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Georgian Leader Boycotts Moscow Visits, as Tbilisi, Moscow Fail to Agree on Bases

Georgian Foreign Minister Salome Zourabichvili said after talks with her counterpart Sergey Lavrov in Moscow on May 6 that Moscow changed its stance and has refused to adhere to a hand-shake agreement over closure of the Russian military bases in Georgia by January 1, 2008, reached between the two Ministers in April. She said that Georgia is ready to continue talks, but also warned that “time is running.”

Failure to reach an agreement over the timeframe of the bases’ withdrawal prompted Salome Zourabichvili to announce that Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili will not visit Moscow on May 8-9. Tbilisi wanted to finalize an agreement over the military bases before May 8, so that the Georgian and Russian Presidents would have been able to signed it in Moscow.

“There is no agreement over the major issue – the final date of bases’ closure [January 1, 2008], which we thought was already reached [after a hand-shake agreement between Lavrov and Zourabichvili last month],” Salome Zourabichvili said in an interview with Tbilisi-based Rustavi 2 television after four-hour long talks with Lavrov.

She said that Georgia insists on less than a three-year timeframe because Tbilisi does not want the presence of Russian military bases when Georgians vote for a new Parliament and President, in 2008 and 2009 respectively.

“They [the Russian side] promised us that they will take this [argument] in to consideration, but it has not been taken into consideration,” Zourabichvili said.


“Now the following game is underway: Russians tell us that they will try to receive a final answer about the timeframe from the [Russian] President; Lavrov is due to meet President Putin tomorrow [on May 7] and after that he [Lavrov] may phone us; [Lavrov] also [offered] to hold a meeting next week; he also said that they want to reach an agreement very much. Let’s see, we are also ready to continue talks,” Salome Zourabichvili said, but added that time is running out and the deadline set by the Georgian Parliament is approaching.


The Georgian Parliament approved a resolution on March 10 instructing the executive government to take measures against the Russian military bases in Georgia if an agreement over a “reasonable” timeframe for their withdrawal is not reached with Russia before May 15, 2005.


These measures include: halting of issuing entry visas to Russian military servicemen; assessment of the total debt for the functioning of the bases and preparing an unspecified “special regime of movement” for the Russian servicemen, military hardware and cargo owned by the Russian military bases stationed in Georgia. The Parliament also instructs the Ministry of Environment “to assess the ecological damage caused by the functioning of the Russian military bases.”


“Before that [May 15] we are ready to work and try to reach an agreement, but there will be nothing left to do after [the deadline expires],” Salome Zourabichvili stated.


She said that that the two sides have reached an agreement that the process of withdrawal should start in 2005, but failed to agree on when it will be finished. The Georgian side has the following proposal forward: to close down military base in Akhalkalaki by the end of 2006 and the other base in Batumi by January, 2008.


“But the Russian side cites mainly technical problems… they say they need more time,” Zourabichvili said.


“They [the Russian side] say it [withdrawal of bases] is difficult; this and this number of ships are needed; weather on the Black Sea also might hinder [this process]; there are too many things that should be withdrawal but not enough time etc,” she added.
 
“We reached an agreement that the process of withdrawal will be launched in 2005, but there is no agreement when to finish this process,” Zourabichvili added.


This statement made by Russian Defense Minister Sergey Ivanov that at least four years are needed for bases’ withdrawal was the first sign of a change in position by Moscow.


When asked whether Russian military officials influenced Moscow’s position, she answered that “it seems so.”


“It is a fact that both the tone and environment of these negotiations were different from those during the previous talks [with Lavrov in April] and there was no readiness [from the Russian side] to finish these negotiations,” Zourabichvili said.


U.S. President George W. Bush is expected to push the issue of the Russian military bases during his talks with Vladimir Putin in Moscow on May 9. Bush said on May 5 that the United States is willing “to facilitate” but it is up to Georgia and Russia to resolve this problem.

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