Moscow (CNSNews.com) - Russia and Georgia announced an agreement Monday on closing down Russia's two last Cold War-era bases in the small former Soviet republic, a move that Georgia -- backed by the U.S. -- has long been demanding.
"The complete withdrawal will be finished during 2008," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said after a meeting in Moscow with his Georgian counterpart Salome Zourabichvili.
He told journalists an agreement between the two sides spells out not just the completion date but also a schedule for a stage-by-stage exit.
"The withdrawal will be completed by the end of 2008," he said. "The declaration outlines every stage of this withdrawal in great detail."
Zourabichvili called the step "very constructive and important."
After years of dragging its feet on the issue, Russia has pledged to begin the process quickly. By the middle of June, it agreed to transfer a tank-repair facility, followed by at least 20 tanks by Sept.1.
All military facilities outside the bases are to be transferred to the Georgians by Jan.1, 2006. The Akhalkalaki base in the south of the country is to be closed by Oct. 1, 2007 and the Batumi military base in southwestern Georgia the next year.
In a bid to quell Russian concerns that Georgia's pro-Western government may replace the Russians with NATO forces, Zourabichvili said the country had tourism potential and was not interested in deploying foreign military bases on its soil.
President Mikhail Saakashvili has also said no foreign bases should be allowed on Georgian territory.
The base issue has been a lingering sore point between Russia and its southern neighbor of 4.4 million people.
Moscow pledged at a 1999 Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe summit in Istanbul to shut down two of four bases in Georgia by specific dates. It also said it would close the remaining two, Akhalkalaki and Batumi, although no dates were set.
Russia duly withdrew from the other two but balked at a speedy departure from the Akhalkalaki and Batumi, saying it would need years to build the infrastructure in Russia to handle the servicemen and equipment withdrawn from Georgia.
Russia also asked for hundreds of millions of dollars to pay for the 2,500 troops' removal to new facilities in Russia or elsewhere.
Pressure has been growing since Saakashvili came to power after a pro-Western "Rose Revolution" in 2003, a move that eroded Moscow's influence in Georgia.
U.S. officials have repeatedly called on Russia to fulfill its obligations to withdraw its remaining troops from Georgia.
During a visit to Tbilisi earlier this month, President Bush described Georgia as a symbol of freedom around the world.
Although he did not openly call for a Russian troop deployment, Bush said Russia would benefit from the emergence of new democracies in neighboring countries.
In an attempt to soften the blow, Georgia has offered to create a joint anti-terrorist center with Russia, tentatively planned to be based in Batumi.
The reaction in Russia to the withdrawal agreement has been mixed.
Some politicians and media fretted that the Russians would indeed be replaced by NATO troops, with Tbilisi's insistence on a speeded-up withdrawal seen as "blackmail."
Official media such as the state-controlled First Channel and RTR television networks, painted the agreement as a victory for Russian diplomacy.
Other media outlets were less optimistic, with the liberal Gazeta daily writing of a Russian surrender, and the liberal Novye Izvestia daily suggesting that an anti-terrorist center was a poor exchange for two military bases.
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