Georgian President Salome Zourabichvili sits down in an interview with BBC HARDTalk show on Monday.
Below is a full interview:
The war in Ukraine has triggered fears that Vladimir Putin may set his sights on other former Soviet republics. Zeinab Badawi speaks to Salome Zourabichvili, the President of Georgia, whose country shares a long border with Russia. How worried is she?
President Salome Zourabichvili, welcome to HARDTalk. What was your reaction when you heard about the Russian-made missile dropping on Polish territory, killing two people?
Very worried, like I guess the rest of the world, but maybe even more worried. And, I think with my team we spent the night listening to the news and what was happening, although, in a way it was going against my feeling that the nuclear balance is working so well, even today, that this line that is protected by NATO is something that everybody is very careful about. And I was not thinking beforehand that Russia deliberately would dare to touch any part of that territory, but everything can happen and there can always be a miscalculation. And there have been a number of miscalculations by the Russian leaders, so nothing was excluded. And so, very worried.
– It has highlighted fears, hasn’t it in your neighbourhood? I mean, Georgia has a border of nearly a thousand kilometres with Russia. You have Russian troops and tanks stationed very near your capital in the two pro-Moscow-backed separatist enclaves – South Ossetia and Abkhazia. You’re a small nation of barely 4 million. Your army is about 37,000. I mean, Russia, if it wanted to, could take Georgia in an afternoon. Do you think it might want to absorb you?
Russia has always wanted to absorb Georgia. That’s a long dream of the Russian Empire first, then of the Soviet Union that, in fact, incorporated independent Georgia in 1921. In 1992-93, what people did not know that much, Russia was completely involved in the fight of the separatists against Georgia and was actively, militarily involved. 2008 was the latest manifestation of these attempts by Russia. So, we know that we are living with that and we’ve been living for a very long time. First of all, Georgia, one has to know, has also lived many centuries with many invasions by different empires and has resisted all of that. And that’s maybe a miracle, or it’s resilience, I don’t know.
– But do you think Russia would invade Georgia? Do you think that there’s a possibility?
I don’t think so. I think that the example of what happened in Ukraine, even if we don’t have, let’s be very clear, neither the army nor the depths of territory, nor the human resource or the military resource that Ukraine has, but I think that what they have now been encountering in Ukraine, and they know the resilience of the Georgians individually to that type of occupation. So, I don’t think that, but I think that there might be, if and when, and we are seeing already the humiliation of Russia and the fact that it’s losing this war in many respects, and it has made many miscalculations that at one point in time, for internal reasons, it might be tempted of making a point over Georgia where it’s easier to mark some points. So, I think that we have to be very careful. At the same time, I would say that should not, in no way, determine our actions, our words and our orientation towards Europe.
– So, vigilance is needed.
Vigilance, but nobody will ever prevent Russia of tempting something. If Russia thinks that at that point in time it’s in our best interest, but there are things that we can do to make sure that we do not favour or make it easier, let’s say.
– I’ll ask you about that in a moment which is one parallel with Ukraine is the Donbas region, which Russia has really consolidated its hold on the breakaway republics there. And you’ve got these two separatist enclaves that are pro-Russia, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, [which] represent about a fifth of Georgia’s territory. Those are lost to Georgia forever, surely, aren’t they? Madam President?
You can ask any Georgian and no Georgian will answer yes to that question. And I think that what has been a question of principle for all Georgians to say that’s not finished. We know history, and things change over history. I think that today, like never, we think that we are entering a different world of geopolitics. I think that in these enclaves, in these separatist regions, the attitude towards Russia has changed a lot since the invasion, the aggression in Ukraine, looking at the way Russia is behaving towards people that Russia was calling brothers or even Russians.
– Really? I mean, do you think that’s the case? Because I mean, if you look at Abkhazia, 60% of its budget comes from Russia. Even more in South Ossetia, 90% of people there have Russian passports. And I tell you what, Adress of Daur Cove, the self-styled former foreign minister of Abkhazia, who stepped down last year, he says, “the Georgians do not understand one simple thing, we do not need them”.
