The foreign ministers of Georgia and Russia signed a preliminary deal May 30 that calls on Moscow to close down its final two military bases in the former Soviet republic before the end of 2008. The United States and key European leaders greeted the news enthusiastically but also reminded Russia of a similar unfulfilled commitment to Moldova.
The deal struck by the two foreign ministers fulfills a task that Russia had once claimed would be completed in 2000. Specifically, the deal sketches out a rough timetable for when Russian forces will vacate bases located at Akhalkalaki and Batumi. The Kremlin has cited the high costs of relocating its forces and lingering security concerns in the region as reasons for its delayed withdrawal.
The agreement stipulates that Russia will begin withdrawing some of its armored combat vehicles (ACVs) and tanks beginning this year, with the goal of having no troops or weaponry at the Akhalkalaki base by the end of 2007. Moscow will have an additional year to empty its base at Batumi. Roughly 3,000 Russian troops, 80 tanks, 140 heavy artillery pieces, and 200 ACVs are estimated to be currently stationed in Georgia.
Georgian Ambassador to the United States Levan Mikeladze told Arms Control Today June 9 that the foreign ministers’ deal was “quite important.” But he said, “The most important thing will be implementation.”
Final implementation will depend on Georgian and Russian negotiators hammering out an agreement that will codify and flesh out the steps agreed to by the two foreign ministers. Both capitals say their parliaments will need to approve the finished document.
Mikeladze said negotiators from the two sides are working “quite intensively.” There is no known deadline for the negotiations.
The negotiators have some outstanding issues to resolve. These include specifying rules for the transit of troops and weaponry back to Russia, demarcating the borders between the two countries, and establishing a joint anti-terrorism center in Georgia.
Another thorny issue is the disputed status of the former Russian military base at Gudauta. Russia says it fulfilled its commitment to close the base in 2000, but Georgia disagrees, citing the continued presence of 300 Russian troops there. Moscow says these forces are peacekeepers and are not covered by its military withdrawal commitments.
The two governments have indicated they intend to take Germany up on a previous offer to lead an international inspection of Gudauta to help settle the matter. No date has yet been set for the mission.
Despite its preliminary nature, the May 30 agreement received high praise. Dimitrij Rupel, the current head of the 55-member Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, deemed it “significant progress,” and NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said it “advanced security in the Caucasus region.”
The Department of State also hailed the news as a “significant step forward” and “important for the region as a whole.” The United States and NATO also used the occasion to urge Russia to fulfill a similar 1999 withdrawal commitment to Moldova.
Moscow had said it would end its military presence in the small Black Sea country by 2002, but an estimated 1,400 troops remain, along with an ammunition dump totaling nearly 21,000 metric tons.
Perhaps encouraged by the progress between Georgia and Russia, Moldova’s parliament unanimously passed a resolution June 10 demanding that Moscow withdraw its last troops from Moldovan soil by the end of this year. Russian troops do not occupy territory controlled by the Moldovan government, however. They are located instead in the breakaway Transdniestria region.
If Moscow meets its withdrawal obligations to Georgia and Moldova, NATO members, including the United States, have promised to move forward on ratifying a revised version of a treaty limiting major offensive weapons in Europe. Russia is eager for the adapted Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty to enter into force so Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania can join the accord and have ceilings put on the number of tanks, ACVs, and heavy artillery that can be located within each of their borders.
Moscow says it is concerned about the potential for these three Baltic countries to host unlimited amounts of NATO weaponry on Russia’s periphery. The three countries joined NATO in 2004 but are not part of the original 1990 CFE Treaty that is currently in force and will remain so until all of its 30 states-parties ratify its successor. Only Belarus, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Ukraine have done so. No provision exists in the original treaty for outside countries to accede to it.