By Emil DanielyanRussia was reportedly completing on Thursday the transfer of military equipment from one of its two Soviet-era bases in Georgia to Russian troops stationed in Armenia.
Russian news agencies said a convoy of 13 military trucks and armored vehicles left the Russian base in Akhalkalaki, southern Georgia, early in the morning and was expected to cross the Armenian border in the afternoon. Russian military officials were quoted as saying that it is the 12th and last batch of military hardware and other equipment sent to Armenia since the start of a gradual Russian pullout from Georgia last May.
Under a Russian-Georgian agreement signed earlier this year, Moscow is to close the bases headquartered in Akhalkalaki and the Georgian Black Sea city of Batumi by the end of 2008. Most of the tanks and other heavy weaponry of the Akhalkalaki facility are due to be transported to Russia by rail via Azerbaijan.
Unlike Georgia, Armenia is a member of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization and regards Russian military presence as a key element of its national security doctrine. Yerevan has made it clear that Russian troops will remain on Armenian soil in the foreseeable future despite its growing military ties with NATO and the United States in particular.
The Russian military had moved military equipment from the Armenian-populated Georgian town to its larger base in Gyumri, northwestern Armenia, even before the agreement. The shipments sparked protests by Azerbaijan which feared that it could be transferred to the Armenian military and thereby change the balance of forces in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Russian officials have assured Baku that the materiel is meant for the Gyumri base only.
Russia’s reluctant pullout raised fears of an upsurge in tensions in Akhalkalaki and other parts of Georgia’s impoverished Javakheti region which is mainly populated by ethnic Armenians. The Russian base has long been Javakheti’s largest employer. There have been no reports of major unrest there in recent months.