Talks between Georgia and Russia over Moscow’s withdrawal of its military forces from its southern neighbor have progressed, but a final settlement remains elusive. Moldova has made no recent headway in a similar dispute with Russia.
Signaling his frustration over the failure to finalize a deal with Russia, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili boycotted the Kremlin’s May 9 Red Square celebration commemorating the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II. Georgia and Russia had held talks three days earlier in an unsuccessful last-minute gambit to pave the way for Saakashvili to attend. Negotiations between the two sides are still ongoing.
President George W. Bush sat alongside Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Moscow ceremony before traveling to Georgia the next day in a show of support for the former Soviet republic. Bush declared at a public rally in the Georgian capital city of Tbilisi that the “sovereignty of Georgia must be respected by all nations.”
The president also told journalists in Tbilisi that he had privately discussed Russia’s lingering presence in Georgia with Putin. Bush spoke positively of Russia’s commitment to withdraw its forces, saying that “there’s grounds for work to get this issue resolved.”
Russia pledged in November 1999 that it would close two of its military bases in Georgia before the end of 2000 and complete negotiations to vacate its other two bases there the same year. All bases were leftovers from the Soviet period.
Although Russia claims to have fulfilled its first commitment, Georgia disagrees, citing the stationing of 300 Russian troops at one of the bases, Gudauta. Moscow and Tbilisi also have been unable to agree on a timetable for Russia to quit its bases at Batumi and Akhalkalaki.
Moscow is moving closer to meeting Georgia’s demands. In previous negotiations, Russia had trimmed by more than half its original estimate that it would take 15 years to complete the withdrawal; Georgia has consistently insisted that three years should suffice. The Kremlin now says it could remove all of its 3,000 or so troops by Jan. 1, 2009. However, Tbilisi wants them out a year earlier.
In a March 10 resolution, Georgia’s parliament sketched out penalties Russia could incur if an agreement is not reached prior to May 15. Possible punitive measures include the denial of visas to Russian military personnel and new constraints on the movement of Russian military forces, equipment, and cargo throughout Georgia. Tbilisi could hold off on the penalties if it perceives Russia is serious about striking a deal soon, a Georgian government official told Arms Control Today May 10.
Sandwiched between Romania and Ukraine, Moldova also continues to host Russian forces on its soil involuntarily. Prospects of their departure in the near term are dim because Russian forces are located in a separatist region, Transdniestria, that does not want them to leave.
When Moscow pledged to withdraw from Georgia, it also promised to do the same in Moldova by the end of 2002. Yet, the 55-member Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe estimates that roughly 1,400 Russian troops, more than 20,000 metric tons of ammunition, and about 10 trainloads of Russian military equipment are still located in Moldova. The last Russian withdrawal activity involved a single trainload of ammunition in 2004.
Washington and other capitals have contributed funding to help Russia relinquish its military footholds both in Moldova and Georgia. The United States and other NATO alliance members are also withholding their approval of a 1999 revision of a pact limiting military hardware in Europe pending Russia’s fulfillment of its withdrawal commitments.
Moscow wants the adapted Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty to enter into force so Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania can join. These three recent additions to NATO cannot join the original treaty because it lacks provisions for countries to accede to it, whereas the revised version is open to new countries. The original accord will remain in force until all of its 30 states-parties ratify the updated version; only Belarus, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, and Russia have done so. (See ACT, September 2004.)
Russia’s concern is that NATO could station large quantities of military equipment in its three new members because they are not subject to the original treaty’s restrictions on the number of tanks, armored combat vehicles, heavy artillery, combat aircraft, and attack helicopters that can be deployed between the Atlantic Ocean and the Ural Mountains. The revised accord caps the amount of treaty-limited ground weapons that can be located on the territory of each individual state-party.
U.S. government officials maintain Washington supports bringing the adapted CFE Treaty into force, but not at the expense of Russia retaining military outposts in countries that do not want them.