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Georgia: Russia Pledges To Complete Military Pullout On Schedule

Russian military hardware is on its way out of Georgia (ITAR-TASS) Russia has agreed on the practical details of its military pullout from Georgia. Envoys from Moscow and Tbilisi today signed two documents to that effect in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi. The agreements confirm a pledge given by Russia last year that the withdrawal would be completed within months.

PRAGUE, March 31, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Under the terms of a preliminary agreement reached on May 30, 2005, in Moscow, Russia had pledged to vacate the two former Soviet military bases it retains in Georgia by the end of 2008.

The two documents signed today by Georgian Deputy Defense Minister Mamuka Kudava and General Aleksei Maslov, the commander-in-chief of the Russian Ground Forces, set a detailed time frame for the planned pullout.

Russia news agencies cite the Sochi agreements as saying the two Russian bases in Akhalkalaki and Batumi are already operating in preparation for pullout.

Out By Year's End

Under the terms of the documents, Russia is to withdraw heavy military hardware from the two bases -- including equipment that falls under the 1990 Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty -- by the end of this year. All other weapons must leave Georgia at the latest by December 31, 2007.

The closure of the Akhalkalaki base and the transfer to the Georgian Defense Ministry of all other military facilities that are not formally part of the two Russian bases must be completed within the same time frame.

Addressing a news briefing in Tbilisi, Georgian Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili welcomed the signing of the Sochi agreements.

"We welcome the constructive approach adopted by the Russian side, which in the past two weeks has worked intensively so that an agreement could be reached on those documents," Okruashvili said.

Proof Required

Okruashvili said, however, that Georgia would insist that Russia provide evidence that it has vacated another base in the separatist region of Abkhazia.

Russian troops officially pulled out from the Gudauta military facility in 2001, but Tbilisi -- which has no control over Abkhazia -- insists that it be allowed to inspect the base to make sure it is no longer in use.

"There remains the problem of the base in Gudauta. We will work actively so that the other side doesn't try to beat around the bush, and that the base is effectively vacated," Okruashvili said.

Neither of the Sochi agreements makes any specific mention of the Black Sea base of Batumi, through which most Russian military equipment is to leave Georgia.

But after today's signing ceremony, Russian General Maslov said the Batumi base would be vacated within the next two years.

"During the course of the year 2008 we will vacate the Batumi military base and [relocate] the command of the Russian Group of Forces in the Transcaucasus," Maslov said.

Provisional Concerns

Maslov also said part of the military equipment would be sent to army units based in the North Caucasus region and that another part would be given to the military base Russia maintains in the Armenian city of Gyumri.

There have been concerns in Azerbaijan that Russia may give weapons and military hardware to Armenia, with which it is linked by a military alliance pact. Azerbaijan remains formally at war with Armenia over its separatist enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev has said that Russia's plans for the military relocation justify calls for an increase in Baku's defense spending.

Talking to RFE/RL last year shortly after Russia announced it would withdraw its bases from Georgia, the Armenian Army Chief of Staff, General Mikayel Harutiunian, denied his country would benefit from the planned transfer.

"The presence of the 102nd Russian military base [in Gyumri] on Armenia's territory is covered by a [bilateral] agreement," Harutiunian said. "What type of weapons should be stored at this base is up to Russia to decide. As for a possible transfer of materiel or equipment to Armenia, there is no agreement and there will not be any. Armenia can equip its armed forces on its own within the limits of the [CFE treaty] quotas."

Heavy Weapons

Russia's Defense Ministry on March 17 said equipment transferred to the Gyumri base would include 370 pieces of military hardware, including 35 tanks and armored vehicles.

Pullout operations through Batumi are expected to begin in May and last until mid-August.

The Russian Foreign Ministry today said in a statement the Sochi documents require that Georgia “create normal conditions for the activities of the bases until they are closed."

Georgian authorities have in recent months detained a number of Russian servicemen on charges of violating domestic travel regulations. Moscow says the detentions aimed at hindering the functioning of its bases.

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