Many analysts foresaw the crisis over the Russian bases in Georgia during the first days of the "velvet revolution" in Tbilisi. Indeed, this conclusion was there for all to see, especially because of the nationalist statements expressed by Mikhail Saakashvili and his team during those events and shortly after the presidential elections.
In reality, this issue is not about the military bases. The point is that Tbilisi politicians see them as a "bulwark" of Adzharian, Abkhazian and South Ossetian independence.
From the legal point of view, there are no reasons for Russo-Georgian relations to suffer because of this situation. Russia is strictly complying with its Istanbul agreement obligations. And this is something I reported to senior OSCE officials, when I met them in Vienna last year as the chairman of the State Duma defence committee. Two of the four Russian bases in Georgia, Vaziani and Gudauta, were closed on schedule. However, there were some problems with the Gudauta base. According to the Istanbul understandings, Georgia was to provide the security for the Russian bases' pullout. But Gudauta is situated in Abkhazia, and therefore Tbilisi failed to assist the withdrawal of Russian servicemen and their equipment from this area. Local residents picketed the Gudauta base for several days in an attempt to make Russians stay. Thankfully, the personal influence of some Russian generals and politicians helped any unpleasant incidents to be avoided. It is worth mentioning that Russia did not escalate the situation then and did not demand that Tbilisi "ensure security for the withdrawal." It goes without saying that Georgia's failure to fulfil its obligations could well alleviate the claims against Russia.
As for the other two bases in Batumi and Akhalkalaki, the deadline for their withdrawal has been clearly fixed, too. Russia is to complete the pullout within almost ten years. And Tbilisi has no grounds to distrust Russia. Nor does Georgia have any legal right to accelerate the process. It would be understandable if the Russian servicemen had somehow interfered with the country's internal affairs or inflicted any irreparable damage on it. But nothing of the kind has happened. Accordingly, the new Georgian authorities' claims are simply politically motivated.
Unfortunately, this is not the first time we have seen this.
Last spring, as the chairman of the Duma defence committee, I happened to meet Nino Burdzhanadze, who was then parliamentary speaker, before she went on to become the acting president of Georgia. Even then, she talked quite firmly about accelerating the withdrawal of the Russian bases. I laid out all the abovementioned arguments to her, and added my personal opinion that in principle Russia could reduce the timeframe from 11 to 8 or 9 years, given certain political and financial guarantees.
The political guarantees I meant were to the numerous Russian citizens living in Adzharia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. We must be sure that Tbilisi will not use force to re-annex these autonomies.
The economic guarantees in question were helping Russia accommodate the troops after the pullout. I am still convinced, like a year ago, that Russia will never agree to a hasty withdrawal of its troops, as was the case with Eastern Europe, when entire divisions were literally abandoned.
We need to build military towns for the troops, housing for commissioned and non-commissioned officers' families, create an infrastructure and provide jobs for the servicemen's wives. International experience shows that ten years is not such a long time for withdrawing this many servicemen. It took Great Britain, for example, an entire decade to withdraw one brigade from Germany in the late 20th century, when its economic situation was far better. Why should Russia tackle a more complicated task within a mere 2 to 3 years? Moreover, the Russian Finance Ministry will only consider allocating the necessary funds for the construction of the military towns after Russia and Georgia have signed an interstate agreement to that effect.
However, so far there is no progress in this area, and this is not Russia's fault.
In conclusion, there is another aspect. The situation over the Russian bases escalated after Russian military and political leaders pointed out that NATO was considering stationing its bases in Eastern Europe and, in particular, Poland and Romania.