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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Lavrov Tells Tbilisi That Bases Could Go Soon

APSalome Zurabishvili.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Monday that Moscow could start withdrawing its two Soviet-era bases from Georgia beginning this year.

The statement signaled a significant softening of Russia's position on the pullout, which officials previously said would take years.

"We achieved substantial progress and have brought closer our positions on the period of the bases' presence and, it follows, on the withdrawal of the Russian military bases from Georgia," Lavrov was quoted as saying by Interfax after meeting with his Georgian counterpart, Salome Zurabishvili.

"We agree that the withdrawal will be gradual and will begin, if we reach a corresponding agreement, already this year," Lavrov said in comments broadcast on NTV television.

He said that heavy equipment would be the first component withdrawn.

Zurabishvili was cautiously optimistic, warning that "the devil is in the details."

The bases have caused a long-simmering dispute that has soured relations between the two countries.

Georgia has demanded that the withdrawal be completed within two years, but Russia had insisted it would take at least three years and possibly even a decade. Moscow also is demanding several hundred million dollars in compensation; Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov has said the cost of withdrawal would be between $250 million and $300 million.

Until Monday's meeting at the level of foreign ministers, both sides had reported a stalemate in talks on the bases, and Russian officials had complained that Georgians were speaking to them in the language of ultimatums.

"Georgia has always shown patience," Zurabishvili was quoted by Interfax as saying after arriving Sunday.

"And the Georgian people do not understand today why a foreign state's military bases are deployed on the territory of their country in the 21st century."

The base issue is one of several that have troubled relations between Moscow and Tbilisi, where a pro-Western government took power last year.

Russian officials have claimed that a central concern for Russia was accommodating the more than 3,000 military personnel who serve on the two bases when they return to Russia.

Zurabishvili told Interfax that in principle, Georgia would welcome steps by Russia to complete its withdrawal by Jan. 1, 2008.