SOME IN GEORGIA WORRY THAT THE RUSSIAN BASE WITHDRAWAL DEAL COMES WITH A CATCH

EurasiaNet Organization
June 1 2005

Molly Corso 6/01/05

Georgian leaders have hailed a deal on the withdrawal of Russian troops
from two military bases in Georgia as an "historic event" that clears
the way for the normalization of bilateral relations. Some political
analysts and opposition politicians in Tbilisi are concerned, however,
that President Mikheil Saakashvili's administration paid too high a
price to secure Moscow's commitment to take its troops out of Georgia.

Georgian Foreign Minister Salome Zourabichvili and her Russian
counterpart Sergei Lavrov signed the base accord on May 31, committing
Russia to complete the withdrawal process by the end of 2008. According
to the agreement text posted on the Russian Foreign Ministry's web
site, Moscow will begin closing its base at Akhalkalaki immediately,
with at least 40 armored vehicles and 20 tanks to be withdrawn by
September 1. Russia is also expected to transfer a tank repair facility
to Georgia by September 1. The withdrawal from the Akhalkalaki base
is to be completed by the end of 2007. The closure of Russia's other
base, in Batumi, will occur at an unspecified point in 2008. Russia's
command and control personnel in Georgia will also cease operations in
2008. Both bases are to be delivered to Georgia in "as is" condition.

In addition, the document calls for both Georgia and Russia to seek
"additional external sources of financing for the transportation costs"
connected with the Russian withdrawal. The accord also contains vague
language concerning the creation of a Georgian-Russian Anti-Terrorist
Center, to be "formalized by a separate document," as well as a
bilateral commitment to conclude a pact regulating joint border issues
"as soon as possible."

Tbilisi and Moscow had haggled over the Russian troop withdrawal
since the 1999 OSCE summit in Istanbul. [For background see the
Eurasia Insight archive]. At a May 30 news conference, Saakashvili
said the bilateral accord will end "the 200-year presence of Russian
troops in Georgia." He went on to say that one of the most "painful"
issues hampering Tbilisi's ties with Moscow - Russia's two remaining
bases in Georgia -- had now been cleared away, raising hopes for
"close, friendly relations." Saakashvili also sought to reassure the
ethnic Armenian community concentrated near the Akhalkalaki base,
which has been the main source of employment for area residents. [For
additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive]. "We have
already launched the rehabilitation of roads, schools and launched
social programs," Saakashvili said. "We are also ready to recruit
[local] personnel ... for the Georgian army."

It was what Saakashvili didn't mention about the pact -- specifically
the creation of the joint anti-terrorism center -- that had some
observers and politicians in Georgia feeling uneasy. Before the text of
the accord had been made public, Tina Gogueliani, a political analyst
with the International Center for Conflict and Negotiations, said that
some people worried that the accord contained loopholes potentially
enabling Russia to maintain a military presence in Georgia. "[You
can't] exclude the possibility that there is something the public
will not like in this document," Gogueliani said.

The English language daily, The Georgian Messenger, published an
article June 1 in which seven of the nine people interviewed said
they were suspicious about the center's intentions. "There is no
difference whether the bases will be withdrawn from the country
or not if there will be an anti-terrorist center," said Tea Todua,
a lawyer who was quoted in the Messenger story.

The text of the agreement states that an "agreed upon portion of
[Russian] military personnel and material-technical facilities and
infrastructure from [the Batumi base] would be used in the interest"
of the joint anti-terrorism center. Tiko Mzhavanadze, a press secretary
for the New Right opposition group, voiced concern that the status quo
could end up being preserved. "If the [anti-terrorism] center will be
Russian, we have traded the old bases for new [military] equipment,"
she said in a phone interview with EurasiaNet. "And that will be
even worse."

Irakli Menagarishvili, a former foreign minister who now is the
director of the Strategic Research Center, cautioned that it is too
soon to jump to any conclusions. "It is hard to say anything concrete
at this time," he said in a phone interview. "There is nothing
decided, or we don't know anything yet, about the center except for
the title." He added that the center could assume a variety of forms,
ranging from an analytical-research think tank to an armed unit.
"Those are two different things-and actually any number of variations
could exist between them," he said. "If it is the first version,
it could be acceptable for Georgia. But the second is completely
unacceptable. That is like exchanging the bases for the same thing
with a different name."

Zourabichvili, speaking at a May 31 news conference, sought to dispel
fears that the deal would allow Russian to retain a significant
military presence in Georgia. "The anti-terrorist center will not
represent a new base. It will be a joint center, which will accept
all decisions jointly, with the participation of the Georgian side,"
Zourabichvili said, adding that "the existence of this anti-terrorism
center is in Georgia's interests as well."

The opposition party spokeswoman, Mzhavanadze, said that to ensure
Russia does not wield undue influence in the planned anti-terrorism
center, participation should be expanded. "If there is going to
be an anti-terrorism center in Georgia, [it] should be three-,
or four-sided; not just Georgian and Russian [members], but also
American and possibly European."

Zourabichvili said on May 31 that substantive negotiations concerning
the anti-terrorism center have not commenced. "As far as I know,
Russia adopted one document that we have not received yet," she said.
"We have enough time for negotiations and there is no reason to
hurry. We should think together about what we want and how we want
[to receive it]."

Georgia's National Security Council will be the lead agency
responsible for guiding Georgian negotiators on the creation of the
anti-terrorism center. Davit Gunashvili, the press officer for the
NSC, said very little has been decided to date. "I can only tell you
that the Georgian side will only support an analytical-information
gathering [center]," he said. "As we know no weapons or large armies
can defeat terrorism." He added that while there is no date set for
the negotiations, both the NSC and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs
will be involved.



Editor's Note: Molly Corso is a freelance journalist and photographer
based in Tbilisi.