Georgia steps up calls for Russian withdrawal

Georgia is moving closer to its goal of getting Russia to pull out from its two remaining bases.

Georgia may have moved closer to its goal of ridding the country for good of Russia's military presence in the wake of fierce negotiations with Russia over a deadline for withdrawal of two military bases.

Though the issue came to a head this week, withdrawal of the bases has been on the Georgian agenda for more than a decade and was a subject of underground discussions preceding the country's independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

The bases do not hold significant military or economic power for either country. And Russian withdrawal was never a question of if, but when. But for Russia, withdrawal from Georgia means acknowledging its shrinking political control. "It's a pressure point," says a US State Department official.

During negotiations in Tbilisi on Monday and Tuesday, which were a continuation of previous discussions on withdrawal, Russian President Vladimir Putin stated that he will comply with Georgia's demands for withdrawal but does not want another country's troops to be deployed in Russia's place.

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has called the bases "the last legacy of Soviet totalitarian domination" in Georgia, long ranked as one of the most fervently anti-Russian former Soviet satellites. According to Giga Bokeria, a member of the Georgian parliament, "This is a question of sovereignty above all."

In March, the Georgian parliament issued a resolution urging Russia to open pullout date negotiations by May 15 or risk facing sanctions, such as reduction of supplies to the bases and denial of entry visas to Russian military.

Russia had already agreed to remove all four of its remaining Soviet-era bases from Georgia at a 1999 OSCE Summit in Istanbul, as part of a Convention Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty. While two of the bases have been wholly or partially dismantled, two remain - one in Batumi and another in the city of Akhalkalaki. Recent figures put the total number of military servicemen at 3,000 to 3,500.

But according to the Georgian government, Russia's "usual tactics" have been to "prolong the process" indefinitely, according to Mr. Bokeria.

For the past two months, Georgian Foreign Minister Salome Zourabichvili and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov have gone back and forth on a date for withdrawal. Mr. Lavrov at first agreed in a handshake deal that Russia would withdraw by Jan. 1, 2008, only to back off from the agreement the following month.

The negotiations took on a bitter tone leading up to the May 15 deadline. Georgia's efforts gained momentum following support from Mr. Bush's visit to Tbilisi May 10, and from a US Senate resolution two days later that urged Russia to withdraw its bases.

Georgia vowed to enforce sanctions should Russia not start negotiations. Lavrov called the resolution "blackmail," and Russia's parliament passed its own resolution threatening punitive measures.

"Ultimatum," said Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Valery Loshchinin, "is not the proper language to talk to Russia with."

Each side has held the other responsible for the deteriorating dialogue over this issue. But Russia recently submitted a new proposal that was later discussed at the Tbilisi meeting. Though still confidential, it has been deemed more acceptable than the previous version by Georgian officials.

Georgian analysts point out that the proposal came only a day after the US Senate resolution.

Georgia has rejected Russia's request that Georgia pay a $300 million fee for withdrawal of the bases, as well as a proposal from Moscow to turn the bases into antiterrorist centers.

Following talks between Lavrov and Mr. Zourabichvili in Warsaw last week, this most recent set of negotiations has resulted in "serious progress," according to the Georgian side. Russia has promised to withdraw sometime "within 2008."

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