Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 198

The fourth round of Russian-Georgian military negotiations has provided fresh evidence of Moscow’s attempts to retain bases in Georgia. While scrapping and/or withdrawing the hardware which exceeds Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) treaty ceilings, the Russians are trying to maintain control, in one form or another, of their four existing bases in Georgia.

At the 1999 summit of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Moscow assumed the obligation to close down the Gudauta and Vaziani bases entirely by July 2001 and to negotiate with Georgia about the eventual closure of the Batumi and Akhalkalaki bases. Moscow’s current tactics seem to assume that once the combat hardware is brought within CFE limits, the West might relax and condone the Russian military presence at the four bases in Georgia at reduced force levels.

Deputy Prime Minister Ilya Klebanov led Russia’s delegation to the talks on October 19-20 in Tbilisi. The controversy at this round focused on the Gudauta base, which is situated in Abkhazia. The Russians suggest that the Abkhaz could block the evacuation of military materiel from Gudauta and even “seize” that materiel, should Tbilisi insist on the evacuation. The Abkhaz leaders have previously threatened to do that, and helpfully repeated those warnings in the background to the latest round of talks in Tbilisi. The situation mirrors that in Transdniester, where Russia’s local proteges also “threaten” to “block” the evacuation of Russian arsenals or “seize” them if Moldova insists on their removal to Russia. The deception enables Moscow to pose as the guardian of stability in both cases and to retain its troops and weaponry in place while the ostensible stalemate continues.

With that leverage in hand, Moscow seeks Tbilisi’s consent to a handover of the Gudauta base to Russian “peacekeeping” troops in Abkhazia. Such a handover would be meaningless in either legal or practical terms, but would enable Moscow to breach its obligations to the OSCE and to put a figleaf of Georgian consent on that breach. Under Moscow’s proposal, Gudauta would become a “training and recreation center” for the Russian “peacekeepers.” The Georgian side has not yet decided on its response. Some Tbilisi officials seem inclined to accept a “recreation” or “rehabilitation” center while ruling out a “training” one. Other Georgian officials maintain that any handover to the “peacekeepers” can only be discussed after the Russians have removed the troops and weaponry from Gudauta and closed the base.

There are those who suggest that Georgian flexibility on Gudauta may buy Russian flexibility on the Batumi and Akhalkalaki bases (see below). It remains to be seen whether the suggested tradeoff would turn into another textbook case of Moscow’s negotiating technique, classically known as “banking of concessions” without reciprocation. The success of that technique usually depends on the availability of a superior Russian force in a contested area, as is still the case in Georgia at present. Only close adherence to the OSCE summit’s decisions can help Georgia remove that factor from play. And only Moscow can be interested in initiating, with Gudauta, a process of unraveling of those decisions.

The talks in Tbilisi seemed to skirt over the unresolved problem of the Vaziani base outside Tbilisi. The Russian side is completing the evacuation and/or scrapping of Vaziani’s CFE treaty-limited weaponry. However, the Russians insist on retaining control of the airfield there, ostensibly to service their Batumi and Akhalkalaki bases. And they also insist on retaining the tank repair plant in Tbilisi itself, with the argument that it is the only plant of this type in their former Transcaucasus Military District, now reduced to its Armenian rump.

Georgia does not seem to assume a prompt resolution of the Vaziani problem. Consequently, Tbilisi is now proceeding to build a military airfield with Turkish technical assistance and credits in Georgia’s Marneuli district. The next round of Russian-Georgian talks, tentatively scheduled for December, is supposed to debate definitions of Gudauta’s status as a “training” or “recreation” center for Russian troops and possibly deal again with Vaziani in the usual inconclusive manner. By December, Moscow will be able to show nearly full compliance with CFE ceilings and will almost certainly dig in its heels with regard to its remaining weaponry and troops (Kavkasia-Press, Prime-News, Black Sea Press, Agentstvo Voyennykh Novostey, October 19-23; see the Monitor, June 28, July 19, August 2; Fortnight in Review, May 26, July 21, August 4).