An overdue agreement with major work ahead

The Messenger, Georgia
June 2 2005

Vestiges of a dead empire, the Russian military bases in Akhalkalaki
and Batumi will finally be withdrawn from Georgia over the next
two-and-a-half years. Hailed as an "historical event" by numerous
officials, the agreement signed on May 30 in Moscow between foreign
ministers Sergei Lavrov and Salome Zourabichvili was the product of
laborious talks that whittled down Russia's timeline for the withdrawal
from the over 11 years to the more reasonable schedule of 30 months.

President Mikheil Saakashvili cheered the news in a special briefing
held only hours after the decision was announced in Moscow saying
that President Putin made a "brave political step" and that a new era
of relations between the two countries can now begin. However, for
these new relations to bear fruit, serious attention must be paid to
the fulfillment of the agreement- bearing in mind past disappointments.

The timeline for the withdraw is well detailed. On June 1 the
first facility, a tank repair base near Tbilisi, was handed over
to Georgian officials. By September of this year, the withdrawal of
forces from Akhalkalaki will begin with the removal of 40 pieces of
heavy equipment, including at least 20 tanks. By the end of 2006 all
of the heavy equipment will be removed from Akhalkalaki and the base
itself will be finally closed on October 1, 2007. According to the
agreement, the military base in Batumi will be liquidated sometime
in 2008 and at the same time the Trans-Caucasian Russian Military
Headquarters will leave Georgia.

President Saakashvili credited a phone conversation with President
Putin on May 26 for contributing to the agreement. "I believe that
President Putin has shown courage, great political instinct, common
sense and made a brave political step, and I cannot but appreciate it,"
he said Monday night. Indicating that Moscow has finally accepted his
"open hand," which he offered at his inauguration, Saakashvili said
that today one of the "two main painful issues" between the countries
has been eliminated; the other remaining point is separatist conflicts.

The agreement on the bases represents a major triumph for President
Saakashvili and his government, but with this major thorn out of
the way, his administration must focus its attention now on smaller
details. In his speech on Monday, Saakashvili promised that concurrent
with the liquidation of Batumi and Akhalkalaki military bases, the
Georgian government will ensure the economic welfare of the local
communities. He added that the government would provide housing and
possibly a military position for any current employees of the base
who hope to stay in Georgia.

Georgia's past experience with base withdrawals also gives us
lessons for today. Senseless mine-laying and cavalier maintenance
of explosives means that today former Russian bases in Sagarejo,
Vaziani, and elsewhere are deadly scrap heaps. While the government
has neither the funds nor interest in making the area around these
bases safe, local residents are pushed by poverty to explore the
bases for scrap metals, grazing land and timber. Both Georgian and
U.S. officials are also aware that as Russian withdrew from bases in
the past, they left another trail of destruction sabotaging facilities,
pouring cement into sewer systems, and generally damaging as much of
the infrastructure as possible.

Today's 'new relations' with Russia will hopefully find solutions
so that none of this is repeated again. A litmus test will be the
ability of Moscow and Tbilisi to reach a working agreement on what the
anti-terrorist center in Batumi, called for in the May 30 agreement,
actually does and what it consists of.

Georgia must also deal with concerns from Azerbaijan that the transfer
of Russian military equipment into Armenia does little to strengthen
the overall stability of the region. Baku has already sent letters of
protest to Russian officials while Yerevan has already expressed its
approval that more Russian military equipment is on the way. Minister
of Foreign Affairs of Armenia Vardan Oskanian is quoted in the
newspaper Akhali Versia as defending the transfer of some forces to
Armenia. "Russia and Armenia operate according to a mutual agreement
on military base transfers and military collaboration," he said,
"If Russian-Armenian decisions satisfy all the conditions of the draft
[agreement], then nobody has the right to interfere in our and Russia's
internal issues."

The agreement on the bases is another central feather in Saakashvili's
political cap, next to the Batumi revolution, the Patrol Police and
the strengthening of the Georgian army. It is a cap that is often
waved around on public service announcements and in speeches. What
deserves just as much attention, however, is the fact that all of
these require much more than rhetoric in order to be successful.

From: Emil Lazarian | Ararat NewsPress