Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 125

The Russian government appears set to breach the July 1 deadline for closing the Gudauta military base, situated in Georgia’s breakaway region of Abkhazia. The 1999 summit of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) set that binding deadline, which the Russian government officially accepted. Between then and now, however, Moscow has been pressuring Tbilisi to legalize the base by attaching the Russian airborne regiment there to the Russian “peacekeeping” troops in Abkhazia.

The Georgian government has resisted that pressure which at times turned into blackmail. For example, Russia singled out Georgia in introducing punitive visa requirements last year while exempting Abkhazia and South Ossetia from those requirements. After that, Moscow hinted that it could rescind those measures if Tbilisi agreed to legalize the Gudauta base. All this suggests that Moscow had decided from the outset, or–as some evidence suggests–at least since Vladimir Putin replaced Boris Yeltsin as president, to breach the OSCE’s decisions and Russia’s own signature on those documents.

Failure to close Gudauta would, additionally, place Moscow in the position of violating the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE). The Russians are required to withdraw all CFE-limited combat hardware from the base. They removed some of it without incident last fall; but some of the treaty-limited equipment–mainly armored vehicles and artillery pieces–is still at Gudauta, along with other arms and ammunition stockpiles and the garrison of 1,100 Russian airborne troops.

In early June, the military command in Moscow, the base command and local Abkhaz began staging what some Moscow commentators described a “political theater.” The garrison would pretend to begin closing the base and withdrawing, the locals would pretend to block the departing convoy, and the convoy would return to base–all in a festive atmosphere of fraternization, amply covered by Moscow media. The high command in Moscow would then publicly approve the nonwithdrawal, on the grounds that Russian soldiers could never force their way through a crowd. And the Russian government would present new demands to the Georgian government as preconditions to an increasingly doubtful withdrawal of the troops.

At the latest negotiating round, held in Moscow on June 22-23, the Russian government demanded that Georgia conclude some kind of political agreement with Abkhazia in order to obtain the latter’s consent to the withdrawal of troops from Gudauta. In Moscow’s and the Abkhaz view, such an agreement ought to include political and security guarantees by Tbilisi to Abkhazia, as well as Georgian consent to an open-ended Russian “peacekeeping” operation. The Abkhaz have since 1994 sought such a pact, one interpretable as a treaty among coequal parties and as legal recognition of Abkhazia by Georgia.

The OSCE, however, had required the closure of Gudauta unconditionally, and irrespective of the negotiations toward settling the Abkhazia problem. Moscow now says that it might be able to vacate Gudauta “perhaps by the end of summer” and if certain conditions are met. That looks like a prescription for indefinite postponement and a gauntlet thrown down to the OSCE and the CFE Treaty signatories (Prime-News, Kavkasia-Press, Tbilisi Radio, Itar-Tass, Agentstvo Voyennykh Novostey, June 23-27; see the Monitor, February 5, 9, March 27, May 18, June 14.)