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Russia/Georgia: Counting Russian Chickens Before They Hatch

Georgian Premier Noghaideli is pushing for a Russian withdrawal by 2007 (file photo) Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov's 25 April statement after talks in Moscow with his Georgian counterpart Salome Zourabichvili that Russia could begin withdrawing troops from its two remaining military bases in Georgia before the end of this year is being hailed as a breakthrough in bilateral relations.

But Lavrov did not specify any deadline for completing that process, which he stressed is contingent on the signing of a formal bilateral agreement by the presidents of the two countries. And, on 26 April, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov (playing "bad cop" to Lavrov's "good cop?"), said that the pullout will take between three and four years, and that it is contingent on a formal agreement signed by the two presidents that will stipulate the date for completing the withdrawal.

Zourabichvili, for her part, suggested on 25 April that if the remaining problems are ironed out within the next week, such an agreement could be signed on 8-9 May during the celebrations in Moscow to mark the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II. Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili told an Israeli television station on 25 April that he will attend those celebrations if relations with Russia improve by then.
It is still possible that Russia might at some future juncture suspend the withdrawal process, as it has done in withdrawing excess ammunition from Moldova's breakaway Transdniester region.

Zourabichvili was quoted as telling Ekho Moskvy on 25 April that Georgia considers 1 January 2008 the optimum date for completing the Russian military withdrawal, and on 27 April the Caucasus Press quoted her as saying Russian forces would leave the Akhalkalaki base by the end of 2006 and the base in Batumi by the end of 2007. Speaking in Tbilisi the same day, Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Noghaideli similarly said he hopes the withdrawal could be completed by late 2007.

During a visit to Tbilisi last week, Russian Federation Council Chairman Sergei Mironov proposed the 1 January 2008 deadline to Georgian Parliament Speaker Nino Burdjanadze, but she rejected it as unacceptable. The Georgian Parliament has consistently taken a tougher line than the government on the bases issue, and on 10 March it passed a resolution calling on the government to set a deadline of 15 May for reaching agreement with Russia that the bases be closed by 1 January 2006. The nonbinding resolution stipulated that failure to meet that deadline would incur sanctions, including a refusal to issue visas to Russian military personnel and restrictions on the movement of Russian military personnel and hardware on Georgian territory.

Insofar as Russian officials continued to insist as recently as two years ago that between 11-15 years were required to close the two remaining military bases in Georgia, the 1 January 2008 date constitutes a major concession on Moscow's part. The timeframe for the withdrawal is, however, not the only sticking point. Other disagreements focus on who will pay for the withdrawal and the fate of the materiel currently deployed at the two bases. In May 2001, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Ilya Klebanov estimated the cost at 4 billion rubles ($143.9 million) but, one month later, U.S. Ambassador to Georgia Kenneth Spenser Yalowitz said Moscow had declined an offer of $10 million from the U.S. to help cover the costs of the withdrawal, Caucasus Press reported. Great Britain and other OSCE member states subsequently likewise offered to provide more modest sums towards Russia's withdrawal expenses, but made clear they would not contribute to the cost of constructing new barracks in Russia to house the returning troops, according to a Georgian Foreign Ministry statement quoted by Caucasus Press on 17 January 2004. Russian Defense Minister Ivanov said last month the withdrawal would cost $300 million.

Zourabichvili admitted on 25 April that issue of financial compensation for the Russian withdrawal did not figure in her talks that day with Lavrov, adding that she considers it "a good sign" that Russia did not demand "absurd sums." Prime Minister Noghaideli said on 5 April that Tbilisi will not pay anything towards the costs of the withdrawal.

The more hawkish Georgian officials have made it clear that Tbilisi expects Russia to leave behind most, if not all, of the weaponry currently deployed at the two bases, while Russian military officials have suggested that a part of it will be redeployed to the Russian base in Armenia. (Whether this would constitute a violation of the ceilings imposed under the revised Treaty of Conventional Forces in Europe is not clear.) Tbilisi has also hinted that Moscow will be required to pay outstanding taxes and debts for supplies of water and electricity to its bases in Batumi and Akhalkalaki dating back to 1991. Georgian Deputy Finance Minister Giorgi Godabrelidze told the Georgian parliament Defense and Security Committee on 22 April that those debts exceed 1 billion laris ($550 million).

In an interview published on 27 April in "Nezavisimaya gazeta," Zourabichvili attributed the apparent progress towards a civilized withdrawal agreement to a fundamental shift in both Georgian and Russian perceptions of the causes of the current tensions in bilateral relations. "What in Moscow would once have been considered a defeat or even a humiliation is now seen as a mutual process that serves our common interests," she explained. But it is by no means certain that the legislatures of the two countries share that altered perception. Interfax on 26 April quoted Gennadii Gudkov (Unified Russia), a member of the Russian State Duma's Security Committee, as saying he will call for an official inquiry into the terms of any withdrawal agreement Russia plans to sign. And Article 65 of the Georgian Constitution stipulates that the parliament must ratify any interstate agreement of a military nature.

Nor is it clear whether Russia continues to push for the creation on the infrastructure of one or other of the two bases of the joint antiterrorism center which Georgian officials last year proposed establishing. Caucasus Press on 25 April quoted Lavrov as saying in Moscow that such a center could be created at one of the two bases. But Nika Rurua, deputy chairman of the Georgian Parliament's Defense and Security Committee, told RFE/RL's Georgian Service on 27 April that the issue of establishing an antiterrorist base should not be linked to the Russian withdrawal. He added that the proposed center should not be located on the premises of one of the two bases, nor should any weapons be deployed there. It should, Rurua said, be a purely analytical center.

A further possible obstacle to the closure of the Akhalkalaki base are the objections of the predominantly ethnic Armenian local population, many of whom are among the estimated 2,000 servicemen stationed there. If, or when, the base is closed those personnel are likely to find themselves with no alternative employment prospects in an economically backward and isolated region. Zourabichvili on 27 April sought to allay such fears, telling local residents, as has President Saakashvili, that the government will find them new jobs.

Even assuming that both sides are prepared to resolve or abandon their financial claims and counterclaims within the next week in order to remove the last remaining obstacles to a formal withdrawal agreement, it is still possible that Russia might at some future juncture suspend the withdrawal process, as it has done in withdrawing excess ammunition from Moldova's breakaway Transdniester region.

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