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Powell Tries to Mollify Russia on Georgia Ties

Times Staff Writer

Seeking to soothe fears of growing rivalry along Russia’s borders with former Soviet republics, U.S. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell on Monday said the U.S. has no plans to create military bases in Georgia.

At the same time, U.S. officials have not ruled out a long-term security presence in the strategically important Caucasus republic, once a part of the Soviet empire and still a crucial component of the Kremlin’s effort to maintain an extensive sphere of influence and counter NATO’s expansion toward its western frontier.

“We have no plans to set up military bases in Georgia,” Powell said after meeting with Russian President Vladimir V. Putin and Foreign Minister Igor S. Ivanov. It was the first in a series of meetings aimed at smoothing the edgy U.S.-Russian relationship that emerged after the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

“We simply want to have good relations with Georgia,” Powell said. “The U.S. does not want to build bases all over the world. There is no need to.”

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Russia was not even mentioned in President Bush’s State of the Union address last week, and its demands for a greater United Nations role in Iraq and fulfillment of billions of dollars of Russian contracts there have gone unheeded.

Russia feels increasingly threatened by what it sees as growing U.S. interest in the ex-Soviet republics of the Caucasus that once answered to Moscow and now make up a turbulent and potentially unstable belt around Russia’s perimeter.

For the United States, the region provides a window onto crucial theaters in the war on terrorism, including Afghanistan and Iraq. It also encompasses a crucial transport route for oil riches from the Caspian Sea.

The U.S. already has a Central Asian base in Uzbekistan, opened with Russia’s blessing on the eve of the war in Afghanistan. Now Georgia, once a Caucasus backwater, is the scene of intense political jockeying in the wake of the so-called Rose Revolution that swept President Eduard A. Shevardnadze from power late last year.

Powell’s arrival over the weekend for the inauguration of President Mikheil Saakashvili underscored what the secretary said was the United States’ commitment to help Georgia promote democracy, improve its economy, protect human rights and end corruption.

He said the presence of more than 200 U.S. troops who arrived in Georgia in 2002 to provide counterterrorism training was a benefit to Russia, which has suffered attacks mounted by Chechen rebels out of Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge.

Responding to fears that the United States is attempting to oust Russia from the Caucasus, Powell told Russian television: “It’s not a matter of kicking anybody out of anywhere. We are friends with the Georgians. The Russian Federation, they are friends with the Georgians. This is not like the old days, where we’re competing for land or competing for power.”

Russian fears had been heightened by reports last month that U.S. officials were considering keeping military trainers in Georgia indefinitely, possibly to help protect the new $3.6-billion pipeline designed to carry Caspian oil from Baku in Azerbaijan to the West.

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The U.S. has urged Russia to accelerate its removal of two former Soviet military bases in Georgia, but Russia now says it will require at least 11 years to dismantle them. Powell told Russian reporters that the U.S. is ready to help pay for closing the bases, an offer some Russians see as interference.

Russia also was discomfited by the recent collapse of a Moscow-brokered settlement of a territorial conflict in Moldova that would have guaranteed a long-term Russian military presence there -- an event some in the Kremlin attributed to Western interference -- and by new rumors of U.S. interest in locating a military base in Azerbaijan.

Dmitry Rogozin, co-leader of the leftist-nationalist Homeland bloc -- which made a surprisingly strong showing in December’s parliamentary elections -- said over the weekend that “the days of a spineless Russia” are over and called for the Kremlin to pursue a policy of “rational national egoism” toward the West.

Sergei Karaganov, chairman of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy in Moscow, said Russia’s aim in maintaining its bases in Georgia is to guard against instability there, which could threaten not only Russia but the surrounding region. In addition to the recent political upheaval, Georgia is grappling with separatists.

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“As long as the threat of Georgia’s complete disintegration exists, we need to keep our military bases on its territory,” he said. “When Georgia starts to noticeably pull itself out of its current crisis situation, the necessity of these bases will qualitatively diminish for us.”

Russian officials were conciliatory in their remarks after Monday’s meetings with Powell.

“Regardless of some tactical differences on how to structure international relations today and defending one’s own national interest, [the two countries] have a solid foundation that enables us to overcome anything,” Putin said.

The Russian president made no mention of other low-key criticism that preceded Powell’s arrival. In a commentary published on the front page of Monday’s Izvestia, Powell was largely upbeat, but, in unusually blunt terms, he questioned Russia’s policies in the separatist republic of Chechnya and its slow progress toward full democracy.

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“Russia’s democratic system seems not yet to have found the essential balance among the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government,” Powell wrote. “Political power is not yet fully tethered to law. Key aspects of civil society -- free media and political party development, for example -- have not yet sustained an independent presence.”

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Staff writer Sergei L. Loiko of The Times’ Moscow Bureau contributed to this report.


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