On a visit to Tbilisi yesterday, Russia’s First Deputy Defense Minister Nikolai Mikhailov stated that “the Russian military presence in Georgia corresponds to the interests of both countries.” The statement is an affront to Georgia, which seeks a negotiated withdrawal of Russian forces from its territory. Mikhailov turned down the Georgian request that the Russian military base at Gudauta in Abkhazia be evacuated ahead of schedule, and proceeded to inspect the Russian base near Batumi in Ajaria (Itar-Tass, February 10).
These Russian bases, as well as a third one at Alkhalaki in Javakhetia, are in areas inhabited by ethnic/religious minorities whose leaderships have proved susceptible to political manipulation by the Russian military. Moscow seeks to prolong its military presence in Georgia by playing the regional card against the central government.
This point was again made clear in a recent article in “Nezavisimaya gazeta,” the Moscow daily controlled by CIS Executive Secretary Boris Berezovsky. The newspaper accused Georgia of allowing itself to be “brainwashed by NATO promises” and “purposely making difficulties for the Russian troops.” Should Tbilisi persist with its “active demands for the withdrawal of Russian troops…. the situation may seriously worsen in the republic,” the article warned. The Batumi base is backed by the local leaders because it “guarantees the inviolability of Ajaria’s autonomy.” In Akhalkalaki, a withdrawal of Russian troops “may lead to disorders among Armenians. The situation may develop along the lines of the Karabakh scenario.” In Abkhazia, Russian troops are the “peacekeepers.” The article portrayed the function of Russian troops in these areas of Georgia as preserving Russian influence in the South Caucasus region as a whole (Russian agencies, February 10; Nezavisimaya gazeta, February 4).
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