Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 97

On May 14-15 in Tbilisi, Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister Ilya Klebanov and senior Defense Ministry officials held talks with Georgian Foreign Affairs Minister Irakli Menagharishvili on the Russian military bases in Georgia. Klebanov also met with Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze. The discussions showed that Moscow has conclusively given up on the Vaziani base, that it tries to cling tooth and nail to the Gudauta base, and that it wants to talk big money over the Batumi and Akhalkalaki bases.

As regards Gudauta, this is the endgame. Russia is both required and pledged to move out all troops and close down the base by July 1, 2001, as decided at the 1999 summit of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Last year, Russia withdrew from Gudauta the combat hardware that comes under the provisions of the treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE). It hoped that the OSCE–and more pertinently, the Western powers–would be content with the half-measure and allow Russia to leave its forces there. For a fig leaf, the Russians would transfer replace the army troops now stationed there with their “peacekeeping” troops presently in Abkhazia.

Moscow has all along hinted that it might allow Abkhaz forces to “take over” the Gudauta base, if Georgia and the OSCE insist that Russia comply fully with its commitments. The tactic mirrored that used in Moldova, where Moscow suggests that Transdniester forces–a Russian creation, as are the Abkhaz forces–might seize Russian arsenals if the Russian troops were to withdraw. While analogous, however, the two situations are not identical. Moscow has duly removed the CFE-limited armaments from Gudauta, without inspiring Abkhaz protests. But it has not even begun withdrawing the CFE-limited hardware from Moldova, citing the “objections” of its Transdniester clients. Moscow’s different behavior in the two places is a consequence of the different political contexts. Georgia’s resolve and the international support it receives are considerably greater than Moldova’s.

With the deadline for Gudauta only six weeks away, Moscow is now openly using blackmail tactics in order to retain the base indefinitely, albeit at reduced force levels. In Tbilisi, Klebanov and Russia’s Deputy Defense Minister Colonel-General Aleksandr Kosovan warned that the Abkhaz might take over the base once the Russian troops depart. They proposed retaining a 200-strong to 250-strong Russian army unit (Kosovan) or a battalion (Klebanov) at Gudauta “to protect from possible [Abkhaz] intrusion.” This, they stated, would be an interim solution, pending an official decision to hand over the base to Russia’s “peacekeeping forces” as a “rehabilitation and training center.” The latter has been Moscow’s position all along. The “rehabilitation” formula seems designed make the proposal look somewhat innocuous.

On May 16, the office of Abkhazia’s leader Vladislav Ardzinba duly warned in a public statement: “If the Russian military leave Gudauta for good, units of Abkhaz forces and security services will take the airfield and other installations under guard. Any future use of the base will be determined in Sukhumi.” The warning appears designed to confront Tbilisi with the choice of either watching the Abkhaz determine the future of the base unilaterally or negotiating toward a compromise with Moscow.