Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 2 Issue: 51

The Georgian Parliament passed a resolution on March 10 that requires Russia unconditionally to withdraw its forces from Georgia no later than January 1, 2006 — unless Moscow reaches agreement with Tbilisi before May 15, 2005, on a “reasonable timeframe” for the troop withdrawal (see EDM, March 14).

Georgia will be safer if the troop withdrawal timeframe remains as defined by the parliamentary resolution, without political conditions or linkages to other issues. Georgia would, however, run serious risks if it tries negotiating a political agreement with Russia on troop withdrawal and allow it to become linked to other issues. In that case, Moscow would again drag out the negotiations while trying to pressure or lure Tbilisi into signing an agreement filled with traps and conditionalities.

Based on 14 years of experience in the Baltic states, Moldova, and Georgia itself, at least six traps can be expected to be laid by Moscow into the text of a political agreement with Georgia on troop withdrawal. Those traps would be designed to negate the goal of military withdrawal, ensuring a military presence instead.

1. Legalization

Whatever “reasonable timeframe” is ultimately agreed for troop withdrawal — 3 years as Tbilisi hopes, 7 years as Moscow demands, or a compromise — Russia wants the presence of its troops to be legalized for the duration. If this is done, Moscow will have an incentive to prolong the term upon expiry, and will almost certainly try to pressure Georgia to accept prolongation de facto. The Baltic states were aware of this risk when they refused to legalize the presence of Russian troops on their territories for any “temporary” or “transitional” period. Legalization by Georgia would: a) undermine the irreplaceable argument of national sovereignty for the ridding the country of Russian troops; b) enable Russia, under the CFE Treaty and in other contexts, to cite “host-country consent” by Georgia; c) weaken international sympathy and support for Georgia’s ultimate goal of terminating Russia’s military presence; d) retain, instead of removing, a potential time-bomb of a political-military nature inside the country; and e) interfere with Georgia’s national goal of integration with NATO. Like the Baltic states, Georgia must never legalize Russia’s military presence for any length of time.

2. Re-labeling

Russia hopes to retain the Batumi and Akhalkalaki bases and its Tbilisi general headquarters by re-labeling them “anti-terrorist centers.” Georgians originally came up with this idea in 2004 in order to re-start the Russian-blocked negotiations and to provide Moscow with a face-saving way to withdraw the troops. Tbilisi had envisaged the formation of one joint Georgian-Russian analytical anti-terrorist center, under Georgian sovereign control and not located at any existing military base, to be created in the wake of the garrisons’ departure, and to include several score of Russian officers, without troops or armaments. Moscow, however, seized Tbilisi’s goodwill gesture and turned it against Georgia. Last month, Moscow proposed to rename the existing bases as “anti-terrorist centers” and even to augment their garrisons; and when Tbilisi refused, Moscow publicly blamed Tbilisi for blocking the negotiations. Georgia may have outsmarted itself with that offer in the first place. With anti-terrorism an international concern for many years to come — and, sometimes, a cover for any use of coercion — it is easy to envisage Russia demanding to retain “anti-terrorist centers” in Georgia into the future, while propagandizing (as it already does) that Georgia tolerates “international terrorism.” Moscow has grossly abused Georgia’s face-saving offer. Three years ago, Russia re-labeled its Gudauta military base as “peacekeeping” and retains it to this day, in breach of its 1999 commitment to have closed down that base by 2001. The lesson from all this to Tbilisi is that it must require the withdrawal of Russian troops unambiguously, without the risky and time-wasting complications of tinkering with their labels. The Baltic states were successful because their position was never less than straightforward.

