The Georgians by and large attained their objectives at the OSCE summit owing to unprecedentedly firm Western support in the endgame negotiations. The Russian side agreed to: (1) withdraw the Russian troops from the Vaziani air base and the Gudauta airborne force base, closing those two bases by July 1, 2001; (2) liquidate the two Russian armor repair plants in Tbilisi by the same deadline; (3) cut the Russian combat hardware in Georgia down to 153 battle tanks, 241 armored combat vehicles and 140 artillery systems by December 31, 2000, in accordance with the adapted Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) treaty signed at the summit; and (4) negotiate with the Georgian side concerning the status and duration of the remaining Russian bases–those at Akhalkalaki and Batumi–where the Russians will in the meantime keep their authorized combat hardware and complete those negotiations during the course of 2001.
The agreement took the form of a bilateral document of the Russian and Georgian Foreign Affairs Ministries’ consultative groups signed during the night of November 18-19 and whose main provisions were incorporated into the adapted CFE treaty. Although that bilateral document is not legally binding on the Russian side, Georgia counts on Western political support in the OSCE to ensure that Moscow lives up to its pledges.
The need for such support became apparent before the summit was over. Russia’s Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov in a public statement interpreted the subject matter of the follow-up negotiations with Tbilisi as regrouping the Russian forces in Georgia, codifying the continued presence of Russian military bases–meaning Akhalkalaki and Batumi–and creating a “solid legal basis” for Russian-Georgian military cooperation. In the terminology of the bilateral negotiations from 1994 to date, that wording connotes Russia’s quest for military basing rights in Georgia. By contrast, President Eduard Shevardnadze, Foreign Minister Irakly Menagarishvili and Defense Minister Davit Tevzadze in their post-summit statements defined Georgia’s goal in the follow-up negotiations as finalizing the conditions for closing the Akhalkalaki and Batumi bases and the schedule of the final troop withdrawal.
Shevardnadze underscored–as he had before the summit–Georgia’s “gradual approach” to the problem of removing the Russian troops from the country. Tbilisi focused on just two Russian bases at the summit and will focus on the remaining two in the post-summit period, “so as to ensure a peaceful and civilized withdrawal of Russian troops from Georgia” (Prime-News, Radio Tbilisi, Turan, Itar-Tass, November 19-21).
The Russian air base at Vaziani, outside Tbilisi, has long been a thorn in Georgia’s side and a potential security threat to the national leadership. Russian military cargoes handled by that base are largely outside the scope of Georgian control. It was from Vaziani that the Russian command whisked Igor Giorgadze, the suspected organizer of a 1995 assassination attempt against Shevardnadze, and Giorgadze’s accomplices off to Moscow. The Russian government recently demanded Georgian consent to the use of Vaziani for bombing raids against Chechnya, thereby threatening to drag Georgia into the war (see the Monitor, November 12; the Fortnight in Review, November 19). Last week, Georgian intelligence was tipped off that elements of the elite Alpha commando unit of Russia’s Federal Security Service had covertly landed at Vaziani in late October. The Georgians publicized their concern, only to have it summarily dismissed by Moscow; the episode again illustrated the limits to Tbilisi’s ability to monitor potentially dangerous activities at Russian military bases (Prime-News, Radio Tbilisi, Itar-Tass, November 12-14). The two Russian armor repair plants in Tbilisi, where approximately 100 armored personnel carriers are currently stored, also raise security concerns. The memory is still fresh of the 1998 rebellion in the Senaki armor regiment, where some “civilian” crews materialized out of nowhere to take over the tanks and APCs and start a march on Tbilisi.
Gudauta, which the Russians must vacate along with Vaziani, is located in Abkhazia and is the base of Russia’s “peacekeeping” 345th paratroop regiment. Russian fighter-bombers are also stationed there. During the Abkhaz-Georgian war and since, the Russian military used Gudauta to channel military assistance to Abkhaz forces. Tbilisi had long demanded the closure of that base as a necessary first step toward the withdrawal of Russian forces from Georgia and the reform of Russia’s “peacekeeping” operation in Abkhazia.
The follow-up negotiations regarding the Russian bases in Akhalkalaki and Batumi will pose complicated political problems. Akhalkalaki is situated in the Javakheti region, whose solidly Armenian population is on the whole sympathetic to the Russian military presence. The Russian base functions as the main employer in that impoverished region and is perceived by Armenians as a form of “insurance” against neighboring Turkey. The Russian base in Batumi, capital of Ajaria, enjoys the enthusiastic support of the Ajar Supreme Soviet leader, Aslan Abashidze, who feels able to defy the central government as long as the Russian troops are based in his fief.
While thorny enough, the political complications in both of those cases must not be deemed intractable. Through skillful diplomacy, Tbilisi managed earlier this year to secure Ajar and Javakheti Armenian consent to the withdrawal of Russian border troops and their replacement with units belonging to Georgia’s border troops. That change may serve as a useful precedent to the evacuation of Russian Army troops, unless Moscow decides to play separatist cards in order to retain its troops in those regions of Georgia. Such an attempt would, however, almost certainly meet with resistance in the OSCE. The summit’s final declaration included a section “reaffirming strong support for Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity… and for defining the political status of Abkhazia and South Ossetia within Georgia.”
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