MOSCOW (RIA Novosti)–Russia formally handed over its military base at Akhalkalaki in southern Georgia to Tbilisi Wednesday, as part of an ongoing scaling-down of its military presence in the ex-Soviet state.
Georgia says the location of the 15,000-man military complex, founded in 1910, is strategically important. The handover of the base, formally known as the 62nd Russian military base, is part of Russia’s commitmen’s taken at a summit of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in Istanbul, Turkey, in 1999.
Russia closed the Soviet-era Gudauta base in Abkhazia, one of Georgia’s breakaway provinces, removed its military garrison from the capital Tbilisi, and is now withdrawing personnel and hardware from bases at the Black Sea port of Batumi.
Under a bilateral agreement reached in 2006, the pullout of military equipment from the Akhalkalaki base is to be completed by the end of 2007, and the withdrawal from the Batumi base in 2008.
Russia’s continued military presence in the South Caucasus nation has been a major source of controversy in bilateral relations with Georgia. The country’s leadership has repeatedly accused Russian authorities of providing support for separatists in the Georgian provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which Tbilisi is determined to bring back under its control.