Top Georgian Official: Georgia Wants to Live with Russia but Not In Russia

  • By defencematters

Eight years have passed since the Russia-Georgia war. Russia and the world have been distracted by the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria, meanwhile Georgia continues to relentlessly move towards EU and NATO membership.


Eight years have passed since the Russia-Georgia war. Russia and the world have been distracted by the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria, meanwhile Georgia continues to relentlessly move towards EU and NATO membership. In a detailed interview Georgian Parliamentary Speaker David Usupashvili and former Georgian Foreign Minister Tedo Japaridze, who currently chairs the Georgian parliament’s foreign affairs committee, shared their opinions on the security situation in Europe and Georgia's future.


How would you describe the current security situation in Georgia?

T.J. At the moment the security situation in Georgia is “stable and normal,” domestically and externally: but, “stable and normal” in Georgia differs from “stable and normal” in Latvia, or elsewhere. In Georgia, it is “normal” to have Russian tanks 40 kilometers outside Tbilisi, or Georgian citizens kidnapped by “South Ossetians” or other armed groups in front of a Russian military based somewhere. So we are talking about the stability and security in a country where villages, families, and even cemeteries are divided. From this perspective, our sense of “security” in a “normal” day is not the kind of “feeling secure” an average European has in mind, any day. In spite of this abnormal daily routine, we are committed to our NATO and EU agendas, maintaining realistic expectations. We have the mandate and the willingness to join these institutions tomorrow, but we understand that this will not happen tomorrow and that we need to be patient, work hard, and seize the opportunity, when it comes. And this is exactly what we have been hearing from our Western partners, Europeans and Americans.


Are Georgians patient?

T.J. Being patient in America or Europe and being patient in Georgia are two different things.. . We need to live with our neighbors, including the Russians. But, our Russian neighbor has of course occupied 20 percent of our territory, leaving Georgia a dismembered state. More broadly, the South Caucasus itself is a quite turbulent, sensitive neighborhood, plagued with hot wars, conflicts and disputes, it is a region where everybody is in transition. Each state in the region is on the move – Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Turkey, and Iran – but they are not transiting to the same destination; each follows their own trajectory. We – in this case Georgia - are a crossroad area and many strategic vectors are shooting-in, intersecting, creating different synergies, seldom strategies, which if that happens are in general of a zero-sum type, especially when one is dealing with Russia.

We want to live with Russia as a good neighbor. But, we do not want to live in Russia. That is Georgia’s message. Whether our Russian neighbors can properly understand this message is another issue. Our Russian peers have a fundamentally different understanding of what stability, security, good neighborhood and cooperation means, compared to Georgians, Europeans, Americans and even the Chinese.


How can Georgia change this?

As we cannot change our geography, we need to live with Russia. As you know, Russians are no good in small talk over coffee. Engagement with Russia is always nasty and tough but at the same time there is no other alternative to communication and negotiation in our quest for a compromise that would allow Georgia to live and stay independent as a sovereign state.

Who would have thought in Helsinki in 1975, when the U.S refused the recognition of the annexation of the Baltic States that this would one day mean these states would breathe freely. I am a realist, I believe in impossible dreams, and my evidence is the Baltic States.

Although we speak about our NATO and EU memberships but in fact, our agenda should not only be about “membership”! First, whatever Georgia accomplishes should by all means be beneficial to our immediate neighbors, Azerbaijan and Armenia. In my humble opinion, any notion of security, stability, economic development or prosperity as well as sovereignty and independence are indivisible, interconnected and interdependent. Georgia cannot be secure and stable alone! The self-awareness of the regional identity of the Baltic States is a big part of its success; do we share a similar regional identity? I think not, but that’s where we need to go. Unfortunately, our mental maps and bigger landscapes and prejudices are holding us back.

Secondly, it is a good exercise to compare ourselves with the countries we wish to join, emulate, and become, over and beyond our neighborhood, like Latvia and other European partners.


Don't you think that Russia has somehow taken the attention from Georgia and placed it onto Ukraine and Syria?

D.U. Yes, on the one hand, Russia's open pressure on Georgia kind of decreased, because somewhere else - whether it is Ukraine or Syria - it increased. But we see very little change in their policy vis-à-vis Georgia; very little has changed in their strategic objectives and goals. It was Georgian government, which made some specific efforts during the last three years to decrease the level of tension with Russia.

Nevertheless, occupation is still there; the threat is still there. Russia is not showing any signs that they are going to follow the rest of the civilization in recognizing Georgia's sovereignty and territorial integrity. We want our nation to prosper. We do not want new wars on our territory. We want to be part of the solution, not part of the problem.


How deep is the influence of Russian propaganda in Georgia?

