RUSSIAN FORCES BEGIN WITHDRAWAL FROM GEORGIA, DIG HEELS IN MOLDOVA
Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 2 Issue: 148
Presented with flowers and Georgian champagne by demonstrators cheering their withdrawal, Russian soldiers set out from the Batumi base at dawn on July 30 in a convoy bound for Russia. The move marks the beginning of Russia’s implementation of the agreement, signed May 30 by Ministers of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov and Salome Zourabichvili, on the closure of three Russian bases and the complete withdrawal of their garrisons from Georgia by 2008.
The convoy of nine wheeled armored vehicles crossed Georgia’s entire territory from west to east, proceeding via Mtskheta, Tskhinvali, and the Roki Tunnel, en route to Vladikavkaz in North Ossetia.
On July 28, a convoy of four armored vehicles and four trucks left Russia’s base at Akhalkalaki in Georgia, as part of a scheduled relocation of some of the weaponry from Akhalkalaki to the Russian base at Gyumri in Armenia. Georgian border guards near Ninotsminda briefly stopped that convoy when they found five unlisted machine-guns and five signal guns during inspection of the vehicles. The episode demonstrated the Georgian border guards’ effectiveness in carrying out the mutually agreed inspection procedure. The incident was quickly resolved and the convoy allowed to proceed.
During the month of August, more Russian equipment is scheduled to be moved from the Batumi and Akhalkalaki bases, partly to Russia and partly to Armenia. Two amphibious ships will evacuate the largest convoy, consisting of 40 armored vehicles and including 20 battle tanks, from Batumi to Russia.
The Russian military has asked Georgia to repair or reinforce certain bridges on the road from the Akhalkalaki base to Akhaltsikhe, so as to make possible the movement of a planned convoy of Russian heavy weaponry. From Akhaltsikhe, the convoy would travel by rail to Batumi by rail, then to Russia by sea.
An ad-hoc staff of Russian generals and officers has arrived at the Tbilisi headquarters of the Group of Russian Forces in the Transcaucasus to supervise the withdrawal of equipment and troops. Some transit issues of political and technical nature are yet to be resolved, however. Talks held on July 25-26 in Moscow did not conclusively settle these issues.
In a specially convened briefing on July 29, Zourabichvili welcomed Russia’s political decision on withdrawal of its forces from Georgia and the beginning of the agreement’s implementation. By signing the agreement, Zourabichvili noted, Russia has undertaken an obligation before Georgia and the entire international community to carry out the withdrawal fully and on schedule (Rustavi-2 TV, Imedi TV, Interfax, NTV Mir, Arminfo, July 28-31; see EDM, May 24, June 3).
In Moldova, however, Russia seems to be signaling that it has no intention to withdraw its forces, despite its 1999 Istanbul commitments to withdraw them from both Georgia and Moldova unconditionally. On July 29, Russia’s Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov declared that Russian troops would not leave Moldova until Russian arsenals there are relocated to Russia. At the same time, Russia takes the position that the arsenals cannot be removed until Chisinau agrees with Tiraspol on a political settlement. Charging that the Moldovan leadership’s calls for Russian troop withdrawal “are aimed at damaging Russian-Moldovan relations,” Ivanov scoffed, “They can want whatever they like. There is nothing wrong with wanting something.” (In the same statement, Ivanov used an identical phrase to dismiss NATO’s proposal to extend Operation Active Endeavor with Russian participation into the Black Sea.) (Interfax, Russian Television Channel One, July 29).
In a July 30 statement, Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs insists that implementation of the “so-called Istanbul accords” is conditional on a political resolution between Chisinau and Tiraspol “with the assistance of Russia, Ukraine, and OSCE.” Moscow’s statement goes on to criticize the Moldovan parliament’s July 22 law on the basic principles of a settlement (see EDM, July 26) for “hampering the efforts by mediators from Russia, Ukraine, and OSCE.” (Interfax, July 30). On July 31, Russia’s charge d’affaires in Chisinau, Yuri Mordvintsev, portrayed Russia’s military presence in Moldova as “responsibility for peacekeeping” by Russia as a “guarantor country and mediator country … ready along with Ukraine and the OSCE to continue providing assistance” (RIA-Novosti, July 31).