Publication: Fortnight in Review Volume: 6 Issue: 16

On July 29 in Moscow, Russia and Georgia held the “third” round in what is only the latest series of negotiations on troop withdrawal. The session resulted in some limited progress, though the Russian side promptly raised a big question mark over some of that progress. Moscow has in any case agreed to remove from Georgia, by December 31 of this year, combat hardware that exceeds the ceilings of the adapted Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE).

The treaty obligates Russia to reduce that hardware, by that deadline, to 153 battle tanks, 241 infantry fighting vehicles and armored personnel carriers, and 140 artillery systems. By the same token it requires Russia to evacuate from Georgia, or destroy in place, a total of 244 treaty-limited items in those four categories. The Russians began cutting up some of those items on July 31 at Russia’s armor repair plant in Tbilisi, in the presence of foreign diplomats and military attaches, and experts of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and in the media’s limelight. On August 4, amid similar ceremonials, the Russians will begin evacuating their treaty-limited hardware from the Vaziani base near Tbilisi to the Black Sea port of Batumi, whence the weaponry will be shipped to Russia. The United States and other Western countries bear most of the costs of Russia’s scrapping and evacuation operations.

While advertising the beginning of its compliance with CFE, the Russian side seems about to negate the OSCE-mandated agreements it has reached with Georgia regarding the closure of Russian military bases in that country. The OSCE’s Istanbul summit in November 1999 required Moscow to abandon the Vaziani and Gudauta bases by July 2001. But Moscow now says that it will close down only part of the Vaziani base while retaining the airfield there. Russian generals claim that the airfield, being located “outside” the base perimeter, is not an integral part of the military base. Russian diplomats insist that the airfield is indispensable to servicing the Russian bases in Georgia that are not subject to early closure–namely, Batumi and Akhalkalaki, both of which Moscow wants to retain. To bolster their case for retaining the Vaziani airfield as well, Russian officials are inspiring media stories which purport to cite Georgians officials as anticipating that NATO would use Vaziani. Georgia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry has dismissed such stories as “fantasies.”

Tbilisi rejects the dissociation that Moscow is trying to introduce between the “general purpose” base and the airfield at Vaziani. Georgia has already announced its intention to convert Vaziani into an international civilian airport; and has approached the Mitsubishi company of Japan for a feasibility study of the project. The airstrip at Vaziani is said to be capable of handling all types of aircraft, including jumbo jet airliners. While insisting on its right to take over the airfield in sovereign ownership, the Georgian government considers allowing the Russian military to use the airfield under Georgian control during the remaining lifetime of Russia’s Batumi and Akhalkalaki bases.

Moscow’s backtracking on Vaziani adds to the backtracking on Gudauta. Instead of closing that base as required by the OSCE, the Russian government wants to legalize it by handing it over to Russian “peacekeeping” forces in Abkhazia.

At the Moscow negotiations with Georgia on July 29, the Russian side tried to propose concluding a 25-year agreement on the operation of the Batumi and Akhalkalaki bases. Georgia, however, proposes to have those bases evacuated by the end of 2002 “in a painless manner,” as President Eduard Shevardnadze put it in a July 31 statement. The stage seems set for further Russian prevarication, which Georgia can only overcome with consistent Western backing.