Publication: Fortnight in Review Volume: 6 Issue: 8

On March 29, Russia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry notified Georgia that the Russian side is prepared immediately to hold negotiations on two sets of military issues: implementation of the Organization for Security and Cooperation (OSCE) summit’s resolutions regarding Russian forces in Georgia and, coupled with that, issues of bilateral military cooperation as well as “providing a legal basis” for the Russian bases in Georgia. The Russian side designated Ilya Klebanov, a Deputy Prime Minister responsible for the military industry, as head of the Russian delegation to the talks with Georgia. A twenty-two-strong delegation of Russian General Staff officers was to arrive in Tbilisi on April 3 for a week-long round of talks. The agenda was to include the immediate handover to Georgia of fourteen Russian military installations, out of a list of fourteen installations drawn up last year by the two Defense Ministries.

On April 3, however, Moscow decided to postpone the talks without notice, explanation, or a substitute date. One would-be justification, coyly suggested by the Russian side, was Georgia’s insistence on her right to take over a certain Russian military airport. That unnamed airport is almost certainly Vaziani, part of a Russian military base which represents a latent security threat to nearby Tbilisi. The November 1999 OSCE summit decisions require Russia to evacuate the Vaziani and Gudauta bases by mid-2001 and to settle with Georgia, within the same timeframe, the future of the two other Russian bases–those of Batumi and Akhalkalaki.

The Russian side seems set to challenge the OSCE decisions by interpreting them in its own way. Because those decisions form part of the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe, Moscow claims that it is only obligated to remove from Georgia the hardware and manpower limited by that treaty. It asserts that it may retain the bases themselves, their fixed installations and the Russian forces on those bases within CFE ceilings. Moscow is ready to hand over to Georgia only some disused installations and some of the numerous civilian facilities which are attached to Russian bases. Those installations, now in a ruined state, consist mainly of the Soviet-era housing, schools and health facilities for the military and the dependent families.

The Russians insist specifically on retaining the Vaziani and Gudauta bases and airports, on the pretext that they serve the needs of Russian troops stationed elsewhere in Georgia. Moscow claims that Gudauta is indispensable to Russian “peacekeeping” in Abkhazia and that Vaziani is just as indispensable to supplying the Russian bases in Batumi and Akhalkalaki. As regards the latter two bases, Moscow proposes to discuss legalizing them in a status-of-forces treaty with Georgia, instead of discussing their evacuation. As a sweetener, Moscow proposes to sign with Georgia a military cooperation treaty whereby Russia would help arm and equip the Georgian forces.

The Georgian government does not accept negotiations on these terms. Tbilisi adheres to the OSCE summit decisions which require Russia to vacate Vaziani and Gudauta. The summit conference, moreover, clearly indicated support for Georgia’s goal to rid herself of the Batumi and Akhalkalaki bases as well. Russia’s offer of “military cooperation” with Georgia may have been topical in 1994-95 when first made, and when Georgia was cowed and isolated. But those offers are a nonstarter at present, when Georgia has military cooperation programs well underway with Western countries and Turkey and plans to apply for consideration as a candidate for NATO membership by 2005. Moscow’s handling of the military talks with Georgia presage–as in the case of Moldova–pressures upon the unwilling host country and a test for the OSCE.