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30 Jan, 2009 08:19

New Russian military bases scare NATO

Russian plans to build military bases in the newly independent republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia are causing concern in NATO. The alliance says it will express its opposition in talks with Russian officials.

Ochamchira facility used to be one of the USSR's strategic Black Sea naval bases. In the mid-nineties the Russian government decided to shut it down.

Even though the base has been closed for more than a decade, the maintenance crews took care of the machines. The equipment there can still be used to repair ships.

Viktor Panov says he knows a lot about repairing Russian warships. A former Soviet warrant officer, he now takes care of cranes and slipways at the Ochamchira shipyard.

“This is our mechanisation,” he said. “Electro motors do not work, the redactor does not work, chain gear, and all of this runs just to lift the ship to the wall”.

Abkhazia is a small Caucasus republic that attempted to separate from Georgia after the fall of the Soviet Union. This move angered Tbilisi, so Georgian leaders sent troops into the breakaway region. A conflict ensued, killing thousands and forcing many to flee their homes.

According to international peace agreements, the Russian army and navy abandoned its bases in the region. Only joint CIS peacekeeping forces and United Nations observers were allowed to stay in Abkhazia.

In August 2008, following the conflict in South Ossetia, Russia recognized Abkhazia's independence.

Several Russian Black Sea Fleet warships arrived to patrol the republic's coast.

In September, an agreement on military cooperation was signed, making it possible for Russia to rebuild its military facilities there. It's expected that besides planes and warships, Russia will also send 3,700 troops to the republic. Some military analysts say Russia may benefit from this relocation, although other countries may object:

“This is very good that we will have a base in Abkhazia. This will allow us to move the remains of our Black Sea Fleet there when it is kicked out of Sevastopol in 2017. But this can barely be called a geopolitical breakthrough,” said military analyst Vladislav Shulgin. “Of course, Georgia will be against it. I think it will be the only country that will protest. As for Europe, it will respond flabbily.”

Meanwhile, Abkhazians themselves seem to be more optimistic. Murman Jopua, head of Ochamchira's administration, says it will make many people in this small community feel more secure.

“The fact that Great Russia recognized Abkhazia makes us feel completely safe, and the return of the Navy will give us great strength.”