3. Ratification

Russia will try to require parliamentary or some other type of ratification of a troop-withdrawal agreement with Georgia. The experience of Moldova is instructive on this point. In 1994, then-prime ministers Viktor Chernomyrdin and Andrei Sangheli signed an intergovernmental agreement on the withdrawal of Russian troops from Moldova within three years (by October 1997). A Russian-added codicil stipulated, however, that implementation would be subject to “the states’ internal procedures,” not further specified. The Kremlin promptly interpreted this as requiring parliamentary ratification. Moldova’s parliament quickly ratified the agreement; but Russia’s Duma never did. Instead, the Russian government for years thereafter presented additional conditions just for submitting the agreement to the Duma for debate, and the Duma piled up additional conditions for examining the document, with still more conditions for ratifying the agreement, which it never did. Ultimately, the main condition was Moldova’s acceptance of Transnistria’s separation with Russian troops in place. Since 1997, Russia has simply ignored the agreement. With this experience in mind, Tbilisi must insist on an executive agreement with Russia on troop withdrawal, fully binding from the inception, and providing for effective international oversight (other than by the OSCE) of its implementation.

4. Istanbul formula

Moscow wants to retain the OSCE Istanbul 1999 formula, because it does not require the closure of the Batumi and Akhalkalaki bases. It merely stipulated, “during the year 2000 the sides will complete negotiations regarding the duration and functioning of the Russian military bases at Batumi and Akhalkalaki and the Russian military facilities within Georgia.” This formula must finally be cast aside because Moscow has breached it — along with many other points of the OSCE Istanbul 1999 agreements — constantly and massively throughout these years. The Istanbul formula was patently inadequate in the first place because it failed to stipulate the goals of base closure and troop withdrawal regarding Batumi, Akhalkalaki, and other Russian military installations. Any new agreement with Russia must precisely stipulate the binding obligation to close the bases and installations and withdraw the troops.

5. Georgian obligations

Russia will try to saddle Georgia with obligations to create proper conditions for the reduction and withdrawal of Russian troops, facilitate the functioning of bases and movement of personnel, vouch for a secure environment in the base areas, and so on. Moscow will formulate some conditions very broadly in order to abuse them later, but will also advance some very specific conditions that Georgia might be unable to fulfill in time or at all. Thus, Russia refused to hand over Gudauta to Georgia — and has since blocked any meaningful international inspection — on the excuse that Georgia is unable to provide security in the area, which happens to be controlled by Russia’s Abkhaz proteges. In Akhalkalaki, Moscow can well orchestrate demonstrations by local Armenians in favor of retaining the Russian base, then claim that it could not and would not act against the will of the local population. Russia has already played this game for years in Transnistria as an excuse for keeping its troops in place. With this in mind, Georgia must not accept any obligations that Russia or some local clients might prevent Tbilisi from fulfilling. Tbilisi must also decline to guarantee (if only “temporarily”) the operation of Russian bases. Such an obligation would deprive Georgia of leverage later on, in the likely event that Moscow tries yet again to renege on its troop-withdrawal commitments.

6. Linkages

The Kremlin has managed to tie up the military negotiations with the negotiations on a new interstate political treaty. As a precondition to a troop-withdrawal agreement, Moscow now demands that the political treaty rule out the hosting of third-party troops and military installations on Georgia’s territory, and generally constrict Georgia’s independent military cooperation with other countries. As a further precondition to withdrawal of its troops (other than the “peacekeepers”), Moscow wants the political treaty to enshrine a special role for Russia in settling the Abkhazia and South Ossetia conflicts and protecting the [newly-minted] “Russian citizens” there. Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs claims that such clauses are necessary in order to persuade the Duma to ratify an interstate treaty with Georgia, if one is signed. This claim is implausible in view of the Kremlin’s control of a comfortable majority in the Duma. For its part, Tbilisi must reject any linkages between a troop-withdrawal agreement and extraneous political issues. It can simply offer a commitment that Georgian territory would not be used by a third party against Russia. However, Georgia’s international security arrangements and internal constitutional setup do not belong in a bilateral treaty with Russia. Nor should Georgia legitimize those “peacekeeping” operations as part of an agreement with Russia.

At this point, Tbilisi can initiate consultations with the three Baltic states regarding their experience with political and logistical arrangements for the withdrawal of Russian forces.