Georgia warned by Russia but defended by US on bases

TBILISI (Reuters)–Russia warned the new leaders of Georgia on Tuesday against allowing any violent action to close Russian military bases there–but the United States publicly backed the Georgians in the dispute.

The Russian foreign ministry–reacting to harsh remarks by a Georgian politician who called for popular action to force the closure of the two bases on Georgian soil–warned its former Soviet ally that such action would harm bilateral relations.

"The Georgian authorities must understand that any such violent action against Russian bases and civilians on the territory of Georgia would have far-reaching consequences," a ministry statement–issued in Moscow–said.

The ministry earlier summoned Georgia’s ambassador to protest over the remarks made by the leader of Georgia’s Popular Front who has accused President-elect Mikhail Saakashvili of being soft on the bases issue.

Saakashvili has set early closure of the bases–left over from Soviet rule– as a priority in ties with Georgia’s big northern neighbor.

But Moscow insists they cannot be withdrawn for at least 10 years because of the cost of re-housing the returning forces and storing armamen’s and military hardware.

A top US official earlier backed the new Georgian leadership in the row with Russia and said Washington might even put up money to help pay for removing the bases.

"We believe deeply in the agreement of all countries of the OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) that they will not keep military forces–bases in an area where they are not welcome," US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Lynn Pascoe told a news conference.

The bases row has taken on new life since Saakashvili toppled veteran leader Eduard Shevardnadze in a bloodless revolt in November–despite his pledges that he wants to improve ties with Moscow.

Pascoe–in Georgia to look at ways to help rescue the country from economic ruin–said Washington wanted Russia to fulfill obligations dating back to 1999.

Moscow has already closed two bases in Vaziani near Tbilisi and Gudauta in Georgia’s breakaway region of Abkhazia in line with a commitment made at an OSCE meeting then.

But Pascoe said Moscow had failed to honor a separate undertaking to reach early agreement on two other bases–at Akhalkalaki in the south and Batumi on the Black Sea coast.

"Our concern has been that this has not been carried out. We are constantly raising this. We do raise this with the Russia’s–that they need to fulfill the obligations," he said.

TIMETABLE FOR BASES

Georgia says it wants the Akhalkalaki and Batumi bases closed within three years. Russia has suggested the move could be sooner if foreign funding was forthcoming.

Asked on Tuesday about possible financial help–Pascoe–referring to US funding for the removal of the Vaziani base in 2000–said: "We have done this in the past and we would be happy to provide some assistance."

Nino Burdzhanadze–acting president until Saakashvili is sworn in on January 25–told the same news conference: "It is clear that 11 or 14 years as the Russia’s propose… is not acceptable for us. But if we finish the process of negotiations soon–this will benefit relations between Russia and Georgia."

Since the fall of communism–and particularly since the September 11–2001 attacks on US targets–Washington has been competing with Moscow for influence in former Soviet states and now operates bases in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan in Central Asia.

Even under Shevardnadze–Georgia sought closer ties with the United States–despite the proximity of Russia–and said it was considering joining NATO one day.

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