Yeah, that’s the position of the separatist government. But the budget that you were mentioning, Russia has just told the separatist government that they will reduce drastically the budget. They’re trying to occupy some lands, which is a question of principle for Abkhazians that they want to own their lands and those parts of Abkhazia that are really independentists. They might not dream of re-joining Georgia, but they certainly do not dream anymore to re-join Russia.
-But they may not re-join Georgia…
If Georgia is the way to prosperity, if Georgia is the way to Europe, if Georgia is the way to democracy, that might become, and I think it’s becoming more attractive to the younger generation of Abkhazia to look at that, and we have to work in that direction. We have to show in all respects that the Russian propaganda, that Georgia would be tempted, given the circumstances to try a military measure against those regions, is a Russian lie because Georgia wants one thing – it’s to reunite with those citizens that are our citizens and not to reunite only with territories.
– Nevertheless, you say that perhaps ties are loosening in these two separatist enclaves in Georgia, but you’ve got to pay more attention to your neighbourhood. Haven’t you President Zourabichvili? Because I know you are very pro-western. In a previous career, you were a French diplomat and you, perhaps, are tilting too much to the West. I mean, Russia is an important economic partner for Georgia. You have lots of Russian tourists to go. You’ve got Georgians who work in Russia who send remittances. 27% of Georgia’s oil imports come from Russia. So, for economic reasons and also, for the fact that you’ve got them so close, surely, you need to have more of a balancing act and not just rush into the arms of the West.
I think that the strength of Georgia has been over these 30 years, we’ve been always in this situation. As I said, it started in 1992, immediately after the independence and [HOST: and after the breakup of the Soviet Union] and Russia tried to use these first frozen conflict and then occupy territories in order to stop our path towards Europe, and it has not been able to do that. And I think that’s the strength of Georgia, and that’s the resilience of Georgia to be able to continue on its path towards Europe, towards NATO without being deterred by Russian action. That doesn’t mean that we have to look for confrontation. We have to be cautious, but we have to know where we’re going.
– I’ll tell you what Laura Linderman at the Atlantic Council Eurasia Centre Think Tank says. She says the Georgian government is looking at the situation in Ukraine in terror that they will be next. And so, they are trying to walk the line of not overtly antagonizing the Kremlin, while still using this historic moment to formally apply for EU membership and do as much as they can for Ukraine. That is the right approach, isn’t it?
Yeah, but not too much caution.
– Not too much caution where? What do you mean?
Not to give the impression to Russia that we are so scared that we want to defer to all Russian pretensions that can happen. I think what is important in order to prevent any attempt or any dream by Russia of doing something is for our European partners to consolidate our path towards Europe. And, in that sense, I think that we have to have a positive answer to the candidate status. I don’t think that we can afford a second no, because that would give the wrong message to Russia that suddenly Georgia has become a grey zone, not a country determined to join European Union and NATO, but a country that is considered by the Europeans of being of a different category. So, I think that we have to be very clear. Clarity is our best defence.
– And do you think that the government, because, of course, as head of state, you are not head of government, that’s the Prime Minister. Do you think that the ruling Georgian Dream party, which backed you as President in 2018, is not perhaps doing what you are suggesting?
Well, I have not always shared the same rhetoric, and I understand that when you are a government, you maybe have to use a different rhetoric. Head of the state is a different position where you can be probably freer. But I was listening just before joining you here, to the intervention of the Prime Minister in the Parliament today, which was a long intervention and questions, and it was very clear about the candidate status, about our orientation, and I think that’s what it should be.
– That’s the Prime Minister of Georgia Irakli Garibashvili. But you have slightly differed with them. For instance, you wanted greater support for Ukraine and Georgia has not joined the European and American sanctions on Ukraine and Prime Minister Garibashvili earlier this year dismissed sanctions as unproductive. He says “we sympathize with everyone, but we must protect our country and people first.”
