Publication: Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 28

The latest Russian-Georgian consultations on military issues, and accompanying Russian gestures, evidence an intention to test Western seriousness about supporting Georgia’s independence. At the moment, Moscow is not only breaching its international obligations with respect to Georgia, but also apparently expecting the West to tolerate the situation.

On February 4, Georgian officials lifted a curtain corner on the military consultations just held in Tbilisi with Russian Foreign Affairs Ministry officials. This meeting did not qualify as a “negotiating round,” the series of which the Russians have put on ice unilaterally after the seventh last September. A date for another was not set. The meeting served to highlight multiple breaches of Moscow’s 1999 commitments in the framework of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

As part of those obligations, Russia was supposed to evacuate or scrap its massive ammunition stockpiles at the Sagarejo storage site, and to hand the Russian Army’s Tbilisi tank repair plant over to Georgia by July 2001. It has done neither. It did not even have a timetable for the ammunition disposal. The storage site is located some 40 kilometers from Tbilisi. Last year the Russian military set about in lackadaisical fashion to blow up some of the Sagarejo landmines, using for that purpose the nearby Vaziani military base. But, after having had to abandon Vaziani, the Russians stopped the disposal process. Meanwhile, the Sagarejo-Vaziani area is dotted with mines that have fallen off the poorly secured Russian military transport vehicles. From time to time–most recently on February 6–local residents are injured or killed by those mines.

During the meeting, Moscow declared its consent “in principle” to hand over the tank repair plant in Tbilisi. The wording suggests that it wants to turn a nonnegotiable obligation into an object of negotiation. Meanwhile, the headquarters of the Group of Russian Forces in the Transcaucasus remains in possession of the tank repair plant. That headquarters had widely been expected to move to Yerevan from Tbilisi after the Russian force cuts in Georgia. Recently, however, public discussions about that transfer have subsided in Moscow. This adds to indications that Russia hopes to retain a sizeable military presence in Georgia–and even a military toehold in the country’s capital–if Georgia’s Western partners look the other way.

Gudauta remains the most conspicuous among Moscow’s breaches to the OSCE decisions. It affects not only Russia’s bilateral obligations to Georgia, but also its commitments to all OSCE member countries under the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE). Russia was supposed to close down the base last July under international observation and inspection, in accordance with CFE procedures. Instead, it remains in possession of the base, having evacuated some of the CFE-limited weaponry, retaining some of it–along with other arms and ammunition stockpiles–and keeping 600 Russian soldiers there. The Russian side has barred OSCE observers from Gudauta, claiming that the Abkhaz authorities–who control the surrounding territory–oppose such inspection.

This situation is on a par with Transdniester in terms of thwarting the OSCE and CFE through proxies. Most recently, Russian officials in press interviews began speaking casually about “2,100 Russian peacekeeping troops in the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict theater.” That figure evidently results from adding the Gudauta garrison to the 1,500 official “peacekeepers.” Moscow had all along sought to circumvent the obligation to close Gudauta by changing its label into that of a “peacekeeping” center. It now appears set to do so unilaterally.

The February 4 meeting registered no change in Russia’s position on the Akhalkalaki and Batumi bases. Moscow wants a fourteen-year term for closing them. Georgia considers that proposal tantamount to demanding a permanent military presence, and thinks that three years would be enough.

The OSCE has yet to speak up about Gudauta and the other breaches of the organization’s decisions. Georgia has until now refrained from publicizing these breaches or from complaining loudly. Tbilisi still hopes for a quiet solution that would save face all around, beyond the broken July 2001 deadline. But the deadline keeps receding without any specific goals and targets being named, while Moscow plays for time and for wearing Georgia down (Kavkasia-Press, Agentstvo Voyennykh Novostei, Interfax, February 4-6).