I want to make a statement about the political agreement reached in Moscow today. Today Georgia and Russia reached a political agreement on the final withdrawal of Russian military bases from Georgia. I would like to remind you, my fellow citizens, what this is all about.
Russia's military presence in Georgia has lasted more than 200 years. It has always been there, apart from a short three-year period of independence [in 1918-21]. On 15 September 1995, President Shevardnadze signed a treaty in Georgia's name, which was to extend the presence of Russian military bases in Georgia by 25 years, until at least the end of 2020.
After that a new Georgian parliament was elected, whose chairman was Zurab Zhvania and in which we represented the majority. We refused to ratify this treaty. In 1999 in Istanbul, as a result of this, a new agreement was signed on the withdrawal of two bases, including the Vaziani base, which was politically the least important among the Russian bases. As for the withdrawal of the Gudauta base [in Abkhazia], President Shevardnadze began looking into the legalization of this base as a permanent rest and recreation centre for Russian and CIS peacekeepers.
Last year, after the Rose Revolution, during the first visits to Moscow, first by Nino Burjanadze as acting president and then by myself as president, we raised the issue of the bases. The first deadline proposed by the Russian General Staff was 17 years, then 15, then 13 and finally the best, which was mentioned this year, was 10-11 years. This was, of course, completely unacceptable.
Today, as a result of many months of talks, as a result of many discussions - you know that these talks should have been concluded by the 9 May [Victory Day] celebrations, but unfortunately this did not happen - a political agreement has been reached between our foreign ministers.
The main thing is that Russia's military bases should leave Georgia. Now that the treaty has been concluded, they are operating in withdrawal mode. This means that their staffing cannot be increased, their equipment cannot be replaced and the withdrawal of heavy equipment will begin immediately. A significant part of this heavy equipment will leave Georgian territory by the autumn.
Immediately after the signing of this agreement, Georgia will be handed the tank repair plant in Tbilisi, a very important strategic asset. We will be handed the main section of the Gonio training ground [in Ajaria], which was our request. We will be handed several military assets which have military and strategic importance.
The first base that will leave Georgian territory will be the Akhalkalaki military base, from which heavy equipment and the majority of weapons will be removed by the end of next year. That is the most important thing, that the base stops functioning as a military unit, although the withdrawal of personnel will be completed by the autumn of 2007. However, the actual withdrawal will start this year and continue next year.
The majority of equipment and arms will be withdrawn from the Batumi base by the end of 2007 at the latest. It means that the base will stop functioning and will close because it will no longer have military importance.
We recognize that military personnel in Tbilisi and Batumi have social problems and, therefore, we have agreed that their final withdrawal, after the base practically no longer exists, will take place during 2008.
However, as I said, the withdrawal process begins immediately now that this treaty has been concluded and will be irreversible.
The closure of the Gudauta base has been decided and the use of this base for another purpose, including its use by CIS and Russian peacekeepers, is not on the agenda. There is no such clause in this agreement, despite previous discussions.
I think what happened in Moscow today is a very important political event. It is a historic event for our country. This has been one of the two main painful issues between Georgia and Russia. One issue is the former Soviet, Russian military bases and the other is the settlement of conflicts. One of these two issues is being resolved by this agreement and the start of its implementation.
For many years this is the first precedent of serious talks being a success. I am sure that this is a success for both sides because I believe that this treaty is also in Russia's interest. This is the first precedent of such a diplomatic outcome being achieved.
I believe that President Putin has shown courage, great political instinct, common sense and made a brave political step, and I cannot but appreciate it. I would also like to note that our recent telephone conversations have been extremely constructive.
The main thing we are about to achieve - this was my task for my first presidential term, the term for which the president of Georgia has been elected, with the next election in 2009 - is that foreign troops will leave Georgia and Georgia will become stronger as an independent country and have good-neighbourly relations with all its neighbours. I am sure that, with one of the painful issues in Georgian-Russian relations resolved, we will be able to build completely new, much more constructive relations, bring our positions much closer together, forget many of the grievances of the past and pursue forward-looking policies that reflect the interests of both peoples.
Georgia wants to have close, friendly, good-neighbourly relations with Russia. Georgia will never create any problems for Russia. Georgia is ready to address all issues, such as security issues, the fight against terrorism and geopolitical issues where, as often is the case, our interests coincide, by taking full account of Russia's interests, so that all the tensions in our relations are behind us.
We also know that there are social issues concerning these bases. I know that the Akhalkalaki base is an important source of income for many people living there. That is why I repeat that, first of all, we have met them halfway by agreeing to allow personnel to stay for a few more months after the base effectively closes next year. Second, we have demonstrated a very humane approach as regards them keeping their residential houses and apartments. Most important, we are ready to allow all military personnel who wish to stay in Georgia, who are residents of Georgia and who are citizens of Georgia to join the Georgian armed forces or to give them guarantees of other employment or social benefits.
Our task is a fundamental social rehabilitation of this region. In the autumn we are starting a major road construction project that is worth hundreds of millions of lari. We have already begun repairs to local roads, repairs to schools and a range of social measures that will make it possible for this region, which was unfairly neglected by the previous government, to join national economic, political and cultural processes.
Finally, I would like to say that all our achievements in recent years are the result of our unity. We are strong when we are united. There is nothing we cannot achieve when we are united, whereas discord will lose us everything.
I am particularly grateful to parliament for its resolute and courageous stance. The bases will effectively close in the lifetime of this parliament, although the withdrawal of personnel, I repeat, will only be completed before the end of my presidential term. I think it will actually be completed well before then, precisely as this treaty envisages.
If we carry on working like this, there are no issues in our country, even those that go back many centuries, that we together cannot resolve. We have to believe this and there are examples to prove it. One has to have no faith at all, one has to be completely blind and deaf - I mean it in the political sense - not to appreciate this.
I would also like to say special thanks to the Georgian delegation, which has worked on this issue for years. We have finally achieved a result. I think that we will together manage to finalize this treaty very quickly. Apart from the political agreement in principle which took place today, this treaty also needs to be formalized legally. However, we have a political obligation that has to and will be fulfilled, and this will be monitored by the international community. Naturally, we are counting on collegiality and mutual understanding from our Russian colleagues and partners.
This translation is published with permission from BBC Monitoring, Reading, UK
of the President of Georgia