A parliamentary resolution that seeks an early Russian withdrawal from military bases from Georgian territory is stirring concerns about what a pull-out will mean for the economic welfare of one Georgian town.
In a unanimous vote March 10, Georgian legislators called on President Mikheil Saakashvili to demand a full Russian troop withdrawal from two bases on Georgian territory by January 1, 2006, unless Russian officials agree to a mutually acceptable pull-out timetable before May 15. Saakashvili is not bound by law to implement the resolution, which is aimed at breaking a deadlock in base withdrawal negotiations. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. If Russia balks on the base issue, Georgia should simply shut down the two facilities one at the Black Sea port of Batumi, the other in Akhalkalaki, a town of 10,000 with a predominantly ethnic Armenian local population the resolution states.
The situation in Akhalkalaki illustrates the extent to which the base debate with Moscow goes beyond foreign policy. Related economic and interethnic issues promise to play a considerable role as well.
The base in Akhalkalaki employs about 15 percent of the local population and is the only major employer in town. In addition, local Armenians say the Russian troop presence makes them feel more secure. Between 1,500 and 4,000 Akhalkalaki residents took to the streets on March 13 to demonstrate against the base's potential closure, contending that Russians troops provided their only defense against Turkey, a longtime Armenian foe. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive]. David Rstkyan, leader of the ethnic Armenian political party Virk, has pledged that town residents will "do everything to try and stop the Russian soldiers from leaving Akhalkalaki," Kavkasia-Press reported.
Strengthening relations with Georgia's ethnic minorities is a key government policy goal, and the discontent in Akhalkalaki seems to have caught Saakashvili's attention. In a televised exchange with Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili on March 14, the president stated that a Georgian army unit would move into the town's base once Russian troops had vacated the property. Jobs for all Georgians currently employed at the base would be preserved, he said.
"Our task is to make sure that not a single qualified person who has anything to do with the military is left without a job," Imedi television quoted Saakashvili as saying during a March 14 inspection of a Georgian army battalion. "We have the resources and money to ensure this."
Hamlet Movsesian, Akhalkalaki's parliamentary representative, told EurasiaNet that, after the Rose Revolution, government representatives, including the late Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania, promised the town the base would not be closed until alternate employment could be created. "It worries me," he said. "In the region there are no factories, no production plants. The base is the only working industry employing citizens." Base employees reportedly earn $200-$300 per month, considerably more than any local Georgian employer could pay.
Infrastructure, town officials say, poses a major obstacle for attracting interest to the region whether private businesses or international organizations.
"[Y]ou can say that the infrastructure is basically zero. If you want to develop something, without infrastructure, that is not possible," said Akhalkalaki region head Artul Eremayn, citing his office's lack of a fax machine as an indication of the extent of the problem. "It's like what comes first, the chicken or the egg? [Should we work on] development first or the infrastructure?"
In interviews with EurasiaNet before Saakashvili's announcement, Movsesian and Akhalkalaki Deputy Mayor Ararat Kanaian said that some jobs could come as early as April or May as part of the national government's on-going project to rebuild regional roads. Plans also exist to open the Karsi-Akhalkalaki-Tbilisi railroad line as well as a possible customs checkpoint in the region. No estimate on exactly how many jobs could be created from these plans, however, exists.
Additional help could come from foreign donors. The United States Department of Agriculture plans to set up an Internet café in one local school to act as an information center for local farmers. The United States Agency for International Development says that it intends to involve an unspecified number of area villages in its Georgia Employment and Infrastructure Initiative, a program that finances infrastructure overhauls for villages that submit qualifying business plans.
Georgia's improving relationship with neighboring Armenia would seem an important factor in Saakashvili's decision-making calculus on the Akhalkalaki base. Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Noghaideli completed a two-day visit to Yerevan on March 12, during which he expressed a desire to expand bilateral trade ties. The Georgian government is especially interested in importing electricity from Armenia. Tbilisi also wants to explore a possible Georgian link to a planned pipeline between Armenia and Iran. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
For now, it appears that the base jobs in Akhalkalaki are secure. Moscow recently stated that it needs three-four years for its withdrawal from Batumi and Akhalkalaki along with a training center in Gonio, a village not far from Batumi -- a declaration welcomed by Tbilisi as an improvement over earlier estimates of seven-eight years.
Still, the Georgian parliament does not appear inclined toward patience. "The Red Army took much less time to occupy Georgia [in 1921]," resolution co-author and member of parliament Giga Bokeria was quoted as saying by the Civil Georgia website in reference to Moscow's proposed timeline for the withdrawal.
Georgian legislators have scoffed at demands from Russian Duma Chairman Boris Gryzlov that Tbilisi to pay compensation for the property left behind. Instead, MPs have charged that Russia owes Georgia between $300 million - $400 million in back taxes for use of the land the bases sit on, and have threatened to suspend visas for Russian military personnel traveling to the bases, as well as the installations' electricity and phone service.
One of those threats appears to have already taken effect: On March 12, the Russian Foreign Ministry issued a protest note in connection with a delay in issuing a visa to General Alexander Bespalov, the newly appointed commander for Russian troops in the South Caucasus.
Saakashvili's promise that Georgian soldiers would effectively replace departing Russian troops appeared unlikely to sway opinion in Akhalkalaki. Many local residents believe that Georgian troops are not as skilled as Russian troops at providing security against a widely perceived threat coming from nearby Turkey, according to Kanaian. Roughly 95 percent of the town's residents are descended from Armenians who fled Ottoman Turkey following the 1915 massacre of thousands of their compatriots. "[The base] protects us and there is work there. The base is our guarantee," Akhalkalaki resident Vova Chlokhyan commented. "It protects us from the Turks. We have already seen the danger [they pose for us] and we are afraid of them."
Despite Virk's threat to organize more demonstrations, Deputy Mayor Kanaian is confident that unrest can be avoided as the base issue plays out. "I don't think that there will be a particular problem here. There are people, who have a huge interest in that base, and, of course, they will try [to keep it here]."
Educating the public about how the base closure could impact them is a larger worry for the government than protests, he said. "[We] are doing things to explain to people [what is going on]. We have to understand each other, the people and the government."
Molly Corso is a freelance journalist and photographer based in Tbilisi.