“Is it a good thing, or a bad thing that we’re leaving Georgia? From the standpoint of our security and strategic interests, [these bases] do not present any particular interest. This is not my personal opinion. This is the opinion of the Russian Army General Staff,” Putin said.
At the same time Putin sounded regretful, saying the upcoming withdrawal would diminish further Moscow’s influence in the former Soviet Union.
“Politically speaking is it good, or bad? I believe it is not very good because it means our military presence is no longer desirable to our neighbors -- and I don’t see anything good in this. Whether this is a right decision with regard to [our neighbors’] interests, it’s up to them to decide,” Putin said.
But, the Russian president added pragmatically that Russia’s insistence in maintaining troops in Georgia would eventually backfire.
“It would be even worse if we tried at all costs to prevent [the Georgians] from implementing their sovereign rights. That would give rise to even greater mistrust toward our policies,” Putin said.
In this context, the agreement reached yesterday came as no surprise.
All the more because, when U.S. President George W. Bush was in Tbilisi earlier this month, he urged his Georgian allies to not antagonize the Kremlin and continue to negotiate the Russian withdrawal.
Bush’s admonition followed Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s refusal to attend the Moscow ceremonies that marked the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II. Saakashvili had cited the collapse of an earlier round of talks, during which Georgia had insisted that the two Russian bases be vacated by 1 January 2008, to justify his decision.
Addressing reporters after he had signed with his visiting Georgian counterpart a joint declaration reaffirming Moscow’s commitment to vacate both bases, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov yesterday said the sides had agreed on a new timeframe that clearly meets some of Moscow’s requirement.
“The final withdrawal will be completed in the course of the year 2008. The declaration outlines the [successive] stages of this withdrawal in utmost detail, be it the withdrawal of heavy weapons, equipment, other property and military personnel; or the transfer to the Georgian side of Russian military facilities that are not part of the Akhalkalaki and Batumi bases,” Lavrov said.
The Russian military seems satisfied with the expanded timeframe, which roughly meets a demand made earlier this month by Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov.
Colonel Vladimir Kuparadze, the deputy commander of the Russian Group of Forces in Transcaucasia, yesterday told the ITAR-TASS news agency would start pulling out military equipment in August.
Konstantin Kosachev, who chairs the foreign affairs committee of the Russian lower house of parliament, or State Duma, yesterday welcomed the agreement. In comments made to Russia’s Interfax news agency, Kosachev said he was satisfied to see that “Georgia has eventually stopped politicizing the base issue to heed to common sense.”
Georgian political leaders have expressed similar contentment, describing yesterday’s joint declaration as a “historical” document that paves the way for a significant breakthrough in bilateral ties.
Anton Surikov is a political expert at the Institute of Globalization Studies in Moscow. He tells RFE/RL he views yesterday’s deal as equally beneficial to both sides.
“I do believe this is a sensible compromise that one could equally describe as a victory for Russia and a personal victory for the Georgian president. On the one hand, it was obvious that one day or another we would have to vacate those bases to meet our international obligations," Surikov said. "But to do that Russia insisted on an acceptable timeframe. I think the four years or so we are now given to vacate the bases are enough. On the other hand, the Georgian president had made the withdrawal of the Russian bases one of his main hobbyhorses. He can now get the credit for [yesterday’s] decision.”
Russia initially maintained it would need at least 10 years to vacate the two bases. But it progressively yielded ground to the Georgian demands, saying the withdrawal could be completed in just four years.
Surikov believes there is nothing unusual in Russia’s progressively softening its stance.
“Nothing has changed. This is simply the usual way of negotiating. You start by placing the bar very high and then you reach a compromise, a medium-level solution. After all, Georgia too insisted that the withdrawal should be completed as soon as possible. But it eventually agreed that the timeframe should be expanded,” Surikov said.
There is one drawback for Russia, however.
The agreement reached yesterday does not refer to Georgia’s earlier oral pledges to not authorize the deployment of foreign troops after the Russian withdrawal.
Moscow had previously insisted that the Georgian parliament must vote a law banning the stationing of troops from a third country on national soil. But Tbilisi had bluntly dismissed such a possibility.
Surikov says he believes that, in the absence of such guarantees, the eventual deployment of foreign troops in NATO-hopeful Georgia is almost a foregone conclusion.
“I have almost no doubts that, with time, Georgia will join NATO and that we’ll see foreign troops deploy there under one form or another. [But] I would not dramatize the situation. Foreign troops are currently using the Baltic states and there is nothing catastrophic in that. The same thing will happen in Georgia. The only problem is the psychological impact it will have on Russian citizens. For a very large number of them, this will be something unpleasant,” Surikov said.
In Georgia too, the follow-up to yesterday’s agreement is likely to trigger some unhappy reactions.
Russia has long suggested that its two military bases be replaced with a joint antiterrorist center to train border guards and elite army units.
Saakashvili’s spokesman Gela Charkviani yesterday said there was no mention of the future antiterrorist center in the joint Russian-Georgian declaration. However, Georgian Foreign Minister Salome Zurabishvili said it was still on the agenda.
Russia’s “Kommersant-Daily" today reported Tbilisi has agreed to consider Moscow’s demand that its Batumi base should serve as the nucleus of the future center.
But Georgia’s parliamentary opposition leader Davit Gamkrelidze last week said he opposed the creation of any joint antiterrorist center, which he likened to an attempt at “legitimizing” Russia’s military presence in the country.