A troop withdrawal that helps Russia, too

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Less than one month ago, Russia and its southern neighbour, Georgia, were hurling very public accusations at each other. Georgia was complaining of lack of progress in negotiations to end Russia's troop presence in Georgia. Russia was saying Georgia was making unreasonable demands and trying to spoil Moscow's long-planned Second World War commemoration to which the cream of international leaders had been invited.

Less than one month ago, Russia and its southern neighbour, Georgia, were hurling very public accusations at each other. Georgia was complaining of lack of progress in negotiations to end Russia's troop presence in Georgia. Russia was saying Georgia was making unreasonable demands and trying to spoil Moscow's long-planned Second World War commemoration to which the cream of international leaders had been invited.

Yesterday, a spare announcement from Moscow said the dispute had been settled. Russian troops will start withdrawing from Georgia before the end of this year and the two remaining Russian bases will be closed in 2008. Thus, barring misunderstandings or backsliding, will end a quarrel that had brought the two countries close to war and constituted a perennial source of friction.

The significance of the agreement goes far beyond this, however. The Russian troops stationed in Georgia were a relic of Soviet times, but they were also a continuing symbol of Russian influence. Their very presence seemed to diminish the independence hard-won by Georgia, not once - with the collapse of Soviet communism in 1991 - but twice, with the "rose" revolution two years ago. The leader of that revolution, Mikhail Saakashvili, who is now Georgia's elected president, had treated the withdrawal of Russian troops as a personal and patriotic crusade.

But Mr Saakashvili and his government wanted the Russian troops removed also for a very practical reason. They were seen as a potential source of succour to the separatist aspirations of three pro-Russian enclaves in Georgia. These regions - Abkhazia, Adjaria and South Ossetia - were regarded as a Russian fifth column, apt to make trouble for any Georgian leader who tried to extract his country from Moscow's sway. The closure of Russia's last bases in Georgia will cut these enclaves adrift. Their populations will have to settle for autonomy within Georgia's borders or risk a permanent, and probably doomed, state of rebellion. This should greatly assist Mr Saakashvili's efforts to unite his country.

Russia's gains are fewer, but not negligible. The return of its troops should be orderly rather than the summary eviction that was threatened. The agreement also paves the way for a formal border treaty. The spread of unrest from Chechnya into neighbouring regions and southern Russia has long been a nightmare for the Kremlin. Any measures that promote security on Russia's southern border not only reassure Moscow, but help to consolidate stability in the region as a whole. Yesterday's agreement suggests that Russia may at last be learning to live within its post-Soviet borders. It is a thoroughly positive development.

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