Publication: Fortnight in Review Volume: 6 Issue: 21

The fourth round of Russian-Georgian military negotiations provided fresh evidence of Moscow’s attempts to retain bases in Georgia. While scrapping and/or withdrawing the hardware which exceeds Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) treaty ceilings, the Russians seek to maintain control, in one form or another, of their four existing bases in Georgia.

At the 1999 summit of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Moscow assumed the obligation to close down the Gudauta and Vaziani bases entirely by July 2001 and to negotiate with Georgia about the eventual closure of the Batumi and Akhalkalaki bases. Moscow’s current tactics seem to assume that once the combat hardware is brought within CFE limits, the West might relax and condone the Russian military presence at the same bases in Georgia at reduced force levels.

Deputy Prime Minister Ilya Klebanov led Russia’s delegation to the talks on October 19-20 in Tbilisi. The controversy at this round focused on the Gudauta base in Abkhazia. The Russians suggest that the Abkhaz could “block” the evacuation of military materiel from Gudauta and even “seize” that materiel, should Tbilisi insist on the evacuation. The Abkhaz leaders have previously threatened to do that, and they duly repeated those warnings in the background to the latest round of talks in Tbilisi. The situation mirrors that in Moldova’s region of Transdniester. There, Russia’s local proteges also “threaten” to “block” the evacuation of Russian arsenals or “seize” them if Moldova insists on their removal to Russia. The deception enables Moscow to pose as the guardian of stability in both cases and to retain its troops and weaponry in place while the ostensible stalemate continues.

With that leverage in hand, Moscow seeks Tbilisi’s consent to a handover of the Gudauta base to Russian “peacekeeping” troops in Abkhazia. The change of labels would be meaningless in either legal or practical terms. But it would enable Moscow to breach its obligations to the OSCE and to put a figleaf of Georgian consent on that breach. Under Moscow’s proposal, Gudauta would become a “training and recreation center” for the Russian “peacekeepers.”

The Georgian side has not yet decided on its response. Some Tbilisi officials seem inclined to accept a “recreation” or “rehabilitation” center while ruling out a “training” one. Other Georgian officials maintain that any handover to the “peacekeepers” can only be discussed after the Russians have removed the troops and weaponry from Gudauta and closed the base.

There are those who suggest that Georgian flexibility on Gudauta may buy Russian flexibility on the Batumi and Akhalkalaki bases. It remains to be seen whether such a tradeoff would not turn into another textbook case of Moscow’s negotiating technique, classically known as “banking of concessions” without reciprocation. The success of that technique usually depends on the availability of superior Russian force in a contested area, as is still the case in Georgia at present. Only a strict adherence to the OSCE summit’s decisions can help Georgia remove that factor from play. And only Moscow can be interested in initiating, with Gudauta, a process of unraveling of those decisions.

The talks in Tbilisi seemed to skirt over the unresolved problem of the Vaziani base outside Georgia’s capital. The Russian side is completing the evacuation and/or scrapping of Vaziani’s CFE treaty-limited weaponry. However, the Russians insist on retaining control of the airfield there, ostensibly to service their Batumi and Akhalkalaki bases. And they also seek to retain the tank repair plant in Tbilisi itself, with the argument that it is the only plant of this type in their former Transcaucasus Military District.

Georgia does not seem to expect a prompt resolution of the Vaziani problem. As a stopgap solution, Tbilisi is now proceeding to build a military airfield in the Marneuli district, with Turkish credits and technical assistance.

The next round of Russian-Georgian talks, tentatively scheduled for December, is supposed to debate definitions of Gudauta’s status as a “training” or “recreation” center for Russian troops and to talk some more about Vaziani. By December, Moscow will be able to show nearly full compliance with CFE ceilings and will probably try to dig in its heels with regard to its remaining weaponry and troops.