Russia Agrees to Close Military Bases in Georgia

–NATO–EU Hail Russian Pledge

MOSCOW (AFP/Reuters)–Moscow and Tbilisi have completed an agreement on the pullout by the end of 2008 of Russia’s last two Soviet-era military bases in Georgia–a deal that could allow the establishment of other foreign bases there.

"The final pullout will be finished during 2008," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said after talks Monday in Moscow with his Georgian counterpart Salome Zurabishvili.

"We have taken an important and constructive step. We have achieved our goal," Zurabishvili told journalists.

The government in Tbilisi is left free to bring in US or other foreign troops–but Zurabishvili said her government had no intention of doing so.

The agreement marked a breakthrough after years of rancorous negotiations over the two bases–formerly part of Soviet defenses on the southwestern flank with NATO–but more recently a bargaining chip in Moscow’s fight to retain influence in the Caucasus.

Georgia’s President Mikhail Saakashvili hailed the agreement as "historic."

"This is a very important political event–it is a historic moment for our country–as it puts an end to Russia’s 200-year military presence in Georgia," Saakashvili said late Monday following the signing of the deal in Moscow.

"We want friendly–neighborly relations–we will never create any problems for Russia," the Georgian leader added.

Under the accord–the approximately 3,000 servicemen on the two bases–one in Akhalkalak–near the Georgian-Armenian border–the other in Batumi–on the Black Sea coast–are now on ‘withdrawal’ status.

It was unclear whether Georgia had made any major concessions in the deal–but a mention in the agreement of a possible joint "anti-terrorist" centre seemed to leave the door open for some sort of Russian military presence in the country.

Under the accord signed by both foreign ministers–withdrawal of heavy weapons will begin later this year–with September 1 the deadline for removing the first hardware–including up to 20 tanks–the agreement said.

The last heavy weaponry must be gone from Akhalkalak by the end of next year–and from all Russian installations by the end of 2007–with the final pullout of the last men and materiel by the end of the following year.

The agreement also says that "part of the personnel and technical means and infrastructure" from the Batumi base will be used to set up a Georgian-Russian anti-terrorist center.

Russia’s refusal to make a speedy withdrawal from the two bases has contributed to tense relations with its neighbor since the collapse of the Soviet Union–especially since Georgia’s pro-Western president Mikhail Saakashvili came to power in the "rose revolution" of November 2003.

Russia has hoped to stem an erosion of its influence in the Caucasus–where the United States has become an increasingly important player.

Georgia has applied for membership in NATO and hosts a small contingent of US military trainers.

NATO and the European Union welcomed Russia’s pledge to pull its troops.

"In taking steps to resolve this longstanding dispute–the two sides have …advanced security in the Caucasus region," NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said.

De Hoop Scheffer also called in a statement for an early solution to a separate dispute with Moldova over 1,200 Russian peacekeeping troops in the Russian-speaking Dnestr region–which fought a brief war with newly independent Moldova in 1992.

EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana also issued a statement welcoming the Georgia accord.

Some diplomats have suggested the presence of Russian troops in Georgia is an obstacle to Tbilisi’s ambition to join NATO–though the alliance insists there is no formal link.

In another sign of a possible thaw in relations–Lavrov said there had also been a decision to agree before the end of the year on delimitation of the Georgian-Russian border–which runs along the Caucasus Mountains range.

"We will do everything" to contribute to peaceful resolutions of Georgia’s separatist conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia–Lavrov added.

Moscow-backed separatist forces control both regions–which are on the Georgian side of the rugged border.

Russian President Vladimir Putin recently cleared the way for an end to the row over the bases–saying that Moscow could not drag its feet.

"Foreign bases of all countries in the world–if they are not occupying troops–are there with the agreement of their partners. If there is no such desire among our partners–then we have no choice. We have to take this step. For better or worse–we are leaving there," he said.

Georgia is impoverished and has a population of less than five million. But it has gained in strategic importance with the building of an oil export pipeline that stretches from the Caspian Sea to the Mediterranean–with a section passing through Georgia.

Its troubled border with Russia includes a section shared with Chechnya–where tens of thousands of Russian troops are tied down in the second guerrilla war in a decade.

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