TBILISI (Reuters) - Russia said on Tuesday it had formally ended its military presence in Georgia after more than two centuries, closing its last base in its small neighbor.
Russia’s commander of military forces in the Caucasus, Andrei Popov, signed documents handing over to Georgia the territory of its last base at Batumi in the Ajara autonomous republic.
Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, who says he wants to end dominance by former imperial masters in Moscow, reached agreement with Russia in 2005 for the closure of the bases.
Georgia, brought into the Russian Empire at the start of the 19th century, enjoyed a brief period of independence after the Bolshevik revolution but was occupied by Soviet forces in 1921.
Georgia declared independence as the Soviet Union crumbled in 1991 but its relations with Moscow have been stormy, with Russian bases one of the issues that have strained ties.
Saakashvili last week imposed a state of emergency, banning independent media and meetings, saying the measures were needed to prevent a coup and blaming Russia for stirring up trouble.
The president has steered the former Soviet state westwards and says he wants Georgia to join the NATO military alliance.
“Russian military bases stopped functioning on Georgian territory after the signing of these documents,” Georgia’s first deputy defense minister, Batu Kutelia, said after the handover. “This is a day of major importance for the country.”
NATO members have refused to ratify an updated version of the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty until Russia pulls out its forces from Georgia and Moldova, as it promised to in 1999.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russian inherited four military bases in Georgia. In the 1990s, Russia said it closed bases in Tbilisi and Gudauta, which is in Georgia’s rebel region of Abkhazia, which is supported by Russia.
Georgia has doubts about whether the base in Gudauta has been closed and demands international observers be allowed to check it.
Another Russian military base in Akhalkalaki, in the south, was closed in June 2007. The equipment was moved to Russia and its military base in Gyumri, Armenia.
The last group of Russian officers should leave Georgia by the end of November with the last equipment to leave by Nov 15, Popov said.
Writing by Guy Faulconbridge, editing by Keith Weir