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Georgia: Ethnic Armenians Oppose Russian Base Closure

Russia's partial withdrawal from a military base in southern Georgia is leaving local residents, mainly ethnic Armenians, concerned. They fear authorities in Tbilisi will use the withdrawal to reassert influence in the region. And they say that if the base closes, the economy will suffer. RFE/RL's Emil Danielyan reports from Georgia on the issues surrounding the Russian withdrawal.

Akhalkalaki, Georgia; 14 November 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Russia's partial withdrawal this week from a military base in the southern Georgian region of Javakhetia has been welcomed in Tbilisi.

But the withdrawal has been opposed by many of the mainly ethnic Armenians living in the area.

The redeployment of 76 armored vehicles to a Russian base in northern Armenia was completed this week. The withdrawal is part of an ongoing reduction of Russia's military presence in Georgia that was agreed between the two countries a year ago.

Two of four Russian military facilities in the country have already been effectively shut down. The future of the other bases, including the one in Javakhetia, is uncertain.

Javakhetia's Armenians, many of whom see themselves as being separate from Georgians, have had an uneasy relationship with authorities in Tbilisi.

For them, the transfer of military equipment signals a first step toward closing the base permanently. They see the presence of Russian troops as a major factor limiting Tbilisi's control of the area.

David Restakian is a leader of the Armenian-nationalist Virk party, which has been unsuccessfully seeking official registration. He says he opposes closing the base down:

"Our wish is that the base remain. We will therefore do everything in our power to have the base stay on. But if Russia decides to close it, there is nothing we can do about it."

Others say closing the base will hurt the local economy. The Russian base is the largest single employer in the Javakhetian town of Akhalkalaki, where the base is located.

One elderly trader in the town bazaar had this to say:

"Almost 2,000 people live off the base. Can Shevardnadze pay them? Of course not. He hasn't even paid our pensions for eight, nine, or ten months."

Javakhetia is one of the least developed parts of Georgia. Economic development is thwarted, among other things, by severe power shortages. The region has electricity only a few hours a week, usually after midnight.

The Armenian government has attempted to help by laying a high-voltage line into Javakhetia at its own expense. But the two countries must still work out all the conditions of the program.

Local leaders in Akhalkalaki are threatening to hold protest actions if the situation does not improve by the end of the month.

Virk party leader Restakian says there is "fertile ground" for a collective outburst of frustration with the hardships.

Armenian authorities in Yerevan have in the past restrained the Javakhetia Armenians from an open confrontation with the Georgian government. The government is mindful of the fact that Georgia is landlocked Armenia's main conduit to the outside world.

Russian leaders have so far made no explicit statements about a complete troop withdrawal from Georgia.

A banner inside the Akhalkalaki base carries a quote from a 19th century Russian general: "The threat to Russian from the south has not disappeared. It remains a reality." That may -- or may not -- signal that the troop withdrawal is by no means a foregone conclusion.