Under an agreement signed at the OSCE Istanbul Summit in November 1999, Russia undertook to close by 1 July 2000 its military bases in Vaziani, near Tbilisi, and Gudauta, Abkhazia, and to begin talks with the Georgian leadership in 2000 on the time frame for closing its two remaining bases in Batumi and Akhalkalaki. Russia complied with first of those commitments, and embarked as required on talks on shutting down the latter two bases.
But in the course of those talks, Russian officials have consistently argued that a lengthy time period is required to build housing in Russia for the troops to be withdrawn from Georgia. (That argument is specious insofar as many of the personnel at the base in Akhalkalaki are in fact ethnic Armenians who are citizens of Georgia.) Initially, Russian officials said they needed 15 years to close the bases, then 14; that figure was revised downward to 11, and then eight years, according to Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Noghaideli on 9 March.
After the Georgian and Russian sides failed during Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov's visit to Tbilisi last month to make any progress toward solving either the deadlock over the bases or any of the problems bedeviling bilateral relations, it was agreed to establish working groups to seek to narrow the disagreements and report on 1 May to the countries' two presidents. Those working groups will focus on six issues, including the proposed framework treaty on friendship and cooperation and the time frame for the closure of the two bases.
If Russia rejects or refuses to met that deadline, the Georgian parliament would declare the bases illegal and measures would be taken to prevent them from functioning: Georgia would, for example, decline to issue visas to Russian military personnel.
Despite that agreement, Givi Targamadze, chairman of the Georgian parliament's Defense and Security Committee, announced within days of Lavrov's departure that the two remaining Russian bases should close by 1 January 2006 at the latest. On 25 February, parliament speaker Nino Burdjanadze suggested that the Georgian leadership might declare the Russian bases illegal if an agreement is not reached soon on a date for their closure. Then on 7 March, parliament deputy Giga Bokeria unveiled a draft bill that would require Russia to agree formally by 15 May to close the two remaining bases by 1 January 2006. If Russia rejects or refuses to met that deadline, the Georgian parliament would declare the bases illegal and measures would be taken to prevent them from functioning: Georgia would, for example, decline to issue visas to Russian military personnel.
Bokeria's draft bill appeared to take the Georgian leadership by surprise. ITAR-TASS on 8 March quoted parliament speaker Burdjanadze as telling the independent television station Rustavi-2 that parliament should not adopt such a bill until after the expiry of the two months agreed by Moscow and Tbilisi to try and reach a compromise. President Mikheil Saakashvili also implicitly cautioned the parliament against adopting the bill. He reaffirmed on 8 March Georgia's "crystal-clear" position that the bases should be closed, but proposed waiting to see whether it is possible to reach an agreement with Russia within the two-month period, as did Prime Minister Noghaideli. Parliament was scheduled to debate the draft bill on 9 March, but postponed the debate until 10 March at Burdjanadze's request.
On 8 March, a senior Russian military official condemned the planned debate as an attempt at blackmail, and on 9 March the Russian Foreign Ministry warned that the debate would make it more difficult for the two sides to reach the hoped-for compromise agreement. "The Russian side will shortly submit its proposals aimed at finding solutions to existing problems," the Foreign Ministry statement continued.
In what have may have been a deliberate leak intended to defuse mounting tensions, on 10 March, izvestiya.ru quoted an unnamed Russian Defense Ministry official as saying that Russia does not want to keep the bases in Georgia forever, but their personnel will be redeployed to the Caucasus to serve in a new mountain rifle division which will be formed only three or four years from now. While that time frame might appeal to the Georgian leadership -- in that the bases would theoretically have been closed prior to the expiry of Saakashvili's first presidential term -- it may not be enough to mollify the parliament. And that anonymous statement represents a clear retreat from earlier Russian arguments in favor of simply renaming one or both bases an "antiterrorism center."
Meanwhile, the Georgian State Employment Agency is already addressing the problem of providing employment for the Armenians who currently account for up to one-third of the personnel at the Akhalkalaki base, and who are already expressing unease at the prospects of losing their livelihood in a region with few employment opportunities. The Georgian daily "Rezonansi" on 10 March quoted the agency's chairman, Levan Peradze, as saying that a job-creation program is in the works, and he suggested some of the personnel in question may find jobs in private security services. And Goga Khachidze, who was recently named governor of the Djavakheti region where the Akhalkalaki base is located, pledged the same day that the Georgian leadership will do everything possible to ensure that its closure "is painless" for the local Armenian population.
As the Georgian authorities have failed consistently to deliver on earlier promises to improve conditions in the remote, mountainous and impoverished region, the Armenians are understandably skeptical. David Rstakian, leader of the Virk party that represents the local Armenian community, was quoted by Caucasus Press on 10 March as saying, "The Armenians of Djavakheti will do all they can to prevent the Russian troops from leaving Akhalkalaki. If Russia refuses to pull out its troops, it may need our help."
That help, he implied, would be willingly offered.