dimanche 1 juin 2008

Georgia: The Evacuation of the Russian Military Base at Akhalkalaki Comes to a Close

Article published in caucaz.com, 30/05/2007 Issue

By Nicolas Landru in Tbilissi, translated by Kathryn Gaylord-Miles

© Nicolas Landru The Russian Military Base at Akhalkalaki

The Russian military base at Akhalkalaki, in Javakheti, must close its doors in the autumn of 2008. These are the terms of the Russo-Georgian agreement of March 31, 2005, between Salome Zourabishvili, then the Georgian Minister of Foreign Affairs, and Sergey Lavrov, her Russian counterpart. However, the predictions of a turbulent closing have not come true. According to the base commanders, on July 1st 2007, it will be returned to Georgian authorities. The final phase of the base closure has already started: On April 13th, 2007, the last of the equipment left Akhalkalaki to be transferred to the base in Gyumri in Armenia. On the 19th, the equipment left Georgian territory.

The days of the remaining 3000 servicemen, Russians and local Armenians are numbered. They are waiting for the official closing; meanwhile, the base remains half empty. The convoy of a dozen trucks containing five high-tension generators, five tons of munitions and 1.5 tons of various pieces of equipment, puts an end to the transfer of materials from Akhalkalaki to Gyumri. Personnel will be redeployed to Armenia and Russia after the base's closure.

Akhalkalaki is the penultimate of four Russian bases in Georgia to officially close its doors. The beginning of its evacuation sounds the death knell of the Russian military presence in the country. This unravelling is not simple: the question of the retreat of Russian troops from Georgia had been one of the major stumbling blocks in Russo-Georgian relations for more than fifteen years. Successive governments in Tbilisi have fiercely fought for the departure of the Russian army. On Moscow’s part, distortion and vagueness have given the impression that no guarantee has been given, and that until the last Russian soldier has left Georgian soil, nothing has been finalized. This ambivalent attitude, in addition to the ambiguous role Moscow has played in the separatist conflicts in Georgia, is in contrast to Tbilisi’s uncompromising position.

Tbilisi, Gudauta, Batumi

At the heart of the growing tensions between the two countries, Tbilisi obtained the closing of the base at Vaziani, near Tbilisi, in 2001 after two years of diplomatic combat. OSCE threats made Moscow bend. Moscow officially loosened its position and now accepts the closing of the base at Gudauta, situated in the Abkhazian separatist territory. But the role this base plays in the Abkhazia conflict—it gave asylum to the first separatist president, Ardzinba, then gave military support to Abkhazian forces—gives the impression that it was closed only on paper. No inspection of the premises has been authorized for international organizations, and Tbilisi suspects illegal use of the base by joint Russian and Abkhazian forces.

That leaves the bases in Batumi and Akhalkalaki. The political quagmire of the second presidential term of Shevardnadze has put the Georgian successes on hold in the second half of the 1990s. After the Rose Revolution, the confrontation with Moscow has been more direct and Mikheil Saakashvili’s government has made the departure of all Russian forces one of its major goals.

The “coup of Ajaria” in the summer of 2004 restored the Ajarian Autonomous Republic under Tbilisi’s control. As a result, pressure intensified on the base at Batumi and it became a more direct threat to Tbilisi's authority. After heated negotiations, Georgia won, first with an evacuation agreement in 2005, then with a final agreement on March 31, 2006, fixing a hand-over for the end of 2008 for both Batumi and Akhalkalaki.

It seems that beginning from this point, and despite the renewal of diplomatic tension such as during the spy crisis in September 2006, Moscow’s compliance and the abandonment of its military objectives via its Georgian bases is irrevocable. From the summer of 2005 onwards, the base at Batumi began to evacuate its material and personnel, so that it will be ready to for the scheduled hand-over. For the moment, there remain, all in all, two families and five soldiers at the base.

A symbolic fact is that, several weeks after the intense crisis of the spies between Moscow and Tbilisi, the Duma ratified October 13th, 2006, the law on the withdrawal of Russian bases from Georgia. It is an incontestable sign that despite the apparent confrontation between the two regimes, the evacuation of the Russian army is a fact confirmed by the two parties. Moscow’s decision was well taken.


Despite the regular progression of things, the Georgian side has expressed many doubts about the goodwill of the Russian army to truly close up shop in Akhalkalaki. It was thought that Ajaria had fallen completely under Tbilisi’s control, and that Russia had been forced to let the base go. But in Akhalkalaki, the political centre of Javakhetia, the situation is very different.

