- 'Military action against Iran will increase threat of Russian military action against Georgia';
- 'Differences of opinion with Iran are not a ground for worsening our relations';
- 'Threat of Kavkaz-2012 drills being used by Russia against S.Caucasus states very real';
- 'Western partners take our concerns about Kavkaz-2012 drills seriously';
- 'It might be that MAP will have formal, rather than substantive significance';
- 'We are consulting with EU on participation in CSDP missions';
- 'Capacities of our foreign policy is growing';
- 'Our successes led us to diversify our foreign policy interests';
- ’We are sure UNGA resolution on IDPs will almost become consensual';
In an interview with Civil.ge Georgia's Foreign Minister, Grigol Vashadze, laid out Tbilisi's position on a wide array of foreign policy issues ranging from Iran, Syria and Middle East peace to prospects for new areas of cooperation with the EU. He also outlined in details why he thinks that Russia's planned large-scale military drills this fall, Kavkaz-2012, pose a threat to all three countries of the South Caucasus and spoke about Georgia's "diversified" foreign policy interests.
Q: Leaving aside the internal reforms, is Russia the main obstacle to Georgia's integration into the NATO?
A.: NATO Chicago Summit was yet another step towards Georgia's NATO integration. The allies have confirmed yet again, that Georgia will become the member and stressed, that our country has made significant progress after the Bucharest Summit both in terms of integrating into the structures of the alliance and in terms of reforms. In Chicago, the Georgian delegation participated together with three Western Balkan states in a meeting of the NATO officials with aspirant members, which gave a new dynamism to the process of integration of our country into the alliance.
Looking towards the next summit, which is likely to be dedicated to NATO's further expansion, Georgia has a good starting position: by conducting successful reforms and by conducting a cautious, constructive policy towards Russia we are not leaving anyone the arguments against Georgia's membership.
The Chicago Summit showed clearly that Georgia's NATO integration is an irreversible process, and this process is not linked to whether or not this prospect is making our northern neighbor feel uncomfortable. Since its establishment, the NATO is guided by the principle that no third country has a veto on its decision and the validity of this principle has been stressed repeatedly. In Chicago, Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen underlined that no third country can prevent the alliance's expansion. This is also proven by the alliance's decision to establish such an important integration tool as NATO-Georgia Commission during the Russia's 2008 aggression against Georgia, which, by [Russia's former] President Medvedev's open admission, aimed at preventing Georgia's NATO membership. Already in September 2008 the North-Atlantic Commission held its first visit to Georgia. Just few months afterwards Georgia got yet another mechanism of cooperation with NATO: the Annual National Program.
NATO will never allow Russia to influence its expansion. This policy is in NATOs interest. A glance at history shows us that Russia was consistently against NATO expansion since the dissolution of the Soviet block, but this did not prevent the Alliance from admitting the countries of central, eastern Europe and the Baltics. These regions are now the integral parts of the whole, free and peaceful Europe. The three Baltic states have better relations with Russia than ever before. The same would apply to Georgia once it joins the Alliance. We have stressed repeatedly that our membership in the alliance is not aimed against any third party.
During the Chicago summit, NATO expressed full support to Georgia vis-à-vis Russia. The adopted texts highlighted the need for de-occupation of the Georgian territories and the need for Russia to fulfill all points of the ceasefire agreement of 12 August 2008. The alliance also called on Russia to reciprocate Georgia's non-use of force pledge. Despite Russia's opposition, and despite the damage inflicted during 2008 conflict, our integration into NATO has not slowed down. On the contrary, it is gaining momentum and the Chicago summit is a clear testimony to that.
Q: Has there been any discussion with the Western partners of Georgia about Article 5 provisions on mutual defense not being applicable to Georgia until the restoration of the country's territorial integrity?
A.: Georgia will only join the NATO within its internationally recognized borders. The alliance, each of its members, are unequivocally supporting Georgia's territorial integrity and sovereignty; they firmly adhere to a policy of non-recognition.
However, two points should be stressed: first, some of our opponents are speculating that the restoration of Georgia's territorial integrity and NATO membership are mutually exclusive. This is certainly not the case. The Allies have stated their position clearly during the Chicago summit, strongly supporting Georgia’s territorial integrity and sovereignty, welcoming Georgia's non-use of force pledge and highlighting the need for Russia to reciprocate. They also called on Russia to reverse its recognition of Tskhinvali region and of