By Christian Lowe
AKHALKALAKI, Georgia, (AFP) - A Russian army base on a clifftop overlooking this town is earmarked for closure, a Soviet relic in an independent, pro-Western Georgia keen to join NATO and host US troops on its soil.
But the local people, mostly ethnic Armenians, have different ideas. "If the Russians leave then there will be a war. That is 100 percent sure," said Hakob, a money-changer in the town's bazaar. The base, inherited by Russia when the Soviet Union collapsed, is one of four on Georgian soil which Moscow undertook to shut down under the terms of a deal signed in Istanbul three years ago.
That process has been fraught with problems. So far Russia has withdrawn from only two of the bases and horsetrading is continuing on a timetable for total withdrawal of the Russian troops.
But when, as the Georgian government insists they must, the Russians pull out from Akhalkalaki, many warn it could lift the lid on ethnic tensions that have been simmering beneath the surface here for a century.
"I'll say this, it's an explosive situation," said one Georgian official who did not want to be named. "It's one of those ethnic time-bombs left behind from the Soviet Union."
Akhalkalaki, cut off from the rest of Georgia by a mountain range, depends on the base for its economic survival, so much so that the Russian ruble, not the Georgian lari, is the main local currency.
There is no industry in the town, and the wages paid to the 1,500 local people who work at the base are the only reliable income most families get. The Russian servicemen also bring in goods and money.
"For this town the Russian base is like oxygen. If you close it there will be nothing here," said Ashot, another money-changer.
On the face of it, the problems facing Akhalkalaki once the Russians pull out are purely economic. In reality they run much deeper. Ethnic Armenians make up some 96 percent of the town's 12,000 population, many having fled to southern Georgia from the Ottoman Empire's pogroms against Armenians at the start of the 20th century.
They trust the Russian garrison to defend them from Turkey, whose northern border is just 35 kilometres (20 miles) away and which they still fear. They have no such faith in the Georgian military doing the job when the Russians are gone.
"For us the Russians mean peace. They are our guarantee of security," said Norik Deboyan, deputy head of the Akhalkalaki town council.
"What will happen if the Russians leave? We have to consider that even today (Turkey) has not acknowledged the genocide. That means there is something there, doesn't it?"
Further fuelling the tension, local people fear that the so-called Meskhetian Turks, deported from their homes in the region by Stalin, will be invited to resettle there by the Georgian government, displacing the Armenian population.
The government in Armenia is sufficiently concerned about its countrymen in Akhalkalaki to have raised the issue several times with the Georgian government.
Rolf Ekeus, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe's High Commissioner on National Minorities, visited the town in February to hear local people's concerns.
In response to this pressure, the Georgian government has promised a programme of investment to create new jobs in the town after the Russian army withdraws.
"We are taking measures so that the removal of the Russian base is as painless as possible," said Teimuraz Mosiashvili, Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze's representative in the region.
In Akhalkalaki's muddy bazaar, few people believe him. Instead, in the febrile atmosphere of fear and mistrust that prevails here, people are turning their suspicions on the Georgian government.
"Shevardnadze wants to get the Russians out of here and put a Turkish military base in their place," said Misha Seropian, a young unemployed man. "We don't want that. We're all Armenians here."
One trader added: "We get on well with the Georgians, but there are a few people high up in the Georgian government who are doing everything they can so that Armenians do not live here any more."