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Georgian Foreign Minister Zourabichvili
Prague, 30 May 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Russia and Georgia have signed an agreement on the withdrawal of Russian military bases from Georgia by 2008. The presence of the troops has bedeviled Russian-Georgian relations for the most part of the last decade. The agreement was signed in Moscow by Georgian Foreign Minister Salome Zourabichvili and her Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov.
Lavrov told journalists in Moscow that the document agreed by the two sides spells out not just the date for completion of the Russian troops' withdrawal from Georgia but also a schedule for a stage-by-stage exit.
"The withdrawal will be completed by the end of 2008," he said. "The declaration outlines every stage of this withdrawal in utmost detail."
The deputy commander of Russian troops in the southern Caucasus said the process of withdrawal of the military bases would begin in August of this year.
Speaking to Radio Liberty, a clearly elated Zourabichvili said that, in effect, the agreement signed in Moscow brought an end to 14 years of difficult negotiations.
"Today we have agreed on the principle of the withdrawal of the Russian military bases, on the dates and on the whole process: what should happen at which stages and the fact that it should start immediately upon signature, the fact that the Russian military bases stop functioning as military bases and start their withdrawal process," Zourabichvili said.
She said that while it had been agreed that the Russians would finally leave in 2008, no agreement had been reached yet on a final completion date. But the process of withdrawal, she said, was to begin immediately.
"In 2005 we have already the retrocession of a number of military elements and in 2006, the end of 2006, the retrocession of heavy military equipment at the base of Akhalkalaki, which will close by 1st October 2007 and then 2008 will be the closure of Batumi [military base] and the total withdrawal."
Zourabichvili said talks were to continue tomorrow on the details of the agreement but that the hard part has been completed.
The Georgian foreign minister said that the hardest part in the negotiations had been to persuade the Russians that withdrawal should not be seen as a national humiliation but the beginning of a new partnership with a neighbouring and independent state.
The Russians had originally asked for 11 years to withdraw from Georgia and for hundreds of millions of dollars to pay for the troops removal to new facilities in Russia or elsewhere. That they have agreed to far less is a reflection of the growing international pressure on Moscow to stop prevaricating on withdrawal and a dawning appreciation in Moscow of the fact that the issue was forcing the Georgians into ever closer ties with the United States and NATO.
It helped in the end that the Georgians were able to offer the Russians sweeteners. According to today's agreement, Georgia and Russia are to work to set up a joint antiterrorist center in Georgia, although where it will be and what its remit should be are yet to be decided.
Georgia has also offered a verbal commitment not to allow any third country to deploy troops on its territory.
In the end, the agreement came as no surprise. Just last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin told the newspaper "Komsomolskaya Pravda" that while it was regrettable from a political point of view that Georgia wanted the Russians to leave, it was its sovereign right.
And in any case, Putin added, the bases served no useful military purpose. Georgia's only regret will be that it has taken Moscow so long to reach this conclusion.