Russian bases: where to next?

The Messenger, Georgia
May 30 2005

While Georgia and Russian inched toward an agreement over the bases
during the most recent round of talks last week, there are signs that
Moscow is in no hurry to vacate the region.

A rough time table for the withdrawal has been agreed on, despite the
fact that neither side was willing to compromise during the talks.
According to most reports, the bases will leave Georgia in 2008, giving
the Russian military three and a half years to withdraw their troops
and equipment. Officially, the withdrawal should begin in Akhalkalaki,
the Russian base #112 in southern Georgia.

Hinting that Russia needs more time, Russian President Vladimir Putin
told President Mikheil Saakashvili in a phone conversation on Thursday
that although he is "satisfied" with the most recent round of talks,
he also stresses "the crucial fact that the compromise decision on
the terms which Russia and Georgia reached takes into account the
real possibilities for an organized and civilized withdrawal of
Russian troops."

But there are still some concerns that a Russian military presence
will remain on Georgian soil. According to some reports, the long
anticipated (and feared) Georgian-Russian anti-terrorist unit might
be created at the Russian base #12 in Batumi, using the existing
infrastructure. There are also the existing CIS peacekeeping troops -
all Russian - who are stationed around the borders of Abkhazia and
South Ossetia.

Although Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has repeatedly
stated no foreign armies will ever be based out of Georgia - and
Georgia is in fact actively strengthening its own military - there
are lingering fears in Russia that without the Russian bases the
region will collapse. The anti-terrorist center could ease concerns in
Russia, where a reported 55 percent of the population is against the
Russian bases leaving Georgia. According to those polled, over half
believe the withdrawal is not in Russia's best interest. Among those,
35 percent believe this will lead to even worse relations between
Russia and Georgia while less than 10 percent feel the withdrawal
will help ease tensions between the two neighbors.

For his part, Russian President Vladimir Putin expressed his regret
that Georgia demands Russia remove the bases, although he has publicly
stated they are more symbolic than strategic in importance.

As far as Georgia is concerned, it is not important where the Russian
troops go. While separatist leaders in Sokhumi and Tskhinvali invited
the Russian bases on their territories, Moscow quickly and publicly
refused this. Common wisdom accepts that the Russian troops will likely
move to Armenia. According to an article in Sakartvelos Respublica,
the St.Petersburg-based "Strategia" political-analytical center, Russia
will have no choice but to relocate to Armenia since the removal of
the bases from Georgia will lead to instability in the region.

However, neither Armenia or Azerbaijan are overjoyed at this
prospect. Armenian media is warning that if Armenia agrees to deploy
Russian forces in its territory, it will be forever labeled as a
Russian post and not be able to develop its own interests. Baku is
actively trying to prevent any Russian bases in Armenia, which could
disrupt the power balance in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

Regardless of whether Russian military bases are located in Georgia,
Armenia or Azerbaijan, they still represent a hindrance to the
region's stability. Despite the fact Moscow prides itself as a
regional mediator, Russia's role in the Soviet Union - and all the
conflicts in the former Soviet Union - preclude it from providing any
real service as a peacekeeper. The countries of the Caucasus need
neutral forums to negotiate peace settlements and find their place
in the 21st century. Any position Russia might play as a regional
leader in the future depends on Moscow's ability to step back today.