Russia has agreed in principle to close its two military bases in Georgia by 2008, potentially forfeiting one of the key remnants of its Soviet-era influence in the southern Caucasus, Georgian officials said Tuesday.
Concluding talks with her Russian counterpart, Georgian Foreign Minister Salome Zourabichvili said Moscow had tentatively endorsed a plan to begin withdrawing 7,000 troops and military hardware from the former Soviet military outposts almost immediately after an agreement is signed.
The agreement, which cannot be assured until a timetable is negotiated and signed by the nations’ presidents, would remove one of several stumbling blocks to ratification of a 1990 treaty on conventional ground forces in Europe. More importantly, it would eliminate one of Moscow’s historic footholds in a region it no longer directly controls.
“We have what I would call the main points of an agreement,” Zourabichvili said in a meeting with U.S. journalists. She said Russia would have to commit to dates for withdrawing specified troops and materiel before any pact could be considered final. Diplomats will negotiate the remaining details with an eye toward signing the agreement as early as May 9.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei V. Lavrov hinted late Monday that a tentative timetable had been reached, adding that any withdrawal would be made “stage by stage, and will be launched as early as this year if an agreement is reached.” Georgian officials said the tentative plan called for concluding the pullout by Jan. 1, 2008.
Stung by the wholesale withdrawal of troops from Eastern Europe after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Moscow has maintained the two bases, even as Georgia demanded their closure, set its sights on joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and developed increasingly close military ties to the U.S.
Georgia accuses Russia of supporting separatists in three breakaway zones of the former Soviet republic. One of the bases is in the former breakaway region of Adzharia, which was returned to full Georgian control last year. The other base lies in southern Georgia near the border with Armenia.
Russia has used various mechanisms to exert influence in neighboring former Soviet republics. Those efforts have been criticized by the U.S., which is expanding its own presence in the region. The possible agreement with Georgia suggests that Moscow may be reevaluating its policy, particularly in light of popular revolts in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan that have installed democratic governments less subject to Russian influence and more open to close ties with NATO, Europe and the U.S., some analysts said.
“The so-called color revolutions have made it possible for the new elites that come to power in the post-Soviet states to simply ignore the political debts that their former leaders had to Moscow,” said Ivan Safranchuk, director of the Moscow office of the Washington-based Center for Defense Information.
“People like [Georgian President Mikheil] Saakashvili know that they can afford the luxury of almost not having to bargain with Russia at all,” he said. “Naturally, Russia has to adopt a totally new style of talking to these people.”
Zourabichvili said she was encouraged by Russian President Vladimir V. Putin’s reference in his address to parliament this week to “strengthening the international authority” of the “independent states” on his country’s borders.
“If that means an acceptance by Russia of this new reality, that would be very important,” she said.
Moscow will continue to play an important role in the region even if its military bases are withdrawn, Zourabichvili emphasized. “The main road for their influence, and the natural one, is the economic one,” she added.
Russia is Georgia’s main supplier of gas and electricity and a crucial market for Georgian goods. Saakashvili has made it clear that he welcomes the investment of Russian businesses in newly privatized Georgian companies, Zourabichvili said.
Safranchuk said the two sides were nearing agreement in part because the years of haggling over details such as compensation and timelines had proven unproductive. It does not necessarily mean a full pullout will take place, he said.
“Moscow agrees to announce the beginning of the pullout, which gives Russia a chance to demonstrate that it is not simply trying to procrastinate and is ready to withdraw in principle. Georgia gets a chance to demonstrate that there is real progress and real achievements on the pullout issue,” Safranchuk said.
“Russia no longer looks like a country which forces its bases on another nation, while Georgia no longer looks like a country which is unable to do anything about it.”