Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 28

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the Western powers face a test in Georgia, similar to that in Moldova (see the Monitor, February 8). Pursuant to the decisions of the OSCE summit in Istanbul last November, Russia is required to close down two military bases in Georgia–those at Vaziani and Gudauta–and to withdraw the troops from there to Russia by July 1, 2001. The decisions also require Russia to negotiate with Georgia on the fate of the remaining two bases–those at Akhalkalaki and Batumi–and to complete those negotiations during the course of 2001; the conference left no doubt that it supports Georgia’s wish to rid herself of those bases as well. The requirement is unconditional with respect to Vaziani and Gudauta, and the summit’s decision left no room for interpretation. Russia did not risk vetoing it at the conference (see the Monitor, November 22; the Fortnight in Review, December 3, 1999).

Following that summit, however, Russia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry has attempted to reinterpret its decisions in the apparent hope of frustrating them. It is trying to artificially link the problem of Vaziani and Gudauta to that of Akhalkalaki and Batumi, asking for legal rights to the second two bases as the price for vacating the first two. As part of this tactic, the ministry has ignored or sidestepped a series of Georgian proposals to begin negotiations on practical details of closing Vaziani and Gudauta and repatriating those troops to Russia.

Colonel-General Leonid Ivashov, head of the Russian General Staff’s Main Department for International Cooperation, has allowed a fuller glimpse into the military considerations behind the Russian diplomats’ evasiveness. Ivashov stated on January 31 at a briefing that Russia is prepared to remove from Vaziani and Gudauta the combat hardware slated to be cut in accordance with the adapted Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE), which was signed at the OSCE summit. But the bases themselves and some of the Russian troops would stay put, Ivashov said, in order for Vaziani to provide support services to the Akhalkalaki base, and for Gudauta to support the Russian “peacekeeping” forces in Abkhazia. Ivashov, moreover, demanded that Russian-Georgian negotiations on removing the treaty-limited hardware from Vaziani and Gudauta should simultaneously deal with “defining the status”–in plain talk, the legalization–of the Akhalkalaki and Batumi bases (Prime-News, January 31).

The Georgian government rules out any link between the two pairs of bases because it would be incompatible with OSCE decisions. The government has appointed a negotiating team, co-chaired by the Foreign Affairs and Defense Ministers Irakly Menagarishvili and Davit Tevzadze, and is concerned over Moscow’s unwillingness to appoint its negotiators. Having intended to begin the talks in January, Georgia has now reluctantly accepted delaying them until April–that is, after Russia’s presidential election. Tbilisi takes the position that the talks can only deal with legal and technical aspects of the evacuation of the two bases, the disposal of their mobile assets, the handover of the immobile property to Georgia and the problem of unpaid rent and utility bills. Russian arrears currently amount to US$370 million only on lease contracts for 18,000 hectares of Georgian land and for communal services received since 1992 (Prime-News, Tbilisi Radio, February 2).

Recent incidents around the Vaziani base underscore the urgency of removing that potential source of instability in the vicinity of Tbilisi. Last November, Georgian intelligence was tipped off that elements of the elite Alpha commando unit of Russia’s Federal Security Service had covertly landed at Vaziani, whether for some covert operation or as part of a training exercise. The Georgians publicized their concern, only to have it summarily dismissed by Moscow. In November and December, Moscow demanded Georgian consent to the use of the Vaziani airfield for Russian bombing raids against Chechnya, thereby threatening to drag Georgia into the war. Last month, Georgian security services videotaped Russian soldiers from Vaziani clandestinely handing over arms to some unidentified buyers, apparently from the North Caucasus, presumably Chechens or their intermediaries. Gudauta, which is situated in Abkhazia, poses a special problem. The Russian side is in a position to hand it over to the secessionist Abkhaz forces.

Moscow’s position, as seen from Tbilisi, seems intended to “send a clear message that Georgians should reconcile themselves to the prospect of noncompliance with the agreement and accept that the Vaziani and Gudauta bases will not have been closed in 2001…. It seems obvious that Moscow is attempting to keep those bases in Georgia in violation of the Istanbul agreement” (Prime-News, Tbilisi Radio, February 5). These concerns, expressed by Nino Burjanadze and Revaz Adamia, chairs of the Georgian parliament’s foreign affairs and defense and security committees, are widely shared in the country. Georgia counts on Western political support in the OSCE and in bilateral diplomatic contacts with Moscow to ensure that Russia lives up to its obligations to withdraw those troops.