Its dynamic and successful domestic reforms coupled with the intention to determine its own foreign policy prompted Russia to apply informational and economic pressure followed by direct military assault in 2008. Russia seems to view Georgia as a dangerous role model for other post-soviet states. At the 5th Kyiv Security Forum held on April 19-20, The Ukrainian Week talked to Giorgi Baramidze, Georgia’s Vice Prime Minister for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration, about the current threats to Georgia’s security and its role in the region.
U.W.: How has Georgia’s security status changed since Russian intervention in 2008?
Russia is now preparing for large-scale military exercises called “Caucasus-2012” in addition to exercises under the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO).
U.W.: What does this signal? Is this an attempt to put pressure on Georgia before the upcoming parliamentary election using the slogan “vote for peace,” meaning voting against the party in power that irritates Russian leaders?
Sadly, we cannot rule out any of the possible scenarios. Notably, both the Caucasus 2012 (that will have the same format as Caucasus 2008, only on a larger scale) and CSTO maneuvers will be held just a few weeks before the October parliamentary election in Georgia.
We are also concerned by official statements that Russia is ready to take part in an unknown conflict if there happens to be a confrontation between the West and Iran. We don’t think Russia will be involved in any confrontation on either side. So, I don’t understand which conflict they are referring to. Moreover, Moscow will hold the exercises on Russian territory near the Georgian border, on Armenian territory, and on the occupied territories of Abkhazia and Tskhinvali (South Ossetia).
There has also been this strange interest in the Georgian election and the statement that the Kremlin would coordinate some of its actions with a certain part of the opposition. Naturally, we’re concerned by all of this. But don’t panic: we’re on the alert! And it’s not just us. Our Western partners are all aware of this. Unlike in 2008, there is the EU Election Observation Mission. The world gained some important insight back then and Russia’s aggression will no longer catch anyone by surprise. Before August 2008, many couldn’t have imagined such a conflict; they didn’t believe that Russia would attack even though they were warned of its consistent preparation for the invasion. Today, unfortunately, that has become reality and everyone is watching the situation closely.
Pressure from Russia could also target the Georgian economy. If there is any potential tension in the air, investors will surely have a harder time making the right decisions. Perhaps the Kremlin is hoping to cripple Georgia because it sees the country as an obstacle on the path to fulfilling its imperialistic ambitions. Specifically, these include plans to create a Eurasian Union, which we see as an attempt to revive the USSR. This is totally unacceptable both for Georgia and for many other states. Yet, in Russia’s eyes, removing the “Georgian factor” is an absolute must.
U.W.: Georgia has recently become a NATO aspirant country. What are the objectives of this programme? Is it a sort of replacement for the NATO Membership Action Plan?
This is a purely de jure status. It’s more of a political declaration. The term will apply to Georgia as well as three other Western Balkan countries that are already NATO Membership Action Plan (MAP) participants. Considering that the countries are all placed together with Georgia in the same format, naturally, the political context may provide some signals about how the situation will evolve in NATO.
In fact, Georgia already has much more than MAP at this point. We have the annual national plan which is the only MAP component used annually by every country that commits to it. Moreover, we have one mechanism and one political decision. The mechanism is the “NATO – Georgia” Commission that doesn’t provide any MAP, but it’s already operational in Georgia. The political decision is a clear and understandable statement by NATO member-states that Georgia will join NATO. That is an unprecedented declaration made in Bucharest in 2008.
It mentioned Tbilisi and Kyiv but Ukraine is currently not moving actively in that direction. Georgia moves independently, and in this context, NATO aspirant status can surely be seen as a big step forward.
It is common knowledge that Georgia is prepared for NATO membership in many aspects, yet we realize that it has much farther to go compared to other recently accepted candidates. We know that this is achievable and Georgia is ready to wait a few years – not too long, though. Naturally, we will wait as long as needed, but we believe that the parliamentary and presidential elections will help to pave the way.
U.W.: Are you saying that you don’t expect any changes after the Chicago Summit in May?
As you know, it will not be about NATO enlargement. That is one point. As to other decisions, we believe that the key thing NATO can do for us there is to properly assess the progress Georgia has made in various aspects, from the struggle against corruption to reforms of the military, law enforcement and security authorities.
Georgia has made significant progress in all key spheres. We expect this to translate into NATO’s clearer position on Georgia’s membership prospects. That would be progress for us. I would like to stress once again that we want to join NATO, but its member-states are going to decide on that after the elections in Georgia. NATO member-states have already decided that Tbilisi would be a member.
Of course, we wonder how they view this and how they plan to implement their decisions since it’s not Georgia alone that we’re talking about, but NATO as well – to what extent it fulfills its signed agreements. Therefore, the Chicago Summit will hopefully be yet another step toward Georgia’s membership – a real one, even if not final. And we’ll see what happens next.
U.W.: How does Georgia see the growing impact of Turkey in the Black Sea region and the Caucasus that has virtually evolved into a kind of “neo-Ottomanism”? The two nations had troublesome relations until the early 20th century.
We see no threat in Ankara’s activity. What happened in the past is history. Modern Georgia and Turkey are establishing relations based on the interests of their people. The two nations have close political and economic ties, a visa-free regime and electronic ID cards for border crossing. Turkey is among the top three investors in Georgia and the leader in terms of tourist inflow. This shows that our relations are evolving in a civilized manner.
U.W.: President Saakashvili has lately been promoting the concept of a united Caucasus. What does he mean? How realistic is this given the conflicts between some countries in the region?
He’s talking about the integration based on the abundant history of relations between Caucasian nations rather than a political union or border removal. They’ve often had tough relations, yet they always remained interconnected. Therefore, cultural integration, as well as economic and trade integration to some extent, and an intensified dialogue in education, science and so on, are the crucial things to discuss.
Georgia has always been the heart of Caucasus culture. Thus, we want to make a good contribution to it. By now, Georgia has virtually revived its central status as a result of its developing infrastructure, democracy and reforms. The interest of representatives of all Caucasian states and nations proves this. And our intention is to have a good impact on their lives.
U.W.: Everyone can now see how successful the reforms in Georgia have been. Could a change of government threaten these reforms?
The Georgian people have, first and foremost, guaranteed the permanence of the reforms, because their mentality has changed dramatically. They are no longer a post-soviet nation. We have passed that stage and are now building a modern democratic state. The nation is making an intense contribution to the process.