Breakaway Abkhazia to host Russian bases

SUKHUMI, Georgia (Reuters) - Georgia’s separatist region of Abkhazia plans to sign a deal allowing Russia to build two new military bases there despite protests from the European Union and the United States, Abkhaz officials said.

Abkhazia threw off Georgian rule in the 1990s and hopes the Russian bases will help guarantee its independence from Tbilisi. Only Russia and Nicaragua have recognized Abkhazia as a sovereign state.

Moscow’s military presence is already visible in Abkhazia, an impoverished area running along the Black Sea coast.

A military unit, complete with huge radars, army tents and flying the flag of the Russian air force, has been deployed near the resort town of Gudauta where Moscow plans to revive a Soviet-era air base, a Reuters reporter saw.

Abkhaz Deputy Defense Minister Garry Kupalba said a military treaty with Russia could be signed for a 25-year period and include the training of Abkhaz officers in Russia.

“Great nations should undertake obligations to safeguard the security of small states,” he told Reuters.


Georgia sent troops to try to retake another separatist region -- South Ossetia -- last August, triggering a brief war with Russia. Moscow has pledged to station 7,600 soldiers in the two pro-Russian separatist areas “to prevent a repeat of military aggression by Tbilisi.”

The European Union said a build-up of Russia’s military presence in the breakaway regions would be “a serious violation of the principle of Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity” and would go against the spirit of the EU-brokered ceasefire which ended the August war.

But Moscow’s military preparations are going ahead.

Russian contract sergeants with heavy knapsacks throng a border pass to Abkhazia. Numerous trucks and military police cars speed along a road snaking through the mountains. Two Russian warships patrol the sea near the region’s palm tree-lined capital Sukhumi.

Moscow is keen to re-establish its military influence in the territory of the former Soviet Union and wants new bases abroad, while pressing its ally Kyrgyzstan to shut down a U.S. air base there.

A spokesman for the Abkhaz leadership said last week Sukhumi expects to sign a deal in a few months allowing Russia to establish a naval base in Ochamchire, at the border with Georgia proper, and an air base in Gudauta near Russia.

Russia rents military bases in ex-Soviet nations Ukraine and Tajikistan, and Abkhaz leaders say a military treaty with Moscow could set similar terms.

“This would be in line with realistic, normal and civilized relations,” separatist Vice-President Raul Khadzhimba said.

Kupalba said thousands of Russian troops in the region could prop up stability and help ensure the success of the 2014 Winter Olympics which Moscow will host in Sochi, a few miles from Abkhazia’s border with Russia.


Abkhazia, heavily reliant on Russia’s financial support, has also touted Ochamchire as a replacement for the base in Ukraine’s Sevastopol which hosts Russia’s Black Sea Fleet.

The fleet, stationed in Sevastopol for more than two centuries, is to leave Ukraine in 2017 when the lease expires. Kiev, which wants closer ties with the West, will not renew it.

But Abkhazia’s deputy foreign minister Maxim Gvindzhia has doubts, pointing to the size of the Black Sea Fleet’s infrastructure and the families of its service personnel.

“This (Fleet’s move) is unrealistic,” Gvindzhia said. “This means we would have to resettle half of Sevastopol to Abkhazia.

Gvindzhia also said he did not rule out a scenario under which the question of the Russian bases could be used as a bargaining chip in Moscow’s icy relations with Washington.

Moscow’s ties with Washington sank to a post-Soviet low in August over the war in South Ossetia. But the new administration of U.S. President Barack Obama has indicated it may not pursue two of the thorniest issues -- NATO expansion and a European anti-missile system -- with the same vigor as its predecessor.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Thursday she hoped for a more constructive relationship with Russia.

“If Russia changes its mind and does not deploy a military base, this could be caused only by a certain process of thawing relations with Georgia and between Russia and the West,” Gvindzhia said.

Writing by Dmitry Solovyov; Editing by Janet Lawrence