RFE/RL Georgia/Russia: Base Deal Seen As Mutually Acceptable Compromise
Tuesday, 31 May 2005

By Jean-Christophe Peuch

Moscow and Tbilisi yesterday announced an agreement on the closure of
Russia's two remaining military bases in Georgia by the end of 2008. In
theory at least, the deal puts an end to a dispute that started in
December 1999, when the Organization for Security and Cooperation in
Europe demanded that Moscow vacate all four former Soviet military
bases it had been maintaining in that Southern Caucasus country. By
2001, Russia had vacated two bases. But the fate of the two remaining
facilities -- in the Black Sea port of Batumi and the predominantly
Armenian region of Samtskhe-Javakheti -- had remained in abeyance
for nearly four years, triggering tensions between Moscow and Tbilisi.

Prague, 31 May 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Addressing reporters last week on 23
May at the Moscow headquarters of the "Komsomolskaya Pravda" daily
newspaper, Russian President Vladimir Putin clearly indicated he had
abandoned all hope of maintaining military bases in Georgia.

"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.