Political renewal in Georgia, and the appealing international image of its leadership, have created the right context for a Western-assisted Georgian effort to commit the Kremlin to an early withdrawal of Russian forces from the country.
Under the adapted Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) and the Istanbul Commitments documents, signed at the Organization for Security and Cooperation’s (OSCE) 1999 Istanbul summit, Russia was to have closed down the Gudauta base by July 2001 and to negotiate with a timeline with Georgia for closing the Batumi and Akhalkalaki bases.
However, Russia still maintains its Gudauta base and has declined to negotiate seriously on Batumi and Akhalkalaki. Russia has not held talks at a political level on the issue since 2002.
Russia has been seeking stiff “compensation” for removing its troops.
Russia seeks to retain indefinitely the sprawling Gudauta base with its strategic airfield by reassigning Russian “peacekeeping” troops in Abkhazia, where the base is located.
Moscow cites former Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze’s consent in principle to such a reassignment. That consent, however, was only tentatively given under duress and was never made definitive or official, let alone binding on Georgia or on Shevardnadze’s successors.
Due to Gudauta’s location inside the territory controlled by Abkhaz forces, which were formed by the Russian military, Tbilisi has proposed two possible solutions that fall short of outright closure of the base.
One solution would involve transferring the base legally — rather than physically — to Georgian authority, ensuring onsite international inspection.
The other option is to transfer the base to the United Nations Mission of Observers in Georgia (UNOMIG), a 150-strong group of unarmed military observers that maintain surveillance of the 1,500 Russian peacekeeping troops in Abkhazia. This solution offers the U.N. an unprecedented chance to be taken seriously as a peacekeeping factor in post-Soviet territory.
Regarding the Batumi and Akhalkalaki bases, Russia seeks a bilateral agreement that would define the status and duration of the functioning of those bases. This formula, if adopted, would legalize the Russian bases for the duration; and would imply host-country consent to their continued existence.
Currently, Russia officially seeks a seven-year term for closing the bases. Georgia officially offers three years, which would be sufficient time to relocate the 4,000 Russian military personnel from the two bases to neighboring Russia.
A seven-year or even a five-year “compromise” term would be dangerously long, allowing too much scope for Russian mischief in Georgia.
Two political traps lurk in that formula.
First, by purporting to set the duration of the Russian military presence, from the time the bilateral agreement would come into force, the formula deliberately does not specify when the duration period would begin.
Second, Moscow would almost certainly seek provision for parliamentary ratification of the bilateral agreement with Georgia. This could be used for postponing indefinitely the agreement’s entry into force.
Georgia and its Western partners should remember Moldova’s experience in a similar situation. In 1993, then-Prime Ministers Viktor Chernomyrdin and Andrei Sangheli signed an agreement for complete withdrawal of Russian troops from Moldova’s Tran-Dniester within three years.
Russia introduced stipulations requiring parliamentary ratification of that agreement. Moldova’s parliament promptly ratified the agreement; Russia’s Duma never did, nor did Russia’s executive branch ever try to push it through the Duma. Russian forces are still in Moldovan territory.
Thus, Georgia should insist that the agreement with Russia does not set the duration of the functioning of the bases, but rather a firm date for their closure. That agreement should be formalized by executive order, without requiring parliamentary ratification. The agreement should be drafted within a credible international framework that would monitor compliance and penalize non-compliance.
Public statements to the effect that the Russian bases are “not the primary issue in bilateral relations” send a signal that Georgia is indecisive and may even encourage Russian procrastination.
The unlawful military presence of a country’s troops on the territory of another can only be construed as a primary issue that goes to the heart of national sovereignty. Georgia now has an unprecedented opportunity to pursue a favorable solution of this important issue.
This is Georgia’s moment, and should be capitalized upon by its leadership and its Western partners.