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Georgia/Russia: Tbilisi, Moscow Continue To Negotiate On Bases

  • Robert Parsons --> The foreign ministers of Georgia and Russia said in Warsaw today that talks on the withdrawal of Russia's military bases from Georgia would resume soon. The two ministers are in Warsaw for a summit of the Council of Europe. Georgia's parliament had given Russia until 15 May to announce a date for withdrawal or face sanctions. There are signs though that the two sides may be moving toward a compromise.

Prague, 17 May 2005 (RFE/RL) -- For the moment, at least, the fist-waving is over. Georgia has pulled back from its threat to switch off the gas, electricity, and water supplies to the Russian bases. With an agreement apparently within reach, neither side wants to provoke another crisis.

The important thing now, said President Mikheil Saakashvili's spokesman, Gela Charkviani, is to continue talking.

"Of course, there is no final document or thoughts yet, but there has been some progress," Charkviani said. "Probably the correct thing now is to continue calmly. Of course, the Georgian parliament's resolution remains in force but, in parallel with this, the process of negotiations continues. And it is possible this process will bear fruit. Probably we can give this process the means to continue."

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov appeared to suggest in Warsaw that his government had reached a decision to withdraw from the bases. The key, however, is when.

Georgia wants the troops all out by January 2008 at the latest. Russia has been calling for at least seven years, as well as significant financial compensation. But in Warsaw, Foreign Ministry spokesman Aleksandr Yakovenko said Russia had presented Georgia with a compromise position of four years. Aleksei Malashenko is a political analyst at the Carnegie Endowment in Moscow. He suggested this is an offer Georgia would be wise to accept.
"There's nothing humiliating in this for Tbilisi, particularly as it has to be decided where to move the soldiers to and how to resettle them.... It's really a big economic problem."

"In my opinion this is a reasonable time frame," Malashenko said. "There's nothing humiliating in this for Tbilisi, particularly as it has to be decided where to move the soldiers to and how to resettle them. According to some information, the creation of new bases on Russian territory will cost between $150 million and $300 million. It's really a big economic problem."

May be so, but Moscow should not look to Tbilisi for sympathy. Many independent observers also question why it should cost so much to move 3,000-4,000 troops. The problem, say the Georgians, has nothing to do with the mechanics and costs of moving the troops and everything to do with Russia's inability to reconcile itself to the loss of empire. Georgian Foreign Minister Salome Zurabishvili spoke to RFE/RL in Tbilisi just before her departure for Warsaw.

"They're still struggling with accepting reality, with accepting they're no longer an imperialistic superpower that was controlling with those means the countries around," Zurabishvili said. "It means they have not yet accepted that Georgia is fully independent. My own understanding is that I think they want to do it but they don't completely want to do it, so they're struggling with themselves. That's why it's so difficult and that's why the work of persuasion that others can do together with us is so important."

If Aleksei Malashenko is to be believed, the real hard work has already been done.

"Of course, some form of compromise will be found," Malashenko said. "In fact, I have the impression that one already has been found. One gets the feeling that at the summit of power in Moscow and Tbilisi they are quite relaxed about the situation. What's going on beneath them is a political game."

Political game or not, the issue of the Russian bases has soured Russian-Georgian relations for the better part of a decade. In that time, the geopolitical realities of the region have changed beyond recognition. Today, it is George Bush not Vladimir Putin who pays state visits to Georgia. It is U.S. troops who train the Georgian Army and American money that promises to revitalize the economy. And it is English -- not Russian -- that is being learned by the young. A Russian foreign policy for the region has been conspicuous only by its absence. The key, said Foreign Minister Zurabishvili, is for Russia to come to terms with its changed circumstances.

"In the end, the main thing is for them, and them at the highest level, to be convinced that this is not the beginning of the end, the beginning of another humiliation, but the beginning of a new life of equal -- never equal because they are so big, but of partnership with their neighbors," Zurabishvili said.

As Zurabishvili said, Georgia needs Russia as a friend, not a resentful neighbor. The simple truth of the matter is that it is Russia that is on Georgia's doorstep, not the United States or the European Union.

Georgia has to adjust to that; but in return it wants financial investment, not soldiers and weapons.