Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said in an interview published Wednesday that Russia needs at least four years to withdraw troops from its two Soviet-era bases in Georgia, a stance likely to dismay Tbilisi.
"The question is not when we start the pullout, but when we finish it," Ivanov told the government daily Rossiskaya Gazeta.
He said that military experts had calculated that it would take "at least four years" to build infrastructure in Russia to house the equipment and servicemen being withdrawn from Georgia.
Last month, after talks with his Georgian counterpart in Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Moscow could start withdrawing troops from the two bases this year.
The long-simmering dispute over the bases' has strained relations between the ex-Soviet republics, relations that have soured further since President Mikhail Saakashvili and his pro-Western administration came to power in Georgia in 2004.
Saakashvili is anxious for his impoverished Caucasus mountain nation to shake off Russian influence and join Western bodies such as NATO. His administration has insisted the withdrawal be completed within two years.
Moscow also is demanding several hundred million dollars (euros) in compensation.
Russian officials say a central concern is accommodating the more than 3,000 military personnel who serve on the two bases when they return to Russia. Military personnel who returned to Russia following the withdrawal of forces from Germany and other European countries caused widespread turmoil in the Russian defense establishment, with some officers and their families being housed in miserable conditions.
Observers also say Russia is concerned that pulling out all its forces from Georgia could adversely affect its base in neighboring Armenia, one of Moscow's closest allies in the region. Russian troops and equipment have to transit Georgian territory to get to Armenia.
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