On June 29, Russian troops left the Vaziani base and Georgian troops took it over. On the same day in Tbilisi, senior officials of the two countries’ defense ministries signed the documents on the transfer of the base from Russian to Georgian military jurisdiction. Russia has thereby complied with one of the decisions of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) regarding the withdrawal of Russian troops from Georgia. Meanwhile, Moscow clings to its remaining bases on Georgia’s territory at Gudauta, Akhalkalaki and Batumi.
The OSCE’s decisions, taken at its Istanbul summit in November 1999, had given Russia until July 1, 2001 to withdraw from Vaziani and Gudauta. The Russian side officially accepted those obligations, but pressured Georgia in bilateral negotiations down to the wire to prolong Russia’s use of the two bases. This explains why Moscow handed over the Vaziani base with only forty-eight hours remaining before the expiration of the deadline. As of yesterday, however, Russia is officially in breach of the OSCE’s decisions and of Russia’s signed obligations regarding the closure of Gudauta.
Vaziani, situated some twenty kilometers outside Tbilisi, is a sprawling complex of military installation which include Russia’s largest and best equipped military airfield in the South Caucasus, firing ranges, arms and ammunition depots, chemical munitions stores, fuel stockpiles, hangars and garages capable of accommodating large numbers of planes and armored vehicles, troop barracks and many other facilities. Some of these are located on the 10,000 hectares of land of the base itself; other installations are dispersed in the Tbilisi area and in the city itself, but are organic to the Vaziani base. Those include the Russian tank repair plant and armor depot in Tbilisi–an installation that Moscow’s negotiators attempted until the last moment to retain for Russia. There is no clear information yet about the resolution of this issue.
One of those off-base installations is the large and dangerous Sagarejo ammunition warehouse. Expired and otherwise untransportable ammunition was being blown up at Sagarejo by Russian personnel, in the presence of Georgian military inspectors, even as the base transfer documents were being signed in Tbilisi and Vaziani.
Because of its proximity to Tbilisi, the Vaziani base was a thorn in the Georgian government’s side. It was from Vaziani that Igor Giorgadze was spirited by military plane to Moscow after the 1995 assassination attempt against President Eduard Shevardnadze. Periodically, rumors surfaced that Russian planes had brought spetznaz units to be stationed at the base; occasionally, Georgian security services cited some evidence to that effect. The Georgian government was not in a position to determine the actual contents of incoming or outgoing Russian flights, or to know for sure what was going on at the base. Apparently with that in mind, Shevardnadze told the country on radio that Russia’s relinquishment of Vaziani represents an important achievement in the overall bilateral relations between Russia and Georgia.
On June 29 the Russian flag was lowered and the Georgian one was raised, and a battalion of Georgia’s 11th brigade took possession of Vaziani. That brigade, headquartered at Koda, has been selected as the nucleus of a Georgian rapid-deployment force, to be trained and equipped in accordance with Western standards.
Without Vaziani, the Russian military has probably lost the ability to airlift sizeable numbers of troops to Georgia in a crisis. The Gudauta airfield is a poor substitute for Vaziani in that respect. If Moscow clings to Gudauta, or hands it over to the Abkhaz, it would do so for considerations related mainly to the Abkhaz-Georgian conflict. Any Russian strategic airlift operation in the South Caucasus would henceforth require Armenia’s cooperation.
According to Georgian sources, some 1,500 Russian troops were stationed as of last year at Vaziani. Most of them are relocating to Batumi and Akhalkalaki, while a small number remain in Tbilisi to guard the headquarters of the Russian Group of Forces in the Transcaucasus. Apparently, the handover of Vaziani does not result in a net reduction of Russian military manpower in Georgia. Under the bilateral agreements on the handover of Vaziani, Georgia obligates itself to accept up to forty-eight Russian military flights annually gratis for the needs of the Akhalkalaki and Batumi bases, “for the duration of their operation” in Georgia (Prime-News, Kavkasia-Press, Tbilisi Radio, Georgian Television, Itar-Tass, Agentstvo Voyennykh Novostey, June 27-July 1; see The Monitor, February 5, 9, March 27, May 18, June 14, 29).
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