On March 23-24 in Moscow, Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister Ilya Klebanov and Georgia’s Foreign Affairs Minister Irakli Menagarishvili held talks on the Russian military bases in Georgia. Follow-up comments by both sides suggest that Moscow insists on retaining the Batumi and Akhalkalaki bases for the long term and that it hopes to arm-twist Tbilisi into accepting some form of Russian use of the Gudauta and Vaziani bases.
Regarding Batumi and Akhalkalaki, Russia is making a pretense of accepting Georgia’s terms of reference for the negotiations–namely, that they are about the length of time necessary for the Russian troops and equipment to return to Russia. But it insists that it needs fifteen years for the relocation. Meanwhile, it is offering to conclude a lease agreement which, it hopes, would legitimize those bases if it were signed.
Russia must hand over the Vaziani base and close down the Gudauta base by July 1, 2001, in accordance with the treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) and a November 1999 agreement with Georgia, enshrined by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Moscow, however, wants to retain privileged use of the Vaziani airport by contending that it is necessary for servicing the Akhalkalaki and Batumi bases for the duration of their presence in Georgia.
At the Moscow talks, Klebanov persisted with the demand to retain the Gudauta base, merely proposing to transfer it from the jurisdiction of Russia’s ground and airborne forces into that of Russia’s troops in Abkhazia. The Russians have removed the CFE Treaty-limited hardware from Gudauta and now propose to turn it into a “recreation and training center” for the “CIS peacekeeping” forces.
Russian communiques resorted to more than the usual level of ambiguity on these latest negotiations. Klebanov’s office announced that the sides have agreed on a “strict timetable for the removal of Russian forces from Vaziani and Gudauta.” But Russia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry suggested that the agreement is anything but final or strict. “The timetable may be modified if the sides agree on continued use by the Russian side of Gudauta base infrastructure and on the rules of joint [Russian-Georgian] use of the Vaziani airport,” the ministry stated.
Tbilisi takes the position that it must exercise undivided sovereign control over Vaziani, and that it would consider the possibility of Russian “peacekeepers'” use of Gudauta only after Russian troops which are now stationed there withdraw and close down the base.
A further negotiating round is due to be held in June, against the July 1 withdrawal deadline which is stipulated both in OSCE documents and in the bilateral Russian-Georgian agreement of 1999. There is every evidence by now that Moscow seeks to circumvent those commitments in Georgia as it does in a similar situation in Moldova (Prime-News, Iprinda, March 24-26).
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