The Georgian envoy told Georgia's Rustavi-2 private television channel yesterday that she and Lavrov and agreed in principle the pullout should be completed by 1 January 2008.
She also suggested that Moscow might begin vacating the two facilities as soon as the presidents of both countries sign a final agreement on the withdrawal.
Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has suggested that, without a firm agreement on a withdrawal date, he might not join his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in May to attend ceremonies marking the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II.
The Georgian president addressed the issue of the bases while speaking at the 22 April GUUAM summit in the Moldovan capital Chisinau.
“Russia’s military bases are stationed in Georgia against the will of the Georgian people. They do not serve the interests of either Russia or Georgia; nor do they serve the interests of our bilateral relations and regional security," Saakashvili said. "We hope we will be able to agree on a [mutually] acceptable, civilized, and gradual -- yet final -- withdrawal of the Russian military bases before the Moscow summit.”
At a 1999 summit of the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe (OSCE), Russia was requested to clear the four ex-Soviet military bases it had been maintaining in Georgia. The OSCE said the Russian bases violated international disarmament treaties on conventional weapons.
In 2001, Moscow vacated the Vaziani airfield, near Tbilisi, and handed it over to Georgian authorities. Claims that it also withdrew from the Gudauta military base in Georgia’s breakaway province of Abkhazia have not been independently verified.
Far more problematic has been the fate of the two remaining bases.
They are located respectively in Batumi, the capital of the autonomous Republic of Adjara, and in Akhalkalaki, in the predominantly Armenian southern region of Samtskhe-Javakheti.
The issue has been a major hurdle in talks over a new Georgian-Russian bilateral treaty.
Tbilisi for the past five years has demanded that the Batumi and Akhalkalaki bases be vacated as soon as possible. Russia has claimed it does not have enough money to pull out before the next decade.
The Georgian parliament on 10 March adopted a nonbinding resolution suggesting that the government should force the withdrawal of Russian troops by year's end if the sides fail to reach an agreement by 15 May.
Lavrov yesterday indicated Moscow might be willing to accelerate the withdrawal by starting to pull out part of its military equipment in the months to come. He also said Russia will continue to hand over Soviet-era plants and other facilities that are not part of the bases.
“We agree that the withdrawal should be progressive and could begin already this year, provided corresponding accords are reached," Lavrov said. "This concerns heavy military equipment; this concerns those military facilities that are not part of the Russian military bases, and this also concerns questions related to the joint use of a number of facilities that are part of the Russian military bases in Georgia.”
A major concern for Moscow is that NATO hopeful Georgia might authorize the deployment of U.S. or other allied troops on its territory once Russian forces leaves.
Tbilisi has said it has no intention of allowing in any non-Georgian troops after the Russian pullout. But it refuses to meet Moscow’s request that its legislation be amended accordingly. It says decisions about foreign military bases are not Russia's concern.
Cooperation In Other Areas
But the two sides have shown signs of cooperating on other issues. Giving few details, Lavrov hinted yesterday that progress had been made on setting up an antiterrorist center in Georgia.
“In line with a decision reached by our two presidents, it has also been agreed that, in parallel with the pullout of the Russian bases, a Georgian-Russian antiterrorist center would be set up," Lavrov said. "Negotiations to that effect have already started between representatives of the secret services of both states. [These negotiations] will continue in the near future.”
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov has demanded the antiterrorist center be set up at the Batumi and Akhalkalaki facilities and used to train army and border-guard joint units.
But Georgian officials claim the proposal is a pretext for maintaining Russian troops in the country. They say any antiterrorist center should be based in Tbilisi and operate more as a think tank than a military training site.
Zurabishvili implied yesterday that there is much to be done before a comprehensive bilateral agreement can be made, saying, "The devil is in the details."