdated, I must stress. Some 4,000 soldiers are based there. Their main task is to somehow safeguard that equipment."
Goltz said the Soviet withdrawal from Eastern Europe was an economic disaster -- with soldiers having no place to return to live in Russia. That was accompanied by the widespread theft of military equipment. He said eliminating the bases in Georgia would be easy in technical terms, since many people who serve on the bases are locals, and the biggest task would be transporting the military equipment to Russia.
Goltz said the main problem is not a logistical one but a political one. The Kremlin, he suggests, is simply not sufficiently interested in removing its military presence in Georgia. "The main thing here is Russia's desire to show its military might, a wish to show that it is ready and able to act -- especially in such a complicated place as the Caucasus," he said.
On the other hand, Goltz said, there is no doubt that, for Russia, the ethnically mixed and restive Caucasus region is a headache. Moscow clearly wants to avoid armed conflict in the Caucasus. A war in Chechnya, which borders Georgia, has contributed significantly to Moscow's concerns in the region.
Goltz stressed, however, that Russia should seek permission from Georgia to further its goals when related actions concern Georgian territory.
Russia agreed to remove its Soviet-era military bases in 1998. But since then, Moscow has repeatedly extended the deadline, saying it needs years and millions of dollars to remove its troops.
Moscow has come under increased pressure recently -- not only from Tbilisi but also from Washington, which supports Georgia's demand for a Russian withdrawal.
Russia has military bases in Armenia, but Armenia's ongoing conflict with neighboring Azerbaijan has meant that the country welcomes the Russian military presence.