MOSCOW SEEKS OPEN-ENDED RETENTION OF MILITARY BASES IN GEORGIA.

Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 2

As anticipated (see the Monitor, October 24), Russia expects the Western powers to tolerate its continued military presence in Georgia, once Moscow has reduced its heavy weaponry in Georgia to the ceilings mandated by the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE). In the closing days of 2000, Moscow claimed to have completed those reductions within the prescribed deadline of December 31. The claim may well be arithmetically correct as far as Georgia’s territory is concerned, but the net result breaches CFE’s regional of “flank” ceilings, inasmuch as part of the Russian armor was relocated in November from Georgia to Armenia, instead of being repatriated to Russia or scrapped. With the West and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) seeming to look the other way, Moscow feels emboldened to press Georgia to legalize the four Russian military bases for the long term.

On December 21-23 in Tbilisi, Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister Ilya Klebanov and Georgia’s leadership held their “fifth” negotiating round on military issues–in fact, the fifth in the current series of rounds, of which there have been a great many. The Russian side insisted on (1) retaining partial control of the Vaziani military airport near Tbilisi; (2) retaining full control of the Gudauta base by handing it over to Russian “peacekeeping” troops in Abkhazia, under a CIS flag of convenience; and (3) leasing the two largest bases–those headquartered Batumi and Akhalkalaki–for a 15-year term under a bilateral Russian-Georgian treaty.

The proposed 15-year timeframe looks like a minor concession from Moscow’s previous demand for a 20- to 25-year lease. The difference is meaningless, however, inasmuch as a lease of such duration is tantamount to open-ended one, particularly between parties of such disproportionate strength. Moscow will in any case undoubtedly press for the usual prolongation clauses.

The Russian side now claims that a full withdrawal of its troops from Georgia would cost hundreds of millions of dollars, possibly as much as one billion, and that Western countries should foot the bill, possibly through the OSCE. Such an unreal claim appears designed not so much to milk the West as to dissuade it from pressing for the withdrawal of Russian troops.

In the aftermath of the talks, Klebanov misleadingly declared that Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze had agreed “in principle” to leasing the Batumi and Akhalkalaki bases to Russia for fifteen years on some unspecified conditions. Foreign Affairs Minister Irakli Menagharishvili, however, stated that the Georgian side rejected that proposal. And he denied “speculation” that Tbilisi would legalize the Russian military bases if Russia resolves the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict on Georgia’s terms. The parliamentary leadership of the governing Union of Georgia’s Citizens signaled opposition to the ratification of a deal along those lines.

Yet Shevardnadze himself seemed to suggest in his December 25 address that he is open to considering just that kind of quid pro quo. With that, the president appeared to revert to the position he had held until about 1997, before having become convinced of the futility and potentially fatal risks of such a tradeoff. Minister of State (equivalent to prime minister) Giorgi Arsenishvili, who is Shevardnadze’s personal choice for that post, had on December 13 publicly proposed a grand strategic bargain with Moscow, whereby Georgia would regain Abkhazia and become Russia’s main ally in the South Caucasus. That unprecedented statement reflected not only Arsenishvili’s inexperience in foreign policy but also the pressure he had just experienced during negotiations in Moscow on economic issues (see the Monitor, December 15, 2000).

Russia is in fact applying economic, political and military pressures in order to coerce the Georgian leadership into signing a treaty on military basing rights. Gazprom’s affiliate Itera company is turning the tap of gas supplies to Georgia on and off this winter–a tactic which recently sparked antigovernment protests and street disorders in Tbilisi. Russian diplomacy blocks progress in the internationally mediated negotiations on Abkhazia, encouraging Abkhaz intransigence. Moscow has recently singled out Georgia for imposing visa regulations with potentially devastating economic effects. But it has exempted Abkhazia and South Ossetia, in a move tantamount to creeping absorption of those secessionist regions. Russia’s Duma is now considering a bill on the legal mechanism of accepting regions outside of Russia–such as Abkhazia, South Ossetia, or Moldova’s Transdniester region–as constituent members of the Russian Federation at their request. Russia’s government keeps its distance from that bill, but almost certainly welcomes it as means of psychological pressure on certain neighboring countries.

Following Klebanov’s negotiations in Tbilisi, the Russian Foreign Affairs Ministry officially denied that Moscow links the problem of military bases in Georgia with the problem of Abkhazia. But the ministry’s rationale–namely, that no such linkage was envisaged by the CFE treaty or by the 1999 OSCE summit’s resolutions on Georgia–seems designed to foster ambiguity over the possibility of such a linkage. The said treaty and resolutions had centered on the heavy weaponry above CFE ceilings and on the Vaziani and Gudauta bases. Now, however, Russia’s main goal is to retain the Batumi and Akhalkalaki bases in the post-CFE period. Whether Moscow is willing to sacrifice its Abkhaz proteges for a deal with Tbilisi is a moot and indeed a wrong question. Moscow would only go for the type of deal that would leave both Tbilisi and Abkhazia open to being played off against each other, in constant need of Russian arbitration.

The military pressure also continues unabated. In the negotiations with Shevardnadze, Klebanov repeated the demands for Georgian consent to an “anti-terrorism operation” by Russian troops inside Georgia. The current demand centers on Chechens in the Pankisi Gorge. And in a “New Year’s greetings message” to Shevardnadze, Russian President Vladimir Putin used brutal language in proposing that “every obstacle that hampers close bilateral relations has to be destroyed. First and foremost we must eliminate the forces of international terrorism in any form and shape as soon as possible.” If such is the language of New Year’s greetings, the terms being used behind closed doors are likely to include direct threats.

The Kremlin may well be calculating that the transition in Washington offers a window of opportunity for Russia to create some fait accomplis in Georgia before the new Administration has had a chance to formulate its policy and speak up. At the moment, Georgia seems and feels alone in facing an emboldened Russia (Prime-News, Kavkasia-Press, Black Sea Press, Itar-Tass, RIA, December 24-31; see the Monitor, October 24, November 16, December 1, 4-6, 8, 11, 15, 2000; Fortnight in Review, September 22, November 3, December 1, 2000).

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