Russian peacekeepers in South Ossetia (file photo)
Senior Georgian politicians, including President Mikheil Saakashvili, Prime Minister Zurab Noghaideli, and Foreign Minister Salome Zourabichvili, hailed the agreement reached in Moscow on 30 May on the terms and time frame for the closure of the two remaining Russian military bases in Georgia as heralding a new era in bilateral relations. So too did international organizations, including NATO and the EU.
But within days, Georgian and Russian officials were arguing over the ownership of equipment at one ancillary facility in Tbilisi, while the Azerbaijani government formally protested to Moscow plans to move part of the materiel currently deployed in Georgia to the Russian military base in Armenia. Moreover, several crucial issues remained to be addressed in subsequent agreements.
The 30 May agreement did, nonetheless, clarify the central issue of the time frame for withdrawal, stating clearly that the process should be completed by 1 October 2007 or, if that proves impossible (for example, due to adverse weather conditions), by 31 December 2007. Russia further pledges not to deploy any further equipment or ammunition to the two bases. The two sides agree to set in motion preparations for a formal inspection by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and Germany of the Gudauta military base that Russia claims to have vacated in July 2001. They also agreed to seek additional sources of funding to cover the expenses of transporting equipment from the two Georgian bases.
The 30 May agreement also provided for an unspecified quantity of equipment and personnel to be transferred from the two existing bases to a new Georgian-Russian antiterrorism center. Further details on the creation, staffing, and operations of that facility are to be addressed in a separate agreement, which has yet to be signed. Georgian Foreign Minister Zourabichvili told RFE/RL on 7 June that the creation of that center, which has been under discussion for over a year, was a Georgian initiative, the rationale for it being that "we did not want Russia to think it was being thrown out of Georgia."
It is, however, difficult to reconcile the formal agreement on the transfer of unspecified Russian equipment to that base with Georgian National Security Council press secretary Davit Gunashvili's statement that it will be purely an "analytical center." Other Georgian officials have suggested that other countries, including possibly the United States, could be invited to provide experts to work at the center.
Almost immediately, however, the sincerity of both Tbilisi and Moscow was called into question. The Georgian authorities denied a visa to the new commander of the Group of Russian Forces in the Transcaucasus, Major General Aleksandr Bespalov, thus forcing him to coordinate the withdrawal from Yerevan, Interfax reported on 7 June. At the same time, the Georgian military raised objections to the removal from the Russian Tank-Repair Workshop in Tbilisi, which was to be handed over to Georgia by 15 June, of equipment deployed there, including trucks, spare parts, armored vehicles, and eight diesel-fuelled generators. Those Georgian objections temporarily halted the planned removal of Russian equipment from the base, ITAR-TASS reported on 14 June. Georgia subsequently dropped its opposition to the Russian military taking portable equipment from that facility, and a written agreement formalizing the handover was duly signed on 16 June.
Meanwhile Gennadii Gudkov, chairman of the Russian State Duma's Defense and Security Committee, paid a private visit in early June to the two Russian bases, after which he concluded that the Defense and Foreign ministries will not be able to meet the agreed deadline of late 2007 for closing them. Caucasus Press on 7 June quoted Gudkov as saying that five years was a more realistic estimate, given that it would, he claimed, take two years just to de-mine the two bases -- a procedure on which Georgia insists.
Gudkov added that the withdrawal process could be expedited if the United States agreed to provide additional funding to finance the construction of alternative bases in Russia to house the personnel and equipment withdrawn from Georgia. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov similarly appealed on 16 June to the Russian government to earmark additional funding to cover the cost of the Russian withdrawal from Georgia. Nino Burdjanadze -- speaker of the Georgian parliament, which has consistently adopted a more hard-line and less flexible position on the Russian military presence in Georgia than has the Georgian Foreign Ministry -- refused to meet with Gudkov while he was in Tbilisi, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on 10 June.
In her 7 June comments to RFE/RL, Zourabichvili acknowledged that there is a risk Russia will not comply with the December 2007 deadline. She added that while Tbilisi considers it encouraging that at the very highest level, both Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Russian Foreign Ministry have admitted that the two bases do not serve any strategic purpose and are thus no longer needed, there is no guarantee that local Russian commanders, acting on their own initiative, might not seek to delay the withdrawal for their own ends.
Despite those misgivings, Russian and Georgian delegations succeeded in two subsequent rounds of talks, in Tbilisi on 8-10 June and in Moscow on 16-17 June, in ironing out the remaining, mostly logistical issues connected with the Russian withdrawal. The text of the relevant agreement has been coordinated, and it should be signed "as soon as possible," Interfax reported on 20 June, quoting an unnamed Russian Foreign Ministry official.
While the bases-closure agreement has removed one major bone of contention between Moscow and Tbilisi, it has not demolished the coldness and mutual suspicion that have dogged bilateral relations for many years. Indeed, Russian moves since the signing of the withdrawal agreement seem calculated to fuel that suspicion.
First, Russian Defense Minister Ivanov announced on 6 June that within the next 3 1/2 years, Russia will establish two military bases near its border with Georgia to prevent "terrorists" entering Russia from Georgian territory. One of the new bases will be located in Karachaevo-Cherkessia and the second in Daghestan's Botlikh Raion close to the border with Azerbaijan and Georgia. Ivanov said three mountain brigades will be stationed at those bases, together with helicopters, but no tanks or heavy armor.
Then on 10 June, newly appointed North Ossetian President Taymuraz Mamsurov said in an interview with "Novaya gazeta" that he sees no alternative to the "reunification" of his republic and Georgia's unrecognized Republic of South Ossetia, most of the Ossetian population of which already have Russian citizenship. That statement suggests that Moscow may have come to the conclusion that deliberately sabotaging President Mikheiil Saakashvili's proclaimed vow to restore Georgia's territorial integrity may constitute more sophisticated, and more effective leverage in relations with Tbilisi than the Russian military presence ever did.