T.J. Of course, it has influence. We speculate that about 20 percent of Georgians are “under the influence” of intoxicating Russian propaganda. But, I would not make much of that figure. The bottom line is that we should fight hard against the Russian propaganda machine, but its impact is minimal. What concerns me is the decline of positive support towards the West in Georgia, which has some reasonable grounding.

If we speak about NATO, we hear day and night, from one NATO summit to another, that Georgia is ready and eligible but there is this or that left to be done; and then come next summit you hear – “ah, Georgia did this… but now it should do that.” And while our friends keep saying that the doors of NATO are open, from outside they look like revolving doors: you are sort of in, but you are sort of out. The benchmark is constantly moving.

I repeat, we understand that NATO and the EU have their own agendas, but you should have sincere and clear-cut messages for countries like Georgia. When you have one life you want positive things happening while you are alive and it’s not that easy to be held in this suspended animation for long time! But, we should be patient and work hard to make Georgia a good democratic country and then things may happen. If we speak about NATO and EU membership – this may happen, as we are reminded by different European interlocutors, in 10, 15, or 50 years from now, but it will happen and may happen much earlier. Miracles do happen. Georgia should be ready for this window of opportunity and provide no excuse for anybody to say, “Wow, Georgians had their chance and blew it.”


Are Georgians still enthusiastic regarding closer ties with the EU and NATO?

D.U. Politicians in Georgia follow the will of their people and that is indeed an important matter. I would say that Euro-Atlantic integration is first and foremost an existential and cultural issue. For Georgia the process of the European integration is a matter of historic choice. Perhaps this is not the place or the time for a historical discussion, but if you go back a couple of centuries, you'll see that the “where to look for strategic partnerships” discussion has happened before. And whenever our people had a choice, they always looked towards a Christian Europe. It is for centuries that we identify with the European civilization. Of course, Communism of the 20th century destroyed not only Georgian society and culture, but also Russian as well.

Since our independence from the Russia Empire, we have sought to join the club of European democracies. While we were struggling to secure our independence, European countries built even more refined democratic structures like European Union and NATO. Therefore, there is no debate on whether or not we should join EU/NATO, but how we can do so as soon as possible. To this end, we are ready to face the challenges with our European partners, before we enjoy the benefits of membership. Life is never easy and Europe has its own problems; but we would be happier to face those kinds of problems than what we faced in our past.


Is the cooperation between Georgia and NATO members developing, or would Georgia like to see more?

T.J. We are normal people… we would like to see more.

We understand that Georgia is a very tiny piece in a very big political chess-game. When we speak about support from NATO, we are fully aware that this discussion is not only about Georgia and that there are bigger issues and bigger equations, including European, Middle Eastern and global security in general. We understand that Europeans and Americans need Russia to resolve more pressing issues on their political agenda than Georgia’s NATO membership. We are not either stupid or naïve: we understand why the EU and the United States may need Russia as a “cooperative partner”. It is not about friendship, it is about big politics. It’s about having a bigger fish to fry, as it goes. We understand Russia is needed when addressing challenges such as terrorism, Syria, negotiations with Iran, arms control and other bigger-than-Georgia issues. But, the West in general and specifically Europeans and Americans need to understand very clearly that they will not have such a “cooperative Russia,” if Russia itself fails to recognize the independence of states in its own neighborhood. Unless Moscow comes to terms with the reality of our independence, Russia will not be cooperative with Europe and the United States. One cannot be imperialist towards Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan or Moldova and a constructive peer for others.


What should we do to lessen Russia’s aggressiveness?

T.J. We are quite limited in this regard. Obviously, we cannot fight a war with Russia alone, and no one would fight Russia on Georgia’s behalf.

Our sole arsenal is to make Georgia a strong and capable state, based on rule of law, robust institutions, and a functioning democracy. As long as our democracy stands firm on both its feet and makes its own sovereign, reasonable, and rational decisions, aligned with those of our allies, we make the time we need to gain. To maintain that equation positive, we must also keep talking with partners and our neighbors, including Russia.

I thought that dealing with Russia will be kind of a generational experiment, that there will be a new generation of Russians that would in turn deal with negotiations in a different way. But, I was mistaken because as political scientists say there are no permanent friendships or enemies. There are only permanent interests. And, by the way, younger Russian policy-makers and politicians are no less aggressive that their predecessors from the Stalin, Molotov and Gromyko years! We recognize that Russia has certain interests in Georgia, Ukraine, and Latvia, maybe elsewhere or everywhere. The problem with Russians is that they are still confusing “interests” with “influence.” There is nothing illegitimate about Russia advocating for its interests; but, from interests up to influence and to domination, there is a big distance to cover, which Russia habitually covers all too quickly.


Do you consider the EU and NATO approach to Russia as appropriate, are their actions sufficient?

