Publication: Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 87

Since April 26, Russia and Georgia have resumed the long-running, on-and-off negotiations toward signing a “framework” political treaty on bilateral relations. This document is supposed to supersede the treaty Presidents Boris Yeltsin and Eduard Shevardnadze signed in 1994 that never took effect. Although Georgia’s parliament ratified it, Russia’s Duma did not, because the document enshrined Georgia’s territorial integrity, if only on paper. In practice, Moscow and the Abkhaz had already shattered that integrity. Russia’s government never considered living up to the bargain that Tbilisi thought had been made: namely, temporary stationing of Russian troops in Georgia in return for the territorial integrity clause and Russian promises to help restore that integrity.

The resumed negotiations should deal in part with the conditions and time frame for the withdrawal of Russian troops from Georgia. Under President Vladimir Putin, Russia has insisted on an agreement that would allow its troops to stay in Georgia for another fifteen years, which is to say, more or less permanently. As the Russian analyst Pavel Felgenhauer has observed in the parallel case of Transdniester, insistence on retaining these troops and bases suggests that Moscow regards its current decline as temporary, expecting to regain great power status and revert to a forward policy sooner or later.

In the latest negotiations, Moscow suggests that it can withdraw the troops from the Akhalkalaki and Batumi bases in ten years’ time, instead of fifteen, but has offset this seeming concession by canceling some previous ones. It now wants to retain–in Tbilisi–a tank repair plant and the headquarters of what used to be the Group of Russian Forces in the Transcaucasus, complete with its 1,500 Russian military personnel and their dependents, based in Georgia’s capital. Moscow had deactivated that headquarters almost two years ago, announcing that it would withdraw the personnel, and agreed in 1999 to hand the tank repair plant over to Georgia. Late last year, however, Russia’s Defense Ministry decided to keep the headquarters and the plant. On April 25, the ministry announced that it would maintain that presence in Tbilisi until Georgia accepted Moscow’s terms regarding the Akhalkalaki and Batumi bases.

Russia was also supposed to have liquidated the stockpiles of explosives and various types of ammunition, dangerously stored at the Sagarejo dumps, in the vicinity of the Vaziani international airport and of Tbilisi. At present, Russia’s Defense Ministry admits that it has removed less than one third–that is, 35,000 tons–and relocated it to Armenia, instead of scrapping it.

Under decisions of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and in accordance with the CFE treaty, Russia was obligated to have evacuated the troops and armaments from the Gudauta base to Russia by July 1, 2001. It retains the base to this day, however, with hundreds of troops and some heavy weaponry that escapes the international verification mandated by CFE. Moscow has simply redesignated its own garrison at Gudauta as “CIS peacekeepers” and claims to have thereby complied with the OSCE’s decision to give up the base. On April 23, Russia’s deputy defense minister, four-star General Aleksandr Kosovan, claimed in a media interview that “the Gudauta no longer functions, de facto or de jure; Russia’s troops are no longer there; CIS peacekeeping troops are now using the base.” Those troops, however, are purely Russian, are subordinated to Russia’s General Staff, and have no legitimate international mandate. Last month, they used the Gudauta base for staging the incursion into Georgia’s Kodori Gorge, with Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov’s authorization.

Meanwhile, Russian-Georgian discussions focus on the Akhalkalaki and Batumi bases. The military negotiations take place mostly at a low, “working group” level and often through the mass media, because the Russian side is loath to conduct official negotiating rounds, preferring instead to play for time. Kosovan, heading Russia’s negotiating team, takes the position in media interviews that “Russia will not withdraw a single soldier from Georgia until we prepare accommodations for them in Russia.” That is the basis for seeking Georgian consent to accept the bases for ten more years.

Georgia considers that three years would amply suffice for the relocation. Foreign Affairs Minister Irakly Menagharishvili and Defense Minister Davit Tevzadze also point out that the ongoing manpower cuts in the Russian armed forces should release more than enough housing for the accommodation of some 4,000 Russian troops that should withdraw from Georgia. Tbilisi bases its position on the OSCE’s 1999 decisions that contain safeguards against unreasonably dragging out the Russian-Georgian negotiations, and which stipulate that timely completion of these negotiations is a matter of international interest, rather than a bilateral one. For now, however, Moscow is successfully stonewalling. Russia’s Defense Ministry says that it might, this May, propose to Georgia to hold “expert-level [that is, low level] talks about setting dates for further talks” (Roundup based on recent reports by Prime-News, Agentstvo Voyennykh Novostey, Itar-Tass, Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Vremya Novostey; see the Monitor, March 5, 8, April 2, 12, 16-17).