Bilateral negotiations on Russia’s military bases in Georgia were expected to resume this week, but did not. At the last minute, Moscow declined Tbilisi’s invitation to hold a two-day round of negotiations. Earlier, the Russian side ignored Tbilisi’s proposal to hold a negotiating round on May 10-11. Senior Russian officials publicly claim that there is no break in negotiations, that eight rounds already have been held, and that changes, first in Georgia’s government, then in Russia, interfered with scheduling another round. In reality, there has been no negotiating at the political-diplomatic level in two-and-a-half years. Only several meetings at the expert level were held. At those meetings, Russian experts had no mandate to negotiate. The Kremlin unilaterally suspended negotiations in early 2002, notwithstanding Georgia’s continuing efforts to resume negotiations. The “eight rounds” cited by the Russian side were convened between 1999 and 2002. Many rounds were held prior to 1999, ending without just a mandate.
A correct accounting of the rounds would underscore the delaying tactics employed by Moscow over the past seven years to retain its military bases in Georgia. On June 10, Moscow officially announced the appointment of Ambassador Igor Savolsky as head of Russia’s delegation to negotiations with Georgia on military issues, that is, on the issue of military bases. Concurrently, Savolsky was named chairman of Russia’s “State Commission to Draft a Treaty of Friendship, Good-neighborliness, Cooperation and Mutual Security” with Georgia. Savolsky’s appointment signifies a Kremlin decision to downgrade the post; the previous Russian delegation chairman was Deputy Prime Minister Ilya Klebanov, who was responsible for overseeing Russia’s military industries. Savolsky, born in 1943, was ambassador to the Czech Republic in 2000-2004, and previously was deputy minister for Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) Affairs for one year until 2000, when that ministry was dissolved as redundant.
The envoy’s combined mandate — to negotiate the issue of military bases and a political interstate treaty in the same set of negotiations — is a bad omen. First, this amalgamation is designed to politicize the abandonment of military bases, what should continue to be addressed as a technical-military issue. Second, it indicates that Moscow is about to add yet another condition for withdrawing troops from Georgia. The new condition evidently would be Georgian acceptance of “mutual security” stipulations in the interstate treaty with Russia.
It is to be expected that Moscow would propose restrictions on Georgia’s freedom to decide on foreign policy and security arrangements. If experience is any guide, Russia would want language barring Georgia from participating in security arrangements or other activities “unfriendly” to Russia, by the latter’s definition. Tbilisi may be able to resist such demands, as some other countries successfully negotiated in their treaties with Russia. But those countries were not exposed to the blackmail of having Russian troops and Russian-backed secessionists within their territories. In Georgia’s case, at a minimum, amalgamating negotiations on bases with those concerning “mutual security” would complicate and prolong the process considerably.
Regarding the bases, Moscow officially formulates the negotiations as aimed at drafting a treaty that would “determine the duration of the presence and conditions of the functioning (sroki prebyvaniya i usloviya funktsionirovaniya)” of Russian military bases in Georgia.” Moscow does not mention the goal of closing the bases and withdrawing troops, but only legalizing and continuing their presence by agreement with Georgia. Informally, but publicly, Russian officials, including Foreign Affairs Minister Sergey Lavrov and Defense Minister Sergey Ivanov sometimes add the term “procedures for continued functioning (poryadok dalneyshego funktsionirovaniya) of Russian bases,” and suggest more explicitly that the bases should receive legal “status” in Georgia prior to any decision on withdrawal.
These political complications, injected with intent to hinder military negotiations, can prove more obstructive than the old demands on Georgia and/or its western allies to defray the costs of relocating Russian troops. Moscow initially presented outlandish financial demands, subsequently scaling back. A “grand bargain” between Russia and the West is feasible, once troop relocation costs are realistically estimated. Those costs should be modest for Russian troops stationed in Akhalkalaki, Batumi and Gudauta. The latter must be kept within the same package, not separated, as Moscow wants. Russian personnel at those bases probably total some 4,000 to 5,000. Not all of these would choose to move to Russia, as some are natives of the South Caucasus, or even residents of the base areas. An added incentive would be for the Georgian side to retrain and reemploy some personnel.
Tbilisi is being especially careful not to offend the Kremlin on this issue. According to Foreign Affairs Minister Salome Zourabichvili, “We keep telling them about this at every meeting, (but) we don’t go around shouting about it everywhere” 9 June (Rustavi-2 TV, June 9). Without shouting, Tbilisi may consider starting to invoke arguments within international organizations and based on international law, to support its legitimate demands for ridding the country of unwanted foreign troops. This approach would strengthen the hand of Georgian negotiators, once those negotiations with Russia are resumed at long last.