- Title: GEORGIA: Georgia says good-bye to Russian military bases, looking towards NATO
- Date: 14th June 2006
- Summary: MILITARY BRASS BAND CONDUCTOR SOLDIERS IN FORMATION
- Embargoed: 29th June 2006 13:00
- Location: Georgia
- Country: Georgia
- Topics: International Relations,Defence / Military
- Reuters ID: LVA96LDZJ1PF4HSW8IZRFCI1999F
- Story Text: Less than a month before Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili initiated a meeting with Russian leader Vladimir Putin in an attempt to defuse tension between his 4.5 million country and a powerful northern neighbour, Georgia opened a new showcase Senaki military base, located close to the border of one of the separatist regions of Abkhazia.
The base, containing more than 20 new buildings, canteens, quarters for officers and training facilities, is built to meet modern requirements and accommodates more than 3,000 volunteer soldiers. Most of the soldiers have returned from active duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, and are regarded as trained in compliance with NATO standards. Georgia will have an entirely volunteer army by 2009, at the moment volunteer soldiers account for 70 percent of Georgian armed forces.
Some experts believe that Saakashvili could use the base to exert political pressure on Russia and Abkhazia but nobody in the country's leadership admits the location of the base is connected to this pledge.
Saakashvili, propelled to power by 2003 pro-Western "Rose Revolution" protest, has accused Russia of backing separatist territories and pledged to regain Abkhazia and South Ossetia which broke away from Georgian rule in the early 1990s.
Professor Alexander Rondeli, of the Georgian Foundation of Strategic and International Studies, thinks there is no connection between the opening of the new base and Georgia's desire to regain control over separatist regions.
"I think the location of this military base is a strategic location near our main port, especially important for Georgia and near our air fields in Senaki. So, I think, it is not connected with Abkhazia and with separatist territories, it is just a good location for Georgian armed forces," Rondeli said.
He is convinced that opening of a new base should be viewed as Georgia's effort to shake of the ex-Soviet legacy and its desire to turn to the West.
"Georgia is on the road to NATO, to Euro-Atlantic community and this new military base, I think, is just a manifestation of a new Georgian armed forces' new spirit, new standards and Georgia's aspirations also," he said.
Saakashvili's unexpected visits to different army units in the middle of the night to check operational readiness of the soldiers are seen as an example of his determination to reform the army. It also sends a clear message he is making bids for the integration of Georgia's armed forces into NATO. These aspirations for NATO and the European Union membership are the top foreign policy priorities for the post "Rose Revolution" Georgia.
For its part NATO does not seem to be in a hurry to embrace Georgia, but in May 2006 its parliamentary assembly adopted a resolution in which it noted Georgia's "significant progress" in implementing goals set out in the Individual Partnership Action Plan. The plan was endorsed in late 2004 and called for the beginning of intensive dialogue with Georgia. Georgia currently takes part in military assistance programmes conducted by the US and NATO member, Turkey.
In spite of this, the chances of Georgia joining NATO in the near future are slim, but it is enough to vex Russia. Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov warned NATo against accession of ex-Soviet Ukraine and Georgia, saying such a geopolitical shift would threaten relations.
Georgia's decision to build a second base in Akhalkalaki near Georgia's border with Turkey as soon as Russian forces withdrew from that facility has not helped to ease the tensions between the countries.
Russia is pulling out from two Soviet -era bases in Georgia, Akhalkalaki and Batumi, and will complete the process by 2008. This falls under an agreement signed in 2005, a result of long and difficult negotiations.
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