Make or break time for Georgia Russian troop withdrawals and their effect
The presence of military bases from another country in your own is always controversial. In the United Kingdom the USA has a military facility at Men with Hill in Yorkshire. No one knows exactly what they do there as it is intelligence-related. A local campaign group has scoured the telephone directories to produce what they think is a list of phone numbers of people who work at the base. People are encouraged to ring up the servicemen and ask them about the ethics of spying on allied countries, among other things. The Russian military presence in Georgia, often described as a 'peacekeeping mission', has caused considerable comment, not least due to Russian support for the breakaway governments which have seized control of parts of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. A new report by DR. Korneli Kakachia entitled "End of Russian Military bases in Georgia: Social, Political and Security implications of withdrawal" analyses this issue in detail. Kakachia is the Dean of School of Politics and International Relations, University of Georgia.
This article suggests a summary of the salient points of this report. A fundamental transformation of the world political situation is taking place as a result of the break-up of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. South Caucasus countries, including Georgia, can now play a role as independent forces between Russia in the north and Turkey and Iran in the south. Russia and the West however are competing to mediate in the various conflicts still going on in the Caucasus, thus creating an obstacle to long-term stability and development. Russian military, political and economic presence in Georgia continues to exert influence on Georgia's internal development.
While the concentration of Russian forces has been cut down, Russia is still the only foreign power able through its presence to shape what happens in the Caucasus, and continues to influence the course of conflicts, ceasefires and negotiations. Russia agreed to pull out of its military bases in Georgia under the terms of the1999 OSCE Istanbul Summit Treaty, but many soldiers and much hardware still remain from Soviet times. Other countries have not challenged Russia's position in the area as there are limits to how far they can project their own power. Georgia remains important for Russia for three reasons:
1) it borders the unstable North Caucasus region of Russia, (including Chechnya) which generates grave internal threats to Russia’s security,
2) it plays an important role in the development of the mineral resources of the Caspian Basin, with its vital Black Sea ports and location on pipeline routes,
3) communications and pipelines linking Russia and pro-Russian Armenia run exclusively through Georgia. In Soviet times the South Caucasus was fully integrated into the USSR security system. Georgia always possessed several Soviet military bases due to its strategically important location and an estimated 15,000 Russian troops were still in Georgia in mid-1993.
Indeed Georgia was slow to insist on the removal of Russian troops as it did not have enough border forces of its own. But the defeat of Georgian forces by Abkhaz separatists, widely seen as being supported by Russia, made Russia appear an aggressive state in the eyes of Georgians, and this perception remains. Over the past five years, relations between Georgia and Russia have been tense, with threats, recriminations and mutual suspicion abounding. Moscow is outraged by the Pro-Western orientation of President Saakashvili, his desire to join NATO and to reintegrate Abkhazia and South Ossetia with the rest of Georgia. Russia deliberately drags out negotiations with Georgia and adopts other provacative tactics such as cutting off gas supplies in winter to repair the pipeline, imposing the embargo on wine and other agricultural products and suspending transport and postal links, and deporting hundreds of Georgians, after Russians were arrested in Georgia on espionage charges.
Russia continues to back the separatist regions and limit the actions of OSCE and UN monitors on their borders. Georgia accuses Russia of being behind a guided missile attack on Georgian territory on August 6, as do separate groups of technical experts from Western countries. Though Russia denies involvement Georgians regard it as a sequel to a missile strike on the Upper Kodori Gorge in March against the pro-Georgian Abkhaz Government-in-Exile.
Russia wants Georgia to be neutral, but Georgia will not compromise on its ambition to join the Western powers in NATO. What has been agreed Since the 1999 summit the Georgian and Russian governments have been negotiating the withdrawal of Russian military bases from Georgia. Russia agreed to liquidate the Vaziani and Gudauta bases under the1999 agreement. Not until October 6 2006 however did the Russian parliament ratify the order to this effect, signed by both governments the previous March in Sochi. According to this order Russia had to vacate the Akhalkalaki base in southern Georgia by October 1 of this year, or December 31 at the latest if there are any complications, and Batumi in 2008. Both bases were to remain operation, however, whilst the troops and hardware are being withdrawn, though no new troops or ammunition would be deployed there.
The people and equipment can be removed by rail, air or road, but no nuclear, chemical or biological weapons, or other weapons of mass destruction or components of them, can be transported through Georgia or its airspace. Agreement has also been reached on the transport of troops and hardware from the 102nd Russian military base in Gyumri, Armenia, through Georgia. This base is part of the CIS air defence network and houses fighter planes and a personnel of 15,000. Georgia claims that Russia has only partially fulfilled the terms of the1999 treaty, as although Vaziani has gone it says only some of the equipment has been removed from Gudauta. A framework for the inspection of this base by OSCE and Germany has now been put into motion.
Akhalkalaki withdrawal TheAkhalkalaki base has always been important due to its position on the Turkish border (Turkey being a NATO member) and on an obvious route into the Caucasus. Russian presence there began in 1828 when it conquered the surrounding region, the Russian/Soviet army and special forces having been concentrated here in significant numbers ever since. Most of the local population were connected to the base in one way or another, and the locality became a militarized zone with entry only allowed via a special pass. This isolated the population from the rest of Georgia. The continued presence of the base has been seen as both a remnant of Soviet domination, and a sign of Russia's supposed contemporary ambitions in the area. Russia has however withdrawn all its troops ahead of schedule. The last left on the eve of the base being handed over to Georgia on June 27 2007. The base includes 196 buildings and a combat training range, all now under the authority of the Georgian government.