T.J. I do not want to be critical of the EU or NATO, but the problem here is that we are talking about two different organizations, which have their own agendas when dealing with Russia or any other country. We need to keep in mind that besides NATO and the EU as organizations there are Member States, which have different political, economic, and commercial agendas with Russia. States that have a different history and traditions of dealing with Russia for centuries: Germany, France, Italy, Britain, the Netherlands, and Spain have their very own Russian agenda.

There are different interests: economic, commercial, political, regional, and global interests. That is why I always say that Georgia should be a wise, predictable and at the same time instrumental partner for its allies and friends. Georgia is not a perfect democracy but who’s perfect in this troubled world? Building a democracy in Michael Saakashvili’s Georgia seemed like trying to build a pyramid from the top – a kind of a Potemkin village. But, we should build the foundations and create a civil society, engage citizens in the decision-making process. Democracy should become a life ritual, of the people. We are not there yet. That takes time and we are committed to reach that destiny.


Is there a need to extend the sanctions against Russia?

D.U. We should not abandon Russia.Sanctions are important and the more comprehensive they are, the better. But it is also key that in every interaction with the Kremlin, the international community sends a clear signal on what constitutes bad behavior and what represents good behavior. The good example is terrorism. When it comes to such common and big issues, we should not tell Russia, "it's none of your business". But at the same time, we should not allow them to do what they are doing in Syria, where they entered the conflict without any invitation of Western anti-ISIS coalition, starting their own, separate game.


But even if Russia asked the Western anti-ISIS coalition for an invitation and got rejected, they still could do whatever they wanted in Syria, right?

D.U. Yes, they could, but the problem in most cases is that while the coalitions and institutions of democratic countries like the European Union or NATO spend days and nights in lengthy discussions, and are not clear about their own agenda, Russia is fast enough to create facts on the ground, which others then have to deal with. Therefore, stronger leadership is necessary for the democratic world to demonstrate that their actions will be followed by appropriate punishment.


What must be done to defeat ISIS? Can it be done with help from Russia or can we simply do it ourselves?

D.U. First of all, I think we probably need to understand what we are dealing with better when we talk about ISIS. We are coming to the conclusion that these are not just people with weapons shooting at others - it is something much deeper. It is ideology, religious fundamentalism, poverty and accumulated anger. Plus, we live in the digital age, where internet has become an effective tool in the hands of terrorists to draw new recruits. They can now reach millions of people with their deceptive message, and those who lack proper education might easily fall in their trap.

All of these factors are a dangerous combination. To overcome these problems, we need Russia, China, Australia, Chile... everybody. It is a global problem. The solution is not more weapons, more soldiers on the ground, or a better interpretation of the Quran - that approach is too simplistic. I think we need a series of world conferences to address this issue, to understand where this kind of aggression and extremism come from, because what we see is that people from all over the world are running there, it is like a black hole that sucks people in from all places.


Can you predict any changes in Russia’s policy?

T.J. It is not easy to predict in general and especially about Russia – I am not an oracle. But, change can happen. Russia is a different to what it was 10 years ago. Change is taking place. We should come to a point where we mutually accept that everyone has legitimate interests. To come to this kind of understanding will take time, maybe generations. We should be patient and realistic, we should not complain every day about Russians, but look also at ourselves: are we confident and competent, are we taking the right steps into the right direction, and can our country rely on its own capacity. When Georgia becomes a strong democratic state, it will be easier to deal with neighbors like Russia.


Can we also help Russia find its own democracy?

T.J. It is like while dancing tango, you need a partner. We would like to see a democracy in Russia; but Russia will always be special, even if democratic. Russia understands common interests. We are different, but we should deal with Russia by engaging, negotiating, using diplomacy and trying to make them understand what Georgia’s or Latvia’s agenda is. That does not mean that we should concede any of our strategic interests, but it should be clear that our actions are not targeting Russia. Will they understand it immediately? Of course not, but we should talk, talk and talk.


Is the conflict in Ukraine ending?

T.J. The important thing when talking about Ukraine and the Donbass region is that we have somehow stopped speaking about Crimea. Crimea is forgotten as if annexation never happened.

We are supporting Ukraine and one thing I wish for Kyiv is that they stand firm on their strategic interests. Much will depend on how Ukraine deals with its domestic issues. We should speak not only about what is going on in Ukraine today, but frame the challenge with a foresighted and long term perspective, keeping in mind what happened to Georgia in 2008. In my opinion there is continuity between events in Georgia then and events in Ukraine now. Western involvement should not be narrowly scoped in Ukraine, but look further afield to the post-Soviet space. What is going on in Ukraine now happened in Georgia in 2008, in a different format.


Should NATO countries be more involved?

T.J. Political and diplomatic engagement from NATO and the EU, as well as from individual European countries and United States is very important. It is a long process. It is of course easier to start a war and more complicated to engage in conflict resolution, using diplomacy and negotiations.