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Protesters Block Russian Pull-out

Georgia has accused the Kremlin of stirring up civil unrest in Abkhazia as the deadline to remove two Russian military bases draws near
By Niko Dadiani

Abkhazian protesters have blockaded the Gudauta military base in a bid to prevent the planned withdrawal of its Russian armoured units.


Under the terms of the 1999 OSCE summit in Istanbul, all tanks, trucks and armoured personnel carriers are due to be removed from the base by July 1.


However, local residents say the move will leave the region open to attack from Georgia which has refused to accept Abkhazian independence since an uneasy ceasefire brought hostilities to an end.


Over recent weeks, Russian officials have been adamant that the troop withdrawal will go ahead as planned.


At this month's meeting with Georgian president Eduard Shevardnadze in Minsk, Russia's Vladimir Putin pledged that the bases in Vaziani and Gudauta would be decommissioned by the end of the summer and expressed a willingness to help resolve the simmering conflict.


Putin's statement comes despite a growing lack of good will between Moscow and Tbilisi. Earlier this year, Russia slapped a visa regime on Georgia whilst offering more informal border controls to Abkhazia. In response, Georgia rejected a Russian request to provide rehabilitation facilities for the peacekeeping forces in Gudauta.


Tensions were further fuelled on June 13 when the Russian newspaper Izvestia published a battle plan allegedly devised by the Georgian high command for a blitzkrieg on Abkhazia.


According to Izvestia, the Georgian plan comprised a four-day aerial and artillery bombardment of the breakaway republic followed by an airborne assault.


Gela Bezhuashvili, Georgia's deputy defence minister, called the article "a complete fabrication" and added, "Apparently, certain factions in Moscow are so incensed by Georgia's joint exercises with NATO that they are ready to dream up anything."


Other observers commented that the article was aimed at concealing the fact that Russia had no intention of removing its army base in Abkhazia by the proposed deadline.


Meanwhile, the government in Sukhumi has announced that it will not allow Russia to withdraw its tanks and APCs from the Gudauta base.


Givi Agrba, first deputy defence minister, said, "Neither the leadership, nor the people of Abkhazia will allow the armour to be pulled out because it should be handed over to the Abkhazian side in the interests of our security."


Agrba added, "The military can leave but the armour must remain." Just a few days later, around 100 protesters gathered outside the Gudauta base in a bid to prevent the troop withdrawal. Other meetings were staged across the breakaway republic.


The demonstrators met with General Alexander Popov, deputy commander of the Russian airborne, who had previously been in talks with Vladimir Mikanba, Abkhazia's military chief.


Residents told Popov that the base had always been a guarantee of stability and security - even in Tsarist times when a regiment of the Imperial army was stationed in Gudauta.


The Georgian authorities have been quick to see Moscow's hand in this latest turn of events. Shalva Pichkhadze, deputy head of Georgia's International Relations Service, said the protests may well have been "inspired by certain forces in Moscow".


And Georgy Baramidze, chairmen of the parliamentary committee for defence and national security, described the demonstration as an attempt to sabotage the decisions made in Istanbul in 1999.


The protests, said Baramidze, "were organised by Abkhazian separatists and approved by Russia". He added that, if the process were derailed, then international organisations would be forced to intercede.


There has been no sign that the Georgians are prepared to back down over the troop withdrawal. Irakly Menagarishvili, head of the Georgian foreign ministry, said the July 1 deadline still stood.


"Tbilisi will demand that Russia fulfills its obligations to remove the military bases," he said. "Despite recent events in Abkhazia, any interruption to this process is unjustifiable."


Menagarishvili added that Georgia had made met its part of the bargain and "there was something sinister" in the protest meetings organised by the Abkhazian population.


Meanwhile, the Abkhazian military has said that the fate of the armoured units in Gudauta is the subject of "high level talks" between Russia, Georgia and Abkhazia.


The republic's foreign minister, Sergei Shamba, said that Sukhumi would agree to abide by the OSCE decision only if Abkhazia's security could be guaranteed. He said that the "ideal option" was to sign a peace agreement preventing any further military actions between Georgia and Abkhazia.


But Shamba went on to say that the Sukhumi government could not exclude the possibility of a Georgian attack as described in Izvestia. Consequently, talks were in progress between Sukhumi and Moscow to find a "civilised and mutually acceptable solution".


Russia's foreign minister, Igor Ivanov, insisted, "Russia is fulfilling its obligations to remove the bases from Gudauta and Vaziani by July 1." However, he also noted that the planned withdrawal "had aroused some concern from the local population who feared that it could result in further outbreaks of violence".


Ivanov added that the timeframe for removing military bases from Batumi and Akhalkalaki was also under discussion and plans were being drawn up to provide alternative locations for the bases inside Russia.


However, the Georgians believe the Russians are dragging their feet over decommissioning the Batumi and Akhalkalaki bases. Irakly Menagarishvili said that Russian proposals to keep the facilities open for another 14 years "did not stand up to criticism".


The foreign minister added that the Georgian timeframe of three years was "more realistic" and the Russians had offered no alternatives which might persuade Georgia to reconsider its position.


Niko Dadiani is an independent journalist based in Tbilisi


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