The withdrawal has been met with sorrow by the local (mostly Armenian) population, who found much employment there and saw much local economic activity from the Russian soldiers. The stronger ruble was the local currency and the base could arrange the transit of unregistered goods. Furthermore Armenians remember Turkish massacres of their people in the early 20th Century and saw Russia as a protector against possible further aggression. The possible arrival of NATO troops or Georgian forces is viewed with suspicion and it is believed that border security sharply declined when the Russians left. The Georgian government is seeking to integrate the locals with the rest of Georgia and sees Russian withdrawal as a strengthening of Georgian sovereignty. There are also plans to establish food production centres to replace the former jobs at the base, leading to the population's economic integration. Nevertheless the population remains sceptical, andmanaging the effects of the withdrawal will not be easy.
Batumi withdrawal Russia stalled the troop withdrawal negotiations for a long time, at one point demanding largesumns in compensation for giving up its bases. Whilst Ajara remained effectively independent this process continued. In 2003 however, with Georgian sovereignty re-established in the region, Russia began to believe its Batumi base could be blockaded, and agreed to honor its obligation to withdraw. An attempt was made to possibly keep the base open as an 'anti-terrorist centre.' This was originally a Georgian idea, proposed to give Russia a diplomatic way of withdrawing its troops. This joint Georgian-Russian centre, under Georgian sovereignty, would include Russian officers, with no troops or armaments. The Georgian public saw this as a means of continuing the Russian military presence in Georgia by the back door. Russia has subsequently complained that Georgia was refusing to progress negotiations for establishing this centre. It is unlikely that it was ever seriously considered as an option by either side and the withdrawal is expected to take place.
The Georgian government banned military exercises by Russian troops, but several did take place around the Batumi base. Some were conducted around Gonio, damaging the ecosystem and tourist economy. Nevertheless this base has also now been evacuated. It was handed over on November 13, once again well ahead of schedule. Now only those troops in the conflict zones in Abkhazia and South Ossetia remain. To offset the economic impact of the withdrawal the Georgian government has promised new roads, social programmes and military food contracts, and to transfer Georgian personnel to the Georgian army. However, the locals are again skeptical that these measures, and growth of tourism in Ajara, will enable them to make up for lost military revenue.
Gudauta withdrawal Georgia and many Western observers claim that the Gudauta base was a significant source of military support to Abkhaz rebels in the 1992-93 war. Russia agreed to shut the base down in 1999 and claims to have removed all troops and military equipment, leaving only peacekeepers under the command of the CIS. Georgia does not agree this is so, and the commander of the Russian peacekeeping forces himself says that 4 helicopters and 130 Russian servicemen are still there. Georgia wants inspection, as required by the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe, but cannot guarantee the security of the inspectors as the area is not under its control. As Russia insists on this condition being met before it will allow the mandatory inspection, it has not taken place. Georgia is seeking to remove the Russian peacekeepers by withdrawing their mandate.
This follows incidents earlier this year when Georgian police officers were allegedly seized and beaten by peacekeepers, and a youth camp in Ganmukhuri was allegedly besieged by peacekeepers with armored vehicles. Russia maintains that as the powers of the peacekeepers and their commander were established by the CIS, it is the CIS councils of defense and foreign ministers who should decide on these matters. Georgia is also alleging a Russian military build-up in the conflict zone, and has warned Russia against recognizing Abkhazia as a separate state, claiming this would be a declaration of war against Georgia, which will be met. America has raised the reports of military build-up with the Russian authorities, pointing out that they conflict with Russia's role as a facilitator in the conflict. In response, Russia has claimed that Russian peacekeepers' presence is “a major obstacle for those, who, under cover of peaceful rhetoric, continue preparing for military adventure in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.”
Georgia is criticized for making "spurious complaints against Russia" to cover up its unconstructive attitude in Russo-Georgian negotiations. Future Prospects Georgia has acknowledged that ensuring Russian troop withdrawal is difficult, although it seeks to resolve the serious challenge of the Abkhazian and South Ossetia conflicts peacefully, consulting with locals under the mediation of the international community, whilst retaining its territorial integrity. Withdrawal of all Russian troops remains a Georgian goal as Georgia may not be able to join NATO unless Russia withdraws all its troops from the country. Georgia seeks to establish very good relations with Russia, but some elements in Russia see Georgian state-building as a threat to Russian national interest.
Russia seeks to retain influence, which it feels is undermined by attempts by states on its southern border to ally themselves with NATO, as other neighbors of Russia have done. Its activities have been unhelpful, including derailing conflict resolution processes, illegally issuing passports in Abkhazia and sending its officials to serve in the separatist government. Although it has now fulfilled most of its 1999 withdrawal commitments, Russia has now withdrawn from a major treaty limiting the deployment of forces in Europe, and says it will decide for itself how many forces to deploy. This may mean abandoning its1999 commitments. Russia itself is unclear how it wishes to operate in the post-Soviet realm, creating problems for Georgia, which has to anticipate possible Russian positions. It has been stated that Russia will undoubtedly attempt to escalate the conflict in the breakaway regions. Political consolidation in Georgia is necessary to combat this, along with non-violent, diplomatic ways of resolving these conflicts. The following steps need to be taken:
1) Russia needs to recognize that a Georgia in NATO poses no threat, but guarantees regional security;
2) Russia needs to recognize that Georgia is irreversibly oriented towards the West, but this can stabilise the relationship between the two countries, as it did between Russia and the Baltic States;
3) the peacekeeping process needs to be broadened, as lasting peace cannot be brought about by the current arrangements;
4) there needs to be permanent transparency regarding use of the Gudauti base;
5) Russia should be more constructive in relations with Georgia, ending the economic embargo and actively seeking conflict resolution;
6) Georgia must ensure NATO supports its application for membership. Georgia will soon unilaterally evict the Russian peacekeepers from the conflict zones. This was agreed by parliament before but vetoed by President Shevardnadze. Now a date will shortly be announced for this to be effected.