Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Georgia: Debate Over Military Bases

America is strongly backing a move to end Russia’s military presence in the republic – possibly so it can then send in its own personnel.
By Giorgi Kupatadze

The long-running debate over Georgia’s drive to remove the last Russian military bases on its soil is taking new urgency with the abrupt change of power in Tbilisi and arrival of an openly pro-western government under Mikhail Saakashvili.

After Saakashvili - who is to be sworn in as president on Sunday, January 25 - seized power in November’s “rose revolution”, the issue soon dominated contacts between Tbilisi and Moscow.

Meanwhile, the United States, which strongly backs Saakashvili, has bolstered aid to Georgia, including the announcement this month of three million US dollars to pay for military salaries, and a package of 164 million dollars for various purposes in 2004.

Although formal negotiations on the pace of Russia’s pullout have been suspended, the dispute was raised during interim president of Georgia Nino Burjanadze’s talks with Russian president Vladimir Putin and other high-level meetings. Underlining Washington’s increased support for the Georgian position, US Undersecretary of State Lynn Pasco also discussed the issue with officials during a recent visit to Tbilisi.

At the heart of the debate are Russia’s two remaining Soviet-era bases - number 12 in Batumi in the autonomous Black Sea region of Ajaria, and number 62 in Akhalkalaki, near the Armenian border.

In principal, Russia has already agreed to withdraw. Accords signed at the 1999 Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe summit in Istanbul led to the closing of a military base in the Vaziani province within a year. This was meant to be followed by closure of the Gudauta base in the separatist region of Abkhazia, though Moscow will not agree to Tbilisi’s demands for international observers to provide confirmation.

For the remaining two bases, Russia is demanding 11 years for withdrawal, while Georgia insists that three would be more than enough.

Political commentator Soso Tsintsadze predicted a more assertive line from Georgia. “Russia is unlikely to withdraw immediately, as this is unrealistic,” he told IWPR.

“But Moscow is now between a rock and a hard place. When Shevardnadze was in power, I don’t think the West – either the US or the European Union – was ever as firm as it is now in demanding that Russia complies with the Istanbul agreements.”

A major boost was given to Georgia from Pasco, who visited Tbilisi on January 13 and noted that “within OSCE jurisdiction, foreign troops are not allowed to be deployed where they are not welcome”. The US would be ready to pay Russia the money it says it needs to complete the withdrawals, he said.

According to Georgian foreign minister Tedo Japaridze, who has recently returned from Russia, Moscow is asking for 500 million dollars.

However, Tsintsadze said Moscow is increasingly concerned by Washington’s influence in the strategic region, “Russia will be stalling in every way, which is inadmissible for both Georgia and the US, although Washington is thinking in terms of the Caucasus-Central Asia ring, not Georgia itself, where the US consolidates its military influence all the time.

“This region is home to the energy resources for the 21st century. As access to Middle Eastern resources becomes increasingly unreliable, the US seeks alternatives, and it is not happy with Russian military bases in the region. Therefore, we should expect some imminent progress on this matter. It all depends how many years Russia will bargain for.”

Domestic factors complicate the issue. In the mostly ethnic-Armenian Akhalkalaki district, the Russian base provides jobs for the majority of the local population.

“The salary I earn at the base feeds my family,” Akhalkalaki resident Gagik, sporting worn Russian army fatigues, said. “Let the government first give me a new job, and then discuss withdrawal.”

Batumi is the capital of Georgia’s defiant autonomy, Ajariya, ruled by Aslan Abashidze, who is considered a pro-Russian politician, and whose relations with Tbilisi have been strained for years.

Analysts note that US mediators are already talking to Abashidze. Bruce Jackson, president of the nongovernmental organisation US-NATO Committee and head of the Transitional Democracies project, met with Abashidze on January 14 during a visit to Batumi.

There is also growing speculation that once the Russians leave, the American military, already here to train Georgia’s ramshackle army, will increase its presence.

Although the Georgian government denies the possibility, independent military analyst Irakly Aladashvili said the chances of a new American base were very high. “The US military presence does not have to be in the form of large units with armoured machinery, like Russia’s,” he said. “[Washington’s] strategy is all about air and naval bases and mobile units.”

Aladashvili noted a recent audit by American experts of Georgia’s army facilities, especially military airfields. The US had conducted a similar audit in neighbouring Azerbaijan, where three airfields were singled out. “If the US gets a foothold here, it will be able to control both southern Russia, and northern Iraq,” he said.

Tsintsadze also thinks the US may want to establish an air surveillance station in Georgia, adding that the Pentagon is likely to increase the number of its military advisors in the republic - possibly to a few thousand.

The “Georgia Train and Equip” programme in which Washington has spent 64 million dollars training more than 2,000 Georgian troops to NATO standards is drawing to a close, but talks are being held over future military cooperation.

“There is a tentative agreement to launch a new US-backed training programme for the military,” General Dmitri Lezhava, who heads the central human resources office at the Georgian defence ministry, told IWPR.

“However, it’s up to the new Georgian government to finalise it.”

Georgy Kupatadze is a correspondent for the Black Sea Press in Tbilisi.