A southern region of Georgia, on the Armenian border, and more than 90% ethnic Armenian, Javakhetia kindles a certain number of fears in Tbilisi that raise the spectre of the sombre times of the 1990s. Akhalkalaki is a town that enjoys a strong political identity, openly opposed to the centralism of Tbilisi. Several Armenian organizations with autonomist claims have been very active there since the beginning of the 1990s, the population is armed, and it is clear that stability is only hanging on by a thread. The acceptance by the Armenian population of its belonging to Georgia is fragile.

In this context, Tbilisi will not stop denouncing Russia's influence through its military base. Georgia accuses Russia of tinkering with ethical questions including supporting local Armenian organizations which derived from the paramilitary organization Javakhk that defended the region against the Zviadist and Mkhedrioni Georgian militias, in the early 1990s.

The Russian base and local activism

In the course of the last few years, a number of protests, some violent, have taken place in Akhalkalaki. One of the demands of local organizations, besides autonomous and the recognition of Armenian as a second official language in the region, was the maintenance of the Russian base.

In this demand, Tbilisi has always seen the hand of Moscow. But for the inhabitants of Akhalkalaki, the question isn’t any less vital. The base was the economic heart of the town, assuring not only numerous jobs, but also commerce in this particularly isolated region. Constructed in the 19th century as a garrison town, Akhalkalaki has never had any other function in recent history.

Another aspect of the question is the prime importance in the eyes of the village population, which lives in intense preservation of the memory of the Armenian genocide: the Russian presence is a guarantee against the Turks, and if Moscow’s troops leave, who can assure this security? The most anxious discussions see the arrival of Turkish troops under the umbrella of NATO after the departure of the Russians. Kept isolated in a buffer zone near the border of Turkey, and therefore, the border of NATO, Javakhetia's Armenian population grew up during the Cold War under the idea of perpetual threat. Now that the Russian departure is real, it up to Tbilisi to give guarantees.

It is certainly not by chance that on April 13th, the day of the bases material evacuation, political organizations in the town held a rally to demand that Georgia recognize Armenian as an official language in the region. This confirms the direct link between the base and the political activism in the town, and also shows that in front of the irreversible withdrawal of the Russian army, Armenian organizations feel the need to make their presence known more than ever. Although the rumours that Moscow and local organizations will do everything to impede the closure of the base have been denied, local activism evidently does not stop here, all the more so as Akhalkalaki's population is preoccupied with the still uncertain future.

What future for Akhalkalaki?

The Georgian government's declarations during these past two years which aimed at forestalling protests by Akhalkalaki's political society, have not been convincing. One such example is the “potato affair”. At the beginning of 2006, Mikheil Saakashvili promised that the Georgian army would supply itself with potatoes only from the inhabitants of Javakhetia. This crop is the region's only substantial product and the only source of revenue besides the Russian base and commerce (which has also depended largely on the base). The president declared that the revenues from supplying the Georgian military would equal those given by the Russian military base. Besides the enormity of this promise, it soon turned out that the Georgian army continued to supply itself only in a tiny part from Javakhetia, the vast majority of its supply coming from Turkey or other Georgian regions. Moreover, the production in Javakhetia is not sufficient to supply a quarter of the needs of the army, and will never generate the expected financial returns. This affair has provoked the population's anger.

Another promise was that the Georgian army would take over the base and operate it fully and unaltered, as under the Russian army. However, the majority of Russian soldiers were residents of Akhalkalaki and supported more than half of the town's families. The economic impact carried by the Georgian army, which probably would not consist of as many natives, would not be comparable. Besides these calculations, and given the limited size of the Georgian army, the opening at the beginning of April of a new Georgian base conforming to NATO’s standards in Senaki, in Mingrelia, as well as the construction of a similar base in Gori makes it doubtful that the base at Akhalkalaki will see significant use in the near future. Moreover, the base is far from the NATO standards that Tbilisi is aiming for.

Despite all of this, Akhalkalaki does not seem lost. The construction of the Baku-Akhalkalaki-Kars railroad, despite the reticence of the Armenian population to see its region become a bridge between Eastern and Western Turkish spaces, promises the creation of employment opportunities and is a step towards opening the region. As much as the conflicts between Armenia on one hand and Turkey and Azerbaijan on the other have solidified, they represent an opportunity for the development of Georgia's under-utilized transport routs.For the time being, the evacuation of the base at Akhalkalaki, which has aroused so many fears, will be carried out smoothly, completely changing the dynamics of Russo-Georgian relations in Javakhetia geostrategic, economic and political environment.

Aucun commentaire: