Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 132

Russia’s military is fronting for the government and for the Kremlin itself in breaching the international obligation to liquidate the Gudauta base of the Russian airborne troops. Russian-Georgian intergovernmental negotiations over Gudauta failed two days before the July 1 final deadline–mandated by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in 1999 and officially accepted by Russia–for closing the base. Since that date, Russia’s generals have taken center stage in justifying the breach and in making demands of Georgia. The relevant Russian governmental commission under Deputy Prime Minister Ilya Klebanov keeps silent, while Russia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry takes a comfortable back seat and counts on the Abkhaz to take the blame for “blocking” the closure of the base.

The generals could not be this assertive and outspoken unless they had a nod of approval from the new defense minister, Sergei Ivanov. Five months ago, Ivanov–then the secretary of Russia’s Security Council–falsely claimed during a top-level international conference in Munich that Russia had “already closed down” Gudauta and one other base in Georgia (see the Monitor, February 5). Meanwhile, Moscow presses for continued control of that base. Moreover, it tests at Gudauta the use of local ethnic groups as proxies for thwarting the withdrawal of Russian troops from other parts of Georgia as well.

While Abkhaz civilians physically “block” the evacuation of troops and weaponry from Gudauta by road, the Georgian government is proposing alternative solutions for complying with the OSCE’s decisions. The heavy weaponry at Gudauta, which exceeds the regional ceilings of the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE), can be scrapped or recycled in place. The weaponry can also be evacuated to Russia by air. So can the troops; they are, after all, airborne troops. The Bombora military airfield–which forms part of the Gudauta base, and is highly valued by Moscow–accommodates Ilyushin-76 transport planes that can accomplish the evacuation in short order.

The Russian government ignores these Georgian proposals, and the Russian generals publicly reject them. The deputy defense minister responsible for logistics, Colonel-General Aleksandr Kosovan, counters that Russia is “not wealthy enough to be able to afford scrapping usable weaponry.” While ruling out a handover of CFE-limited hardware to the Abkhaz, Kosovan insists that Russia’s military needs that weaponry and wants to repatriate it. But “the Abkhaz hamper the withdrawal,” and the Russian military can neither “step over civilians” nor “ignore the Abkhaz view.” The implication is that the base stays.

Colonel-General Georgi Shpak, commander of Russia’s airborne troops, and Colonel-General Leonid Ivashov, head of the Defense Ministry’s Main Directorate for Military Cooperation, are adding a political condition. They assert that the problem can only be solved through a negotiated agreement between Tbilisi and Sukhumi. In the absence of Abkhaz political consent, any attempt to evacuate the base even by air could lead to “incidents between the Abkhaz and Russian troops” on the ground. With that claim, the Russian military is hiding behind its own creation–the Abkhaz forces–to thwart the implementation of an international pact.

Russia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry quietly backs the insertion of the unrecognized Abkhaz authorities into the interstate negotiations. Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Valery Loshchinin, visiting Sukhumi last week, agreed on that point with the Abkhaz authorities. That agreement constitutes in fact an encouragement. “The local population’s protests are a factor that can not be disregarded,” Loshchinin declared. He assured the Abkhaz that the Russian military presence at Gudauta will continue, and that the form of that presence will form the subject of follow-on negotiations with Georgia. Loshchinin stated that the Bombora airfield is “essential to the [Russian] peacekeeping troops” in Abkhazia. That assertion suggests that Moscow still insists on transferring Gudauta to the Russian troop contingent in Abkhazia.

In a July 5 statement, its only official pronouncement since the breach of deadline, Russia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry blamed the stalemate on Georgia’ s alleged failure to “create conditions for a safe withdrawal.” Moscow had, on June 29, forty-eight hours before the deadline, proposed to Tbilisi to sign documents on the legal transfer of Gudauta, complete with its military equipment, into Georgia’s jurisdiction and responsibility. It offered Tbilisi two unacceptable options: either to send Georgian troops to guard the base and its weapons stores, or to allow 300 Russian troops to “guard” the base and stores indefinitely. The offer appeared designed only to highlight the absence of Georgian sovereign control in Abkhazia. As the Russian diplomats fully realize, any Georgian attempt at taking possession of Gudauta would undoubtedly trigger a war with the Russian-armed Abkhaz forces.

In Sukhumi, the Abkhaz leadership blames the stalemate on the OSCE’s “failure to consider Abkhazia’s views.” Sukhumi asserts that the problem can only be solved through negotiations with the participation of Abkhazia. The latter would “consent” to a Russian withdrawal from Gudauta only if Tbilisi and Sukhumi sign an agreement on “peace and nonresumption of hostilities,” guaranteed by the United Nations Secretary General’s Group of Friends for Georgia. The Abkhaz, with Russian support, have all along sought such a pact, because it can be construed as international recognition of Abkhazia. The situation is turning into a textbook case of Russian exploitation of ethnic tensions–which Moscow fueled in the first place–to serve Moscow’s geopolitical agenda (Prime-News, Kavkasia-Press, Agentstvo Voyennykh Novostey, July 5-10; Itar-Tass, July 5; Apsnypress (Sukhumi), July 6; Rossiiskaya Gazeta, July 6; Tbilisi Radio, July 9; see the Monitor, February 5, 9, March 27, May 18, June 14, 29, July 3).

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