Lavrov Trip Does Little to Ease Georgian-Russian Tension
Completing a visit to Tbilisi, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov voiced cautious optimism that Russian and Georgia could find solutions to an array of bilateral disputes. His Georgian counterpart, Salome Zourabichvili, refrained from voicing hope about a diplomatic breakthrough, while stressing the importance of holding regular high-level discussions.
At a February 18 news conference, Lavrov commented that his talks with Georgian officials were "very sensitive and very delicate" and refrained from providing details. Zourabichvili and Lavrov announced that diplomatic experts from the two countries would meet in the coming months to try to formulate a timetable for the withdrawal of Russian troops from two bases in Georgia; to negotiate a comprehensive bilateral pact; to establish an anti-terrorism center and a conflict resolution mechanism; to abolish Russia's visa regime for Georgian citizens; and to delimit the Georgian-Russian border.
"In the next two months, we will conduct intensive negotiations," Lavrov said at the news conference. "I don't want to appear crazy, but I have a cautious optimism about the first steps."
Zourabichvili was far more restrained in evaluating the February 18 talks. "[O]ur common problems are so serious [that] ... it's important to talk together so that we avoid any further bloodshed," Zourabichvili said.
Lavrov's stop in Tbilisi -- part of a diplomatic tour of the South Caucasus -- became engulfed in controversy when Russian officials announced that he would not visit a memorial to veterans of Georgia's wars with Abkhazia and South Ossetia. While Lavrov avoided the veterans' memorial, he visited the grave of the late Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania, who died from carbon monoxide poisoning on February 3. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. "He is a man who has done a very great deal in order for the Abkhazian and South Ossetian conflicts to be settled exclusively by peaceful means," Lavrov was quoted as saying on Russian television on February 17.
In addition to holding talks with Zourabichvili, Lavrov met with President Mikheil Saakashvili, Prime Minister Zurab Noghaideli, Parliamentary Speaker Nino Burjanadze and Patriarch Ilia II.
During the week leading up to Lavrov's visit, tension between Georgian and Russia flared over two issues the military bases and the ongoing conflict in the Russian province of Chechnya. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Georgian political analysts do not share Lavrov's sense of "cautious optimism." Local observers believe Lavrov's comments were tailored especially for an upcoming summit meeting on February 23 in Bratislava, Slovakia between Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President George W. Bush. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive].
"All the moves from Russia are committed with the future meeting of Bush and Putin [in mind]," said Levan Avalishvili, a national security analyst at the Center for Strategic Research and Development of Georgia.
Alexander Rondeli, president of the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies, expressed the belief that Russia was trying to shift blame for the tense bilateral relationship onto Georgia. "Putin will tell George Bush that the existing mechanisms [for relations with Georgia] are quite good, that there are some problems, but that everything is fantastic," Rondeli said. "[As a result,] everyone will be happy and Georgia will still be unhappy."
Withdrawal of Russia's military bases from Georgia has been a source of acrimony since a 1999 OSCE summit in Istanbul. At the summit, Russia pledged to close two bases at Vaziani and Gudauta and negotiate the withdrawal of Russian troops from two other facilities in Batumi and Akhalkalaki. Troops have been withdrawn from the Vaziani base, near Tbilisi, and in November, 2001, the Russian Foreign Ministry announced that the Gudauta base had been closed. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Negotiations on the withdrawal from the Batumi and Akhalkalaki bases have dragged on. Cost is a major point of contention, as Russia claims that it will need upwards of $1 billion to fulfill its Istanbul commitment. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive].
On February 12, Georgian Deputy Foreign Minister Merab Antadze disclosed details of the failed talks, claiming that Moscow had tied the creation of joint anti-terrorism centers, a Georgian initiative, to the withdrawal from the bases. "The Russian representatives framed this proposal in a way, which made it clear to us that Russia offers to transform the military bases into anti-terrorist centers, maintaining the general structure and armament [of the bases]," Antadze said. "This is unacceptable for us."
In response to the Russian stance, Antadze stated that the withdrawal was a "multilateral matter" that touches on the international community. If an agreement is not reached on the withdrawal, he went on to say, "[w]e can't exclude that we would unilaterally move to declare the [Russian] military bases on our territory illegal."
That could put Moscow in a difficult position. Under the Conventional Forces in Europe treaty, a document signed by both Georgia and Russia, Moscow would need Tbilisi's permission to keep operating the Batumi and Akhalkalaki bases.
Like many Georgian analysts, Tina Gogueliani, a political analyst at the International Center on Conflict and Negotiation in Tbilisi, says the onus is on Russia to resolve the question of the bases' status. If Russia chooses not to act, she said, the issue will remain unresolved. "It is much more important for us, even in terms of time, to have these talks and negotiations than [it is] for Russia," she said. "Russia is here [already], so they are much more interested in prolonging the withdrawal."
In an interview with the Tbilisi-based Russian-language newspaper Svobodnaya Gruzia, however, Lavrov argued that the dispute over the bases stemmed from a "lack of understanding of the subject." The 1999 Istanbul document that Russia signed, he stressed, is not an agreement, he said, but a declaration of Russia's intent to negotiate a base withdrawal deal with Georgia. "That's all there is to the Istanbul statement," Lavrov said.
The complications surrounding Georgian-Russian ties are not limited to differing interpretations of the Istanbul statement. On February 15, just two days before Lavrov's arrival, the entire general staff of the Georgian armed forces submitted their resignations an episode that has yet to be fully explained by the Georgian government. The Russian media has speculated that this is a signal that Georgia plans to place hardliners in its military leadership and play hardball with Moscow
According to Rondeli, Tbilisi will not be able to break the existing stalemate without strong international backing. "Russia and Georgia punch in different weight categories; we do not punch. Russia punches. And what is happening now is that Russia is putting pressure [on] and blackmailing Georgia," he said.
Avalishvili also believes that the only way to help the situation is through international pressure. "If the international community will be more involved, especially in the peace process, Russia will be forced to take more flexible measures to go into an agreement."
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