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RIA Novosti

MOSCOW, March 11. (RIA Novosti)-Moscow is ready to pull its forces out of Georgia within three to four years, Colonel General Anatoly Mazurkevich, Chief of the Russian Defense Ministry's International Military Cooperation Directorate, said yesterday, Vedomosti informs its readers.

Moscow had previously insisted that the pullout would take at least six to seven years. "The initiative to reduce the terms has been made public for the first time and has not yet been discussed with Georgia through diplomatic channels," a Russian Defense Ministry spokesman said.

According to a high-ranking source in the Georgian Foreign Ministry, the timeframe for the pullout will be determined during Russian-Georgian negotiations that will begin in the next few days.

Yesterday the Georgian parliament, in an apparent move to speed up the talks, voted that it would declare the two Russian bases illegal from January 1, 2006 if Russia failed to seal the terms and time-table of the pullout in a relevant agreement by May 15. This could mean that Russian servicemen will be refused visas, and fuel and equipment will not be allowed into the country, except for those supplies needed for the withdrawal.

"Mazurkevich's statement is related to the anticipated Georgian parliament's decision," Konstantin Kosachev, the chairman of the State Duma international affairs committee, said.

Alexander Skakov of the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies believes Russia will withdraw the bases even faster than General Mazurkevich is suggesting, because militarily they are of little use.

"The issue of the Russian pullout has turned into political bargaining," says Oksana Antonenko, and expert with the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a London-based think tank. She doubts whether Russia will be able to get Tbilisi to make a commitment not to host NATO or US military bases when the Russians leave.

There are currently two Russian military bases and the headquarters of the Russian Transcaucasus Force in Georgia. The overall military contingent is about 3,000 men.

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