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Georgia/Russia: Negotiations On Treaty Hit Deadlock

Already strained, ties between Russia and Georgia appeared to suffer a new setback last week when talks on a framework bilateral treaty reached a stalemate. Moscow is blaming Tbilisi for recanting earlier agreements, while Georgia has accused Russia of deliberately stalling talks in order to further delay a troop withdrawal from the South Caucasus country. The fresh tensions come as Sergei Lavrov prepares this week to pay his first visit to Georgia as Russian foreign minister.

Prague, 16 February 2005 (RFE/RL) -- It has been less than a week since Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili offered a return to the brief rapprochement with Russia that followed his accession to power a year ago.

But already, tensions have resumed.

Russian and Georgian negotiators met on 10-11 February in Tbilisi to continue work on a bilateral framework treaty designed to take the place of a 1994 friendship agreement that was never ratified by Moscow.

But the talks broke up with no agreement. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who is scheduled to travel to Tbilisi on 18 February, blamed the Georgian side for the stalemate.

“[We’ve already had] three round of talks, but most issues remain unresolved. [Last week] we felt the Georgian side was not ready to move forward and, in some cases, had even made a few steps back. I am counting on my visit to Tbilisi to help clarify the situation. I hope we will still be able to implement the agreements -- the fundamental agreements -- reached [last year] by our two presidents,” Lavrov said.

The day before, on 14 February, a Russian Foreign Ministry statement accused Georgia of “reviewing" its stance on previously agreed issues, but gave no further details.

Georgian Foreign Minister Salome Zurabishvili said today she would welcome her Russian counterpart with "specific proposals." But she said she did not expect any substantial progress to be made during Lavrov's visit.

Negotiations on the new treaty started six years ago, but have stumbled repeatedly on the issue of the former Soviet military bases that Russia maintains in Georgia. Under international pressure, Russia in 1999 agreed to vacate two of the bases within two years and enter negotiations with Georgia on the closure of the remaining two.

The Vaziani airfield, near Tbilisi, was handed over to the Georgian Defense Ministry in 2001.

The fate of the Gudauta military base, in Georgia’s separatist republic of Abkhazia, is less certain. Moscow maintains it has been vacated, but Tbilisi claims it is still manned by Russian troops and has demanded that international observers be allowed onto the base.

Georgia insists that the future framework treaty must set a firm deadline for the closure of the two remaining bases Moscow maintains in Batumi, the capital of the Black Sea autonomous republic of Adjara, and in Akhalkalaki, near Georgia’s borders with Armenia and Turkey.
Another sticking point is Moscow’s insistence on having the future treaty formally ban all foreign military bases on Georgia’s soil.

Russia claims it has neither the financial nor the logistical resources needed to vacate those two bases within the three- to five-year time frame Tbilisi is demanding. Moscow has long suggested the pullout take place only after 2010.

But Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov proposed an alternative solution on 10 December -- that the two bases serve as sites for future joint antiterror training centers.

“Because of its location on the seaside, the Batumi base could naturally be used to train experts specializing in combating terror threats against naval infrastructures and transport. As for the 62nd Russian military base in Akhalkalaki, it could be used to set up a training center for border guards and specialists of the Emergencies Situation Ministry,” Ivanov said.

Ivanov’s proposal followed a Georgian offer to open a joint antiterrorist analytical center in Tbilisi after the Batumi and Akhalkalaki bases are vacated.

Pro-government lawmaker Giga Bokeria is deputy chairman of the Georgian parliament’s Legal Affairs Committee and holds a seat in its Defense and Security Committee. Bokeria, who participated in last week's unsuccessful talks, told RFE/RL he sees Russia’s counteroffer as using antiterror aims as a pretext for retaining a military presence in Georgia.

“I took part in [last week’s] negotiations and I heard a member of the Russian delegation say there was no difference between [our proposed] antiterrorist center and a military base. If we twist this argument a little bit, we get the impression that the Russian proposal is tantamount to just changing the signs hanging over the two military bases. The bases would then remain untouched, and simply be renamed ‘antiterrorist centers.’ Of course that’s something Georgia cannot accept,” Bokeria said.

Another sticking point is Moscow’s insistence on having the future treaty formally ban all foreign military bases on Georgia’s soil.

Parliamentary speaker Nino Burdjanadze on 11 February ruled out the possibility that NATO-hopeful Georgia would ever sign a treaty that “would forbid it to seek military cooperation with third countries.”

In an address to the Georgian legislature, President Saakashvili on 10 February assured Russia that no foreign military bases will be set up once its troops depart.

Bokeria said there is no contradiction between Saakashvili’s pledges and Georgia’s refusal to sign a treaty that would proscribe foreign troops. “As a sovereign state, we can say we’re not considering [opening our territory to foreign military bases]," he said. "We could also -- although I’m personally against this idea -- consider the possibility of Georgia voting through a law banning foreign military bases. But this has to be a sovereign decision. If we made that issue part of a bilateral treaty, it would restrict our sovereignty. We can’t, and mustn’t, agree to that.”

Tensions between Moscow and Tbilisi had already been on the rise since last summer, when Saakashvili sent Georgian troops to areas in and around the separatist region of South Ossetia, triggering a series of armed clashes. Since the fighting, Moscow has resumed its allegations that Georgia is harboring Chechen fighters on its territory.

Russian Defense Minister Ivanov, speaking at the 12-13 February international security conference in Munich, said Russia reserves the right to launch preventive strikes against what he called "terrorist bases" everywhere -- including Georgia.

Russia’s envoy to Georgia, Vladimir Chkhikvishvili, said on 14 February that Moscow’s threats should be taken seriously. “I can only confirm that if we get concrete evidence that there is, on a particular territory, a center of terrorism that represents a threat to Russia’s security -- and if political, diplomatic, and economic methods remain ineffective -- then, probably military action will be seriously considered,” he said.

Tbilisi has dismissed Russia’s charges as baseless. It has questioned in turn Moscow's motivation in refusing to extend the mandate of international monitors that until a few weeks ago had been working along the Russian-Georgian border.