Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 2 Issue: 108

On May 30 in Moscow, Ministers of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov and Salome Zourabichvili signed a Joint Statement regarding the “cessation of functioning” of Russian military bases and other installations and withdrawal of Russian forces from Georgia. In this document, the Russian side renounces some major, long-held positions, accepts a timetable and benchmarks for troop withdrawal until 2008, and abandons its extravagant demands for financial compensation that had been designed to postpone the withdrawal indefinitely.

Thus, the document marks a decisive breakthrough in the negotiations (see EDM, March 14, 15, May 9) and is a major success for Georgian policy and diplomacy. Nevertheless, the text opens some potential loopholes in follow-up agreements that Moscow can use down the road to obstruct the Joint Statement’s implementation.

Timetable. Russia is to hand over its bases and installations to the Georgian side and evacuate its forces from Georgia according to the following schedule:

Handover of the Tbilisi armor repair plant by June 15, 2005; handover of the Zvezda and Kojori communications relay stations (in the environs of Tbilisi) and other, unnamed installations by September 1, 2005; evacuation of at least 40 armored vehicles, including at least 20 tanks, also by September 1, 2005; handover of further installations, according to a mutually agreed list, in two stages, by January 1, 2006 and October 1, 2007; evacuation of heavy weaponry, including CFE Treaty-Limited Equipment, from the Akhalkalaki base by the end of 2006; complete withdrawal of forces from Akhalkalaki and partial withdrawal from Batumi by October 1, 2007; extension possible until the end of 2007 if weather conditions are unfavorable (this is understood to refer to convoying of equipment from Batumi by sea to Russia); and completion of the withdrawal from Batumi, along with closure of the Tbilisi headquarters of Russia’s Group of Forces in the Transcaucasus, “in the course of 2008.”

“Withdrawal Mode.” From the moment of the agreement’s signing, Russia’s bases in Batumi and Akhalkalaki shall “function in a withdrawal mode,” curtailing military training and preparing for evacuation of equipment and personnel. Georgia shall allow Russia temporarily to send in additional military specialists to those bases with a view to facilitating the transport of equipment and personnel out of Georgia. The immovable property is to be handed over to Georgian authorities “in its existing condition” (i.e., not deliberately wrecked, as was done at the Vaziani base in 2001). Russian military personnel may opt for leaving the service to stay permanently in Georgia as civilian residents, along with their family dependents. In such cases, Georgia shall guarantee their title to the dwellings they currently inhabit.

Residual Presence, “Anti-Terrorist Center.” Under separate agreements to be concluded, Russia shall use the Zvezda station jointly with Georgia and continue using the Kojori station exclusively for an unspecified period of time. The Gonio training range, attached to the Batumi base, shall be handed over to Georgian jurisdiction on September 1, 2005, to be jointly used by the two sides under a separate agreement. Some personnel and some installations of the Batumi base are to be used for setting up a Georgian-Russian Anti-Terrorist Center, again under a separate agreement to be negotiated (no timeframe mentioned for such negotiations).

In recent months, the Russian side had sought to re-label the Batumi and Akhalkalaki bases as “anti-terrorist centers” and retain sizeable garrisons with heavy weaponry at both bases, as well as to create an “anti-terrorist center” in Tbilisi, and conclude agreements with Georgia on this matter prior to the start of troop withdrawal. The Georgian side would only agree to creating one such center, under Georgian sovereignty, without troops and weaponry, and authorizing it to perform analytical functions only. Once the withdrawal of Russian forces begins in earnest — as Georgia successfully insisted — ahead of negotiations on the “anti-terrorist center,” Russia will lose its leverage to pressure Georgia on this issue.

Financing. The sides shall “jointly seek supplementary funding from external sources to cover transport expenditures in the course of withdrawal.” With this, Russia renounces its earlier demand for hundreds of millions of dollars to finance the relocation and accommodation of its forces in Russia. The formulation in the document makes clear that any external financing would only relate to withdrawal of forces from Georgia’s territory, not their rebasing in Russia; and that the withdrawal is in no sense conditional on such assistance.

Gudauta. The Joint Statement vaguely says that a German-led inspection will help determine whether Russia has fulfilled its obligations regarding the Gudauta army and air force base. Under the 1999-adapted CFE Treaty and Istanbul Commitments, Russia was to have closed Gudauta in 2001. In the event, Russia only reduced its force there, but retains the base and seeks to legalize this situation in order to claim compliance with this part of its 1999 obligations. Legalization would, in turn, remove a hurdle to international ratification of the adapted CFE Treaty, through which Moscow hopes to place constraints on forces stationed in the Baltic states.

Transit. Russia and Georgia shall in the course of 2005 reach an agreement on “transit in the interest of Russia’s Ministry of Defense through Georgia’s territory in compliance with international law.” Such wording may refer to Russian weaponry to be relocated from Georgia to Armenia as a short-term arrangement, part of the evacuation of Russian forces from Georgia. But it would also apply to Russian troops and materiel moving between Russia and Armenia across Georgia as a long-term arrangement, for rotation and supply of Russian forces in Armenia or arms deliveries to Armenia. Russia clearly wants the latter type of arrangement.

Legal Effect. The Joint Statement is not legally binding. However, it has the political value of committing Russia publicly to withdrawing its forces from Georgia by a certain date and even to observing intermediate deadlines and benchmarks. Moreover, the Joint Statement goes a long way toward predetermining in Georgia’s favor the content of a legally binding Agreement, to be finalized “in the nearest future,” on the time-table and modalities of the functioning and withdrawal of Russian forces from Georgia.

While the document’s content clearly meets Georgia’s interests, the procedures associated with the planned Agreement and its legal implications pose some risks. Thus, the Joint Statement envisages that the Agreement will legalize Russia’s military presence in Georgia, even ensuring troop rotations from Russia, pending the withdrawal; and that the Agreement will be packaged together with an agreement to set up the “anti-terrorist center(s).”

It is understood (though not stipulated) that the Agreement will involve Georgian authorization for “temporary deployment” of Russian heavy weaponry over and above CFE Treaty ceilings; and that the Agreement will necessitate parliamentary ratification — a process that Russia’s Duma knows well how to misuse at the government’s behest. Thus, Moscow will retain significant means to drag out the troop withdrawal, circumvent its obligations, or add conditions to its fulfillment of the Joint Statement’s and the Agreement’s terms. Close international attention is necessary in order to ensure scrupulous observance of the withdrawal timeframe and other commitments stipulated by the Joint Statement as signed, without awaiting follow-up documents that may be negotiated and signed down the road.