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US opposes Russian base in Abkhazia

By Temuri Kiguradze
Monday, February 2
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Matthew Bryza has stated Moscow must refrain from establishing a naval base in the Georgian breakaway region of Abkhazia. "The possible deployment of a naval base in Abkhazia, an air base in Abkhazia and a military base in South Ossetia seems to be [a case of] moving in the wrong direction," said Bryza on January 31, as quoted by Reuters news agency.

Russian officials recently announced their plans to build a naval base in the Abkhazian town of Ochamchire this year. The de facto Abkhazian authorities have already given their ‘permission’ for this and promised to “provide any kind of assistance” to the project. On January 30 the media further reported the possible basing of a large number of Russian jet fighters at the military airport of Bombora, near town of Guduata, also in the breakaway Georgian province. Bombora Airport is the biggest air base in the whole South Caucasus region.

Russian and separatist Abkhazian and South Ossetian officials state that Russian forces are now, and will continue to be, concentrated in the conflict zones according to an agreement on cooperation signed between these regions and Russia. Tbilisi has declared that Abkhazia and South Ossetia are Georgian territory occupied by the Russian forces.

"Russia pledged to return its troops to the levels and locations that existed before the Russia-Georgia war," said Bryza, an envoy to the region. "Russia is already in violation of those commitments.... Deploying a naval base would be another violation." Bryza also commented on the possibility of Russia aborting the UN observers mission in Abkhazia and South Ossetia as a follow up to its veto of the continuation of the OSCE mission in late 2008, saying that Russia should not prevent the extension of a UN observer mandate in the region, which should take place by February 15. "We've put compromises forward and Russia has rejected them so far," Bryza said. "We hope Russia won't reject the compromise for the United Nations." OSCE observers, among other duties, monitor the military sites in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Georgian State Minister on Reintegration Issues Temur Iakobashvili called the plans for future Russian military bases “part of the Russian occupation plan.” Georgian military expert Koba Liklikadze considers that there are several things the Russians are trying to achieve in building naval, infantry and air bases in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. “The first is to gain strategic positions in the case of another Russian-Georgian war. Bases in Ochamchire and Gudauta as well as troops in South Ossetia will allow Russia to easily defeat the Georgian Army. The second thing is to hold a position close to the oil and gas pipelines vital for both Georgia and Western countries, which may influence them against the NABUCCO project,” Liklikadze told The Messenger on February 1. He also noted that there is a reason for Russia to strengthen its military force on the Black Sea coast – “Several months ago it was reported that oil had been discovered in the Black Sea near Ochamchire. It was stated that about five billion tonnes had been found. So it seems quite possible that Russia will do everything to keep hold of this territory.”

Asked about ways in which Georgia could influence Russia to withdraw it bases from the Georgian separatist regions, Koba Liklikadze mentioned the latest PACE resolution appealing to Russia to leave the territories and withdraw its recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. “The international community’s assistance is the only weapon Georgia has now,” he said.