Russia to withdraw troops

After months of talks, the plan was unveiled in Moscow by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and his Georgian counterpart Salome Zurabishvili.

In March Georgian lawmakers voted unanimously to outlaw Russia’s military presence in the country unless Moscow withdrew its servicemen by 1 January 2006.

They threatened to declare the bases illegal and stop issuing entry visas to Russian troops if they failed to withdraw.

Moscow says it needs four years to complete the pull-out and to build accommodation to house the servicemen.

Russian President Vladimir Putin recently cleared the way for an end to the row, promising Moscow wouldn’t 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.

The continued presence of around 3,000 Russian troops has been a source of tension between Moscow and Tbilisi.

But the former Soviet republic calmed Russian fears it planned to allow US or other foreign troops into the country.

“We have given no guarantees to this effect in the course of the present negotiations,” said Ms Zurabishvili. “But we have also said on many occasions that we do not have any intention of having military bases on Georgian territory.”

Russia’s refusal to make a speedy withdrawal contributed to tense relations with its neighbour since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The bases were once key parts of the Soviet defence on the southwestern flank with NATO, but have recently become a bargaining chip in Moscow’s fight to retain influence in the Caucasus.

The disagreements intensified after Georgia’s pro-Western president Mikhail Saakashvili came to power in the “rose revolution” of November 2003.

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

With a population of less than five million, Georgia is an impoverished country.

But it’s 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 involved in a bitter guerrilla war.