RFE/RL Analysis: Georgia Parliament Ups Ante On Russian Bases
Thursday, 10 March 2005

By Liz Fuller

Deputies in Georgia's parilament voted unanimously on 10 March to call
on the government to effectively blockade the bases if the two countries
do not agree on their removal by mid-May.

Under an agreement signed at the OSCE Istanbul Summit in November 1999,
Russia undertook to close by 1 July 2000 its military bases in Vaziani,
near Tbilisi, and Gudauta, Abkhazia, and to begin talks with the
Georgian leadership in 2000 on the timeframe for closing its two
remaining bases in Batumi and Akhalkalaki. Russia complied with first of
those commitments, and embarked as required on talks on shutting down
the latter two bases.

But in the course of those talks, Russian officials have consistently
argued that a lengthy time period is required to build housing in Russia
for the troops to be withdrawn from Georgia. (That argument is specious
insofar as many of the personnel at the base in Akhalkalaki are in fact
ethnic Armenians who are citizens of Georgia.) Initially, Russian
officials said they needed 15 years to close the bases, then 14; that
figure was revised downward to 11, and then eight years, according to
Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Noghaideli on 9 March.

After the Georgian and Russian sides failed during Russian Foreign
Minister Sergei Lavrov's visit to Tbilisi last month to make any
progress toward solving either the deadlock over the bases or any of the
problems bedeviling bilateral relations, it was agreed to establish
working groups to seek to narrow the disagreements and report on 1 May
to the countries' two presidents. Those working groups will focus on six
issues, including the proposed framework treaty on friendship and
cooperation and the timeframe for the closure of the two bases.

"If Russia rejects or refuses to met that deadline, the Georgian
parliament would declare the bases illegal and measures would be taken
to prevent them from functioning: Georgia would, for example, decline to
issue visas to Russian military personnel."

Despite that agreement, Givi Targamadze, chairman of the Georgian
parliament's Defense and Security Committee, announced within days of
Lavrov's departure that the two remaining Russian bases should close by
1 January 2006 at the latest. On 25 February, parliament speaker Nino
Burdjanadze suggested that the Georgian leadership might declare the
Russian bases illegal if an agreement is not reached soon on a date for
their closure. Then on 7 March, parliament deputy Giga Bokeria unveiled
a draft bill that would require Russia to agree formally by 15 May to
close the two remaining bases by 1 January 2006. If Russia rejects or
refuses to met that deadline, the Georgian parliament would declare the
bases illegal and measures would be taken to prevent them from
functioning: Georgia would, for example, decline to issue visas to
Russian military personnel.

Bokeria's draft bill appeared to take the Georgian leadership by
surprise. ITAR-TASS on 8 March quoted parliament speaker Burdjanadze as
telling the independent television station Rustavi-2 that parliament
should not adopt such a bill until after the expiry of the two months
agreed by Moscow and Tbilisi to try and reach a compromise. President
Mikheil Saakashvili also implicitly cautioned the parliament against
adopting the bill. He reaffirmed on 8 March Georgia's "crystal-clear"
position that the bases should be closed, but proposed waiting to see
whether it is possible to reach an agreement with Russia within the two
month period, as did Prime Minister Noghaideli. Parliament was scheduled
to debate the draft bill on 9 March, but postponed the debate until 10
March at Burdjanadze's request.

On 8 March, a senior Russian military official condemned the planned
debate as an attempt at blackmail, and on 9 March the Russian Foreign
Ministry warned that the debate would make it more difficult for the two
sides to reach the hoped-for compromise agreement. "The Russian side
will shortly submit its proposals aimed at finding solutions to existing
problems," the Foreign Ministry statement continued.

In what have may have been a deliberate leak intended to defuse mounting
tensions, on 10 March, izvestiya.ru quoted an unnamed Russian Defense
Ministry official as saying that Russia does not want to keep the bases
in Georgia forever, but their personnel will be redeployed to the
Caucasus to serve in a new mountain rifle division which will be formed
only three or four years from now. While that time frame might appeal to
the Georgian leadership -- in that the bases would theoretically have
been closed prior to the expiry of Saakashvili's first presidential term
-- it may not be enough to mollify the parliament. And that anonymous
statement represents a clear retreat from earlier Russian arguments in
favor of simply renaming one or both bases an "anti-terrorism center."

Meanwhile, the Georgian State Employment Agency is already addressing
the problem of providing employment for the Armenians who currently
account for up to one third of the personnel at the Akhalkalaki base,
and who are already expressing unease at the prospects of losing their
livelihood in a region with few employment opportunities. The Georgian
daily "Rezonansi" on 10 March quoted the agency's chairman, Levan
Peradze, as saying that a job-creation program is in the works, and he
suggested some of the personnel in question may find jobs in private
security services. And Goga Khachidze, who was recently named governor
of the Djavakheti region where the Akhalkalaki base is located, pledged
the same day that the Georgian leadership will do everything possible to
ensure that its closure "is painless" for the local Armenian population.

As the Georgian authorities have failed consistently to deliver on
earlier promises to improve conditions in the remote, mountainous and
impoverished region, the Armenians are understandably skeptical. David
Rstakian, leader of the Virk party that represents the local Armenian
community, was quoted by Caucasus Press on 10 March as saying, "The
Armenians of Javakheti will do all they can to prevent the Russian
troops from leaving Akhalkalaki. If Russia refuses to pull out its
troops, it may need our help."

That help, he implied, would be willingly offered.