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Russia Will Close Bases in Georgia in 2008

Russia agreed Monday to withdraw its troops from two Soviet-era bases in Georgia in 2008, resolving one of the most serious disputes between Moscow and its pro-Western neighbor.

The deal is a victory for the Caucasus Mountain nation, whose president, Mikheil Saakashvili, has sought to move the country out of the shadow of Moscow and toward deeper economic and military relations with the United States and Europe.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who signed a joint statement on the pullout with his Georgian counterpart, Salome Zurabishvili, on Monday said troops and equipment would be withdrawn first from the military base at the southern city of Akhalkalaki and then from the Black Sea port of Batumi. About 3,000 troops are stationed at the two bases.

Russia commits itself to begin the withdrawal this year, according to the agreement, the text of which was posted on the Russian Foreign Ministry web site.

The agreement is "an important and constructive step," Zurabishvili said. "We have achieved a goal which we have long been working for."

Lavrov said the agreement meant the withdrawal could take place "without any kind of discomfort for the soldiers" and said the pact would "help further develop our relations."

The deal resolves one of the most severe disputes between Georgia and its giant neighbor to the north. Russia has two bases in Georgia as holdovers from the Soviet era; two other bases were closed this decade.

Georgia had accused Russia of procrastination in withdrawing the final troop contingents in order to keep a presence in the country, which the Kremlin regards as part of its historical sphere of influence. Earlier this year, Georgian officials raised the prospect of declaring the bases illegal in 2006 if there were no progress in negotiations.

In addition to the bases, Russia and Georgia have sparred over issues such as Russia's close relations with the governments in Abkhazia and South Ossetia -- two regions that broke away from Georgia during wars in the early 1990s.

Russia in turn has watched with dismay as Saakashvili pursues closer relations with the West and boosted military cooperation with the United States.

The dispute over the bases had heated up in recent weeks, and Saakashvili skipped Victory Day celebrations in Moscow on May 9 over the spat. Georgia's parliament had called for the bases to be blockaded if Russia did not agree on a withdrawal schedule. The State Duma had responded by threatening to break diplomatic ties.

Russia withdrew from a third base, near Tbilisi, under an agreement signed in Istanbul in 1999.

(The Moscow Times 31.v.05)

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