On March 10, the Georgian parliament unanimously (158-0) approved a resolution that orders Moscow to withdraw Russian bases from Georgia no later than January 1, 2006. Analysts have already predicted that the landmark resolution will be yet another irritant in Georgia’s prickly relationship with Russia.
During her visit to Turkey on March 10, Georgian Foreign Minister Salome Zourabichvili told journalists that relations between Georgia and Russia are at “a very important turning point.”
The parliamentary resolution instructs the Georgian executive branch to take measures against the Russian military bases if the parties fail to agree on a “reasonable timeframe” for their withdrawal before May 15, 2005.
This condition, according to Georgian officials, means that after passing the resolution Russian military bases in Georgia will operate under a “regime of departure.” The resolution instructs the government that in case there is no progress in talks with the Russian side about the terms of withdrawal, Georgia will deny entry visas for Russian servicemen, establish a “special transit regime” for Russian servicemen, military hardware, and cargo stationed in Georgia, and assess Moscow’s accumulated debt to Georgia for the entire period that the bases operated. The Ministry of Environment will also assess the ecological harm incurred by the Russian military bases.
Georgian President’s Mikheil Saakashvili’s new spokesman, Gela Charkviani, previously a foreign policy advisor to former president Eduard Shevardnadze, announced on March 10 that “positive signals” were coming from Russia with regard to the military bases. Charkviani likely had in mind a statement by Colonel-General Anatoly Mazurkevich, chief of the Department for International Cooperation of the Russian Ministry of Defense, who told Interfax on March 10 that Russia needs three or four years to fully remove its bases from Georgia. Earlier Moscow had insisted on 11-year term but later shortened this period to seven years.
Despite the publicly demonstrated unanimity about removal of the Russian bases, Giga Bokeria, one of the leaders of the pro-governmental majority in the parliament and a close confidant of Saakashvili, was forced to publicly deny rumors about disagreements between the parliamentarians from the ruling National Movement party and Parliamentary Chair Nino Burjanadze over the text of the resolution outlawing Russian bases in Georgia. He called such speculation “groundless.”
However, parliament’s discussion of the resolution did reveal a lack of coordination between the legislature and the executive. Symptomatically Burjanadze, who first raised the issue of outlawing Russian bases in Georgia during her appearance at the OSCE in Vienna, was believed to be expressing the opinion of the Georgian political leadership. Therefore, it would be logical for the parliamentary committee on security and defense to draft a precisely worded resolution.
Then on March 8, President Saakashvili told journalists that Georgia should not rush a resolution of the military base situation. “Of course they must be withdrawn, but we still have one and a half months in which we and Russia can agree on something,” he said. After this comment, Burjanadze softened her initially intransigent attitude toward the bases. She said the resolution had been put on the parliamentary agenda at the wrong time, and Georgia should wait until May before outlawing Russian bases. “Since we have agreed on the two-month period for consultations with Russia, these two months ought to expire first,” she said. Burjanadze said that the hasty adoption of this kind of resolution could harm the planned Georgian-Russian talks about a timeframe for withdrawing the Russian bases. Burjanadze said that neither she nor Saakashvili had been aware of the draft resolution, which she said was not on this week’s agenda.
The March 7 session of the parliamentary leadership, which Burjanadze did not attend, made the decision to discuss the draft resolution at the March 9 meeting of the full parliament. Some journalists have speculated that Burjanadze was embarrassed that such an important decision was made behind her back. This is not the first time that Saakashvili’s team has presented Burjanadze with a fait accompli to underline who actually controls the parliament.
After Burjanadze’s critical remarks, the parliamentary majority convened an emergency, closed-door meeting and decided to bring the resolution to a vote whatever the case. Burjanadze was forced to give up and publicly deny rumors over her disagreements with the parliamentary majority. However, her attitude, nonetheless, indicates that competing views about relations with Russia exist within the Georgian political leadership.
Meanwhile, analysts are speculating as to how Russia could “punish” Georgia and what the Georgian government can do to soften the consequences of possible Russian pressure. Russia may cut energy deliveries to Georgia and reignite conflicts in the more restive regions of the country. Some Georgian pundits assume that Tbilisi’s true intention is to force Russian concessions with regard to breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
On March 13, More than 1,000 ethnic Armenian inhabitants of Akhalkalaki, a town in southwestern Georgia near one of the two remaining Russian bases, protested against closing the base. The newly established public movement “United Javakh,” claiming to protect the local Armenian population, organized the protest rally. Dimitry Rstakian of United Javakh said that closing the Russian base would be an economic catastrophic for the region. On March 11, Saakashvili promised to support the residents of Akhalkalaki and Batumi (Ajaria), who currently work at nearby Russian military bases.
Local analysts and politicians argue that Georgia could counteract a possible Russian energy blockade by delaying the flow of Russian electricity to Turkey and Russian natural gas to Armenia, which now transit Georgian territory.
Givi Targamadze, chair of the parliamentary committee on security and defense and co-author of the resolution, claimed that the Georgian authorities are prepared for any scenario. Some analysts have noted that the Western community clandestinely backs Georgia’s conscious anti-Russian steps. However, much will depend on the unity of Georgian society and the population’s readiness to suffer the hardships that would inevitably result from the threatened Russian energy retaliation.
(24 Saati, Resonance, Interfax, March 10; Civil Georgia, March 9, 10, 13; Imedi TV, March 8-10; Akhali Taoba, March 12; Sakartvelo.info, March 13)