As Tbilisi gears up to welcome US President George W. Bush, Georgian officials are facing a flare-up in tension with Russia -- fueled by the apparent collapse of a deal covering the withdrawal of Russian troops from Georgia. The inability of Georgia and Russia to settle their differences on a base-withdrawal timetable prompted Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili to cancel a visit Moscow to attend ceremonies marking the 60th anniversary of the Soviet triumph over Nazi Germany.
Georgian Foreign Minister Salome Zourabichvili traveled to Moscow on May 6 to hold talks with her Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, aimed at salvaging a preliminary withdrawal agreement. Following the discussions, Zourabichvili announced that "we couldn't agree on the details," the Russian web site Strana.ru reported.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov raised doubts about whether the deal would ever be finalized when he indicated in that the provisional timeframe for withdrawal envisioned to be completed by the end of 2007 was unrealistic. Ivanov said in an interview published in Rossiiskaya Gazeta on May 4 that at least four years would be needed to build the necessary infrastructure in Russia to accommodate the troops and hardware taken out of Georgia.
"This is our sovereign affair and we will build them [new bases] where we want to. And we will not be accountable to anyone about this," Ivanov stated. "At the moment, there is no money in the [Russian defense] budget for these aims."
Ivanov's comments caused a political storm in Georgia. Prior to departing for Moscow for the emergency talks with Lavrov, Zourabichvili was guarded about the prospects for reaching accord. "The devil is in the details and that is why I can't predict how things will go," the Georgian foreign minister said in a May 5 interview broadcast by Georgia's Rustavi-2 television.
Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili had been expected to sign a formal base-withdrawal framework with Russian leader Vladimir Putin in Moscow on May 8. Saakashvili's last-minute cancellation of the visit is likely to enrage Russian leaders, who assign special significance to Victory Day. Zourabichvili denied that Tbilisi was trying to use the Victory Day ceremonies as a way of placing additional pressure on Russia. "We are not using this [Saakashvili's attendance] as part of any tactical game, but because, as everyone can understand, the Georgian people will not accept a [presidential] visit to Moscow without it being linked to a new stage, new relations and new mutual understanding," the foreign minister told Rustavi-2.
Zourabichvili reached a hand-shake deal with Lavrov on April 25 in which Russian forces would depart from two bases in Georgia in Batumi and Akhalkalaki by the end of 2007. The base issue has been a major factor in stoking rancor that has marked bilateral relations for most of the post-Soviet era. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Zourabichvili indicated that there was little room for maneuver concerning the withdrawal completion date. Georgian officials were unlikely to agree to a longer time-frame because doing so could cause disruptions to presidential and parliamentary elections that are scheduled to be held in 2008 in Georgia. "We have said from the beginning that it is very important that this process [the Russian withdrawal] is completed by [January] 2008 so that the withdrawal, or not, of Russia's bases does not become part of our election campaign, and so that there is no Russian influence on internal political events," Zourabichvili said.
Saakashvili has kept a low-profile on the withdrawal issue as Georgian diplomats work to get the pact back on track. At a bridge opening ceremony May 6, Saakashvili expressed hope for a "peaceful resolution of the problem," Rustavi-2 reported. At the same time, Saakashvili has requested that Bush raise the base issue during a planned meeting between the US president and Putin on May 9. Following his stop in Moscow, Bush will travel to Georgia for a two-day official visit.
Even before Ivanov's comments on May 4, Georgian experts were generally cautious in assessing the prospects for a withdrawal deal.
Alexander Rondeli, president of the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies, expressed concern about the deal's chances, saying that in prior negotiations with Georgia, Russian diplomats often attempted to insert "traps" into treaties. "I think that there will be some conditions that do not look dangerous in the beginning, but then will be hard to interpret." Vague wording, he noted, could create openings for Russia to stretch out the withdrawal period.
Earlier this year, Georgian-Russian tension spiked in connection with bickering over the bases. On March 10, the Georgian parliament passed a non-binding resolution demanding that a withdrawal timetable be finalized no later than May 15, or the parliament would recommend that the president declare the Russian bases illegal. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Thus far, Georgia's executive branch has shown no sign of a willingness to act on the parliamentary resolution.
Georgia's desire for NATO membership is another factor influencing Tbilisi's withdrawal position. Some Georgian experts believe that Georgia's membership in NATO will not be seriously contemplated in Brussels until Russian troops leave the country. Rustavi-2 published an article on March 29 stating that Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Noghaideli announced Georgia is preparing to start work on its member action plan with NATO. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Irakli Menagarishvili, a former Georgian foreign minister, said that the desire for NATO membership is not the only issue motivating the Georgian government. "The bases are a reminder of a past that Georgia is trying to move beyond. And they [the bases] do not have any function here other than destructive ones," he said. "[The bases] have been just been one big headache for the Georgian government," Menagarishvili said.
Molly Corso is a freelance journalist and photographer based in Tbilisi.