That’s where I differ from the rhetoric because the facts are very different. Georgia has joined the international financial sanctions. We have banks that are overly compliant because they know that they need to keep their reputation. And the country has been applying all of these sanctions, as well as we have been part of all the international resolutions concerning Ukraine and blaming Russia in the UN and in all the other forums. So, that’s where I’m saying that it’s a question of rhetoric. I would never say that we are not part of the sanctions. We do not have national sanctions. And I don’t know what they could be. But we are very much part of the international community in terms of financial sanctions.
– Because President Zelenskyy of Ukraine has really been quite crossed with Georgia saying that they haven’t, the government hasn’t shown sufficient support. He withdrew his ambassador in disapproval and so on. I mean, so, you are President of Georgia, but you seem to have more sympathy with President Zelenskyy of Ukraine than your own government.
I have good relations with President Zelenskyy. I think that President Zelenskyy in his international diplomatic has been sometimes very crossed with different countries, not only with Georgia. We have a separate issue with Ukraine, that we have some Georgians in the leading, in the elite of Ukraine, that are playing a little bit of Georgian politics, more than Ukrainian politics.
– But you see eye to eye with your government.
Not on everything. There are always new answers, but I think that all in all what is important is that they reiterate also the solidarity with Ukraine, the orientation of Georgia towards the European Union. We have to become members. That’s our ultimate aim. And we have no other perspective.
– Okay, so Georgia signed an Association Agreement with the European Union in 2014 and this June the European Union considered applications from Georgia alongside Ukraine and Moldova and did not grant Georgia candidate status. You have called for pro-EU rallies in Georgia. You’ve attended them yourself. You are very firmly pushing Georgia towards that Western European camp. So, how disappointed were you when that decision was made?
I was disappointed, the Georgian population was disappointed, but at the same time, I think I understood and we understood that there was a specific situation of Ukraine. Ukraine got us where we are. With the European perspective and at the door of the candidate status, which was not expected at this stage in our relations with the European Union. And it’s clear that it has a link with the political situation, with the military situation of Ukraine and the sensibility of, and of Moldova. And maybe in the last year or so, our positions on certain European recommendations and on the Charles Michel document that we had agreed on… All of that did not make all the conditions for this granting to be immediate. But as I said before, what is important now, we have 12 recommendations of the European Union, and I think that it’s vital that in 2023, Georgia is granted the candidate status, which doesn’t mean membership, will have other criteria. More things to fulfil, more reforms to make, but in a strategic manner, it’s important that the EU says Georgia is part of this trio, which we have created and not something outside that could be an attraction for Russia to play games.
– That’s what you were referring to at the beginning of the interview, that you feel that Georgia has ways of ensuring that it is in the European camp as a kind of antidote to possible Russian aggression, but you’re not doing great on that score. As you said, the European Union gave Georgia 12 conditions. One of them, for instance, is over the appointment of Supreme Court judges to the Supreme Court. It’s felt that there’s too much political interference around 20 were appointed in one go in a process that the European Union said lacked credibility and integrity. Do you think the government of Georgia, the ruling Georgian Dream party, which is a very, you know, clear majority in the Parliament, is serious about wanting to join the European Union?
I think they’re working on it. I think that we are not perfect. I think many countries today are not perfect in these democratic achievements and I certainly am one pushing on all these directions so that we deliver, what we have to deliver. But again, I would say that today, tomorrow, the decision of the EU has to be a more strategic one than one based formally on the criteria, not to say that we push aside the democratic reforms that it’s not important, but I think that at this moment, what is predominant is the strategic issue and the risks of giving to Russia the wrong message about Georgia.
– Do you think the European Union really wants Georgia? Because I tell you what the former deputy chair of the ruling Georgian Dream party, Tamar Chugoshvili, said in August, she says, the party’s leadership has been stated repeatedly that the EU has never intended to grant candidate status to Georgia. No matter what the authorities do such status will not be granted. Does the EU want, you want the EU, but do they want you?
I think I know the EU a bit more than many.
– Do you think they are genuine?
I think that they are genuine. They have given the candidate status to countries that if we look at the strict technical reforms, maybe have not done even as much as Georgia. I think that today the geopolitics is changing that the Black Sea that was used to be really a wall and geography mattered, geography doesn’t matter anymore. The distances have been reduced, and it’s very important for the European Union that the Black Sea and have on the other side of the Black Sea, a country that is democratic, that is European, pro-European, and that’s where the new transit lanes, the new connectivity is going to happen in the next decade.
– I want to ask you because one of the EU recommendations cited was the lack of respect for the privacy of communications in Georgia. You said, I will veto every bill, which will be adopted in the wrong direction in the coming six months. You minded and in June you vetoed a bill for the first time that would’ve extended the scope of state surveillance. You’re going to continue doing that, doesn’t it put you in a difficult position?
No, I don’t think so. As long as there is a majority, my vetoes are going to be overruled. I want to make the point; I think that we have to, I am a form of monitoring, moral monitoring that we are really trying to be.
– Okay, so, you also want to join NATO in Georgia. You’re a very close partner. You know, you spend 2% of your GDP you on defence; you go join NATO missions and so on. But I tell you what the special representative for the Caucuses, for the NATO Secretary General. He said, and his name is Javier Colomina, “Whenever Georgia is ready to access NATO, it will do so. Although I do not think there is a possibility to integrate just one part of Georgia.” So, while you’ve got Abkhazia and South Ossetia not part of Georgia, because they are pro-Moscow, you’re never going to be able to join NATO and enjoy its security umbrella.
Well, we never say never, because things, again, I think that nobody would’ve expected the world to look the way it looks today. Nobody would’ve expected Russia to be so close to really lose a war with one of its neighbours. So, I think that things are changing so fast that we never say never. We’re getting prepared for joining NATO. We’re having exercises with NATO, including after the war that started in Ukraine. We had a military exercise on our soil. So, our caution is caution, but we still do whatever is necessary,
– But it’s a big obstacle. You accept that?
It’s an obstacle, but Germany, there are examples in history.
– So, as you say, never say never. Okay, but it’s not going to happen very quickly that you’re going to enjoy NATO’s collective security umbrella. I want to ask you about the former President of Georgia Mikheil Saakashvili, who left Georgia in 2013 after he lost the elections. Of course, he was the leader of the Rose Revolution and so on. He went to Ukraine or rather a strange story, and he was tried in absentia on six counts of abuse of power and sentenced the six years in prison. October last year he returns to Georgia and is promptly put in prison. He’s been on a series of hunger strikes, and I want to tell you what the independent counsel of doctors who examined him in February said, he has neurological diseases as a result of torture, ill-treatment, inadequate medical care and a prolonged hunger strike. You have the power as President to pardon him. Why don’t you?
I don’t. I don’t have that power.
– But you could push for that. You were a Foreign Minister in his administration.
No, I don’t have the power because, for one very simple reason is that, the sentencing is not closed. He’s still being judged. And that’s the law in Georgia that pardon can intervene only when everything is finished.
– So, would you pardon him once everything is finished?
That’s another issue. I’ve explained at length in Georgia why I wouldn’t do it because it’s a factor for major polarization. People have believed under his regime and there is not practically one family in Georgia that has not experienced what it meant to have that type of autocratic regime. So, I don’t feel that I have to become an instrument for more polarization. But, at the same time, I’m the Head of State, where I don’t want an ex-President to die in prison or to suffer irremediable consequences, and so, I’ve been very close to monitoring all the medical, and there is, in fact, I was waiting for today that there would be a new conclusion of the international medical team that has been examining him, but it’s not yet out. I’ve been saying publicly in Georgia that I think that he should be extradited, or I don’t know what is the term, to be able to receive additional ease in the hospital since six months, but that’s a decision that has to be taken by the Court.