Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 126

Bilateral negotiations on the withdrawal of Russian troops from Georgia were held on June 23-25 in Tbilisi. The round was the second since the November 1999 Istanbul summit of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which required Russia to withdraw its forces from the Vaziani and Gudauta bases and disband those bases by July 2001. Deputy Prime Minister Ilya Klebanov, who oversees Russia’s military industry, headed the Russian delegation at the negotiations in Tbilisi. This unusual selection seems to confirm Moscow’s intention to link any troop withdrawal to a comprehensive agreement on “military cooperation,” one which could place Georgia in Russia’s military orbit.

The Russian delegation backtracked somewhat on the Istanbul commitments. While agreeing to hand over the Vaziani base by the stipulated deadline, it proposed to retain the Gudauta base under a different guise. Moscow now wants simply to transfer that base from Russia’s airborne troops to Russia’s “peacekeeping” troops–a purely Russian force stationed under a CIS flag of convenience in the Abkhaz conflict theater. Klebanov proposed turning Gudauta into a “peacekeepers’ training center.” Trying to add a humanitarian note, the proposal’s public relations version spoke of a “resting and training facility for peacekeepers.”

Gudauta is situated in territory controlled by the Abkhaz authorities since 1993, when Russian troops–including the airborne regiment based in Gudauta–joined Abkhaz troops in evicting Georgian forces from the area. The Abkhaz side currently lays claim to the armament and other equipment of the Russian troops in the event that they withdraw from Gudauta. The Russian side is consequently well placed to tell the Georgians that they should choose to tolerate the Russian presence at Gudauta. The situation mirrors Moldova’s, where the Russian side plays on Chisinau’s fears that the Russian troops withdrawal from Transdniester could result in a takeover of Russian arms by Transdniester authorities.

Tbilisi fully realizes that an agreement to transfer Gudauta from one Russian force to another Russian force would for the first time legalize Russia’s military presence there, jeopardize Georgia’s independence and her cooperation with NATO, and contravene the OSCE’s decisions. Yet President Eduard Shevardnadze and Foreign Affairs Minister Irakly Menagarishvili have not rejected Moscow’s proposal out of hand. Tbilisi will “examine” it before the next round of negotiations, to be held next month in Moscow (Prime-News, Kavkasia-Press, Iprinda, Tbilisi Radio, June 22-27; see the Monitor, April 6, May 2, 17, 22; Fortnight in Review, April 14, May 23).