On December 25, 2006, the last personnel of Russia’s garrison in Tbilisi and the rump Headquarters of the Group of Russian Forces in the Transcaucasus (GRVZ) pulled out of Georgia’s capital and of the country altogether. Their unwilling, though ultimately precipitate, withdrawal crowns 15 years of Georgian efforts toward this goal. Moreover, the evacuation brings to a close more than 200 years of the Russian garrisoning of Tbilisi. The imperial Russian army under General Ivan Lazarev occupied Tbilisi in November 1799, using an invasion route from Ossetia (Itar-Tass, December 24).
The GRVZ’s last commander, Major-General Andrei Popov, announced on December 23 that the Russian Headquarters and garrison in Tbilisi “cease to exist as of today” (Rossiya TV, December 23). On that day, Popov and Georgia’s Deputy Defense Minister Levan Nikolaishvili signed the acts of handover and acceptance for the headquarters and associated buildings and installations. The sprawling complex is located on prime real estate grounds in downtown Tbilisi, in proximity to the main government institutions. The Georgian authorities intend to auction it off for civilian development at an anticipated starting price of $20 million.
Almost 400 Russian military personnel, some 100 armored vehicles of various types, and other equipment were evacuated from Tbilisi during November and December. Two convoys headed for Russia via Azerbaijan and another two convoys proceeded to the Russian base at Gyumri in Armenia (Interfax, December 22-24). The Russian arsenals at Gyumri are steadily growing through transfers of heavy weaponry from Russian bases in Georgia. The Georgian-Russian agreements prohibit the transfer of that weaponry to Armenian forces. However, compliance with the ban and indeed the actual basing location of that hardware is unverifiable.
Popov will now head an operational group of 13 officers, who relocated to Batumi on December 25, to coordinate from there the ultimate closure of the Batumi and Akhalkalaki bases. That process is governed by the May 30, 2005, Joint Statement and March 31, 2006, implementing agreements, which were signed, respectively, by Russia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov and Ground Forces Commander-in-Chief, Colonel-General Alexei Maslov, with Georgia’s then-minister of foreign affairs Salome Zourabichvili and first deputy defense minister Mamuka Kudava.
Under those documents, Russia is to complete the removal of its forces from Akhalkalaki by October 2007 and from Batumi before the end of 2008. Pending those deadlines, the two bases are “functioning in a withdrawal mode,” with the evacuation in progress under a precise timetable, with interim deadlines to be met (see EDM, June 3, 2005; April 4, 2006).
Those same documents stipulated the closure of the GVRZ’s Tbilisi Headquarters by the end of 2008, as the final step in the withdrawal process. However, the Kremlin unexpectedly decided to start and complete the pullout from Tbilisi two years ahead of schedule. Under a worst-case line of speculation, Moscow may have calculated that its Tbilisi headquarters and garrison could have become hostages in the event of hostilities and that their evacuation gives Moscow somewhat greater leeway to initiate a political-military crisis.
Addressing students at Tbilisi State University on Christmas Day, December 25, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili termed it a historic day, with the capital now finally free of the Russian military presence. He gratefully acknowledged that the pullout occurred “in a relatively civilized and orderly manner.” Saakashvili renewed an earlier invitation to Russian officers to stay in Georgia by individual choice and take up the country’s citizenship. However, even after the Batumi and Akhalkalaki bases are closed — he pointed out — the withdrawal of Russian forces from Georgia will only be complete when they leave Abkhazia and South Ossetia (Rustavi-2 TV, December 25; Civil Georgia, December 26).
In a year-end address to a business audience, Saakashvili reviewed overall Russia-Georgia relations in 2006: “Their idea was to shake Georgia until it finally collapsed,” he noted, listing: The energy blockade in the coldest winter on record, January/February 2006; the series of embargoes on Georgian fruit and vegetables, wines, and mineral water, the full closure of Russia’s market and the transportation blockade against Georgia, the orchestrated propaganda against the country, recruitment of shadowy politicians “hoping to return criminal chaos to Georgia,” the incidents staged in Abkhazia and South Ossetia and the freezing of the negotiations on those conflicts. Nevertheless, Georgia succeeded in preserving democratic stability, developing transport infrastructure, creating attractive conditions for business, and pursuing its Western course (Rustavi-2 TV, December 27).
For his part, Minister of Foreign Affairs Gela Beshuashvili in his year-end news conference predicted that relations would become normal when Russia accepts Georgia’s chosen Western orientation. “Accepting your neighbor’s freedom to choose its path of development is basic to any relationship” (Imedi TV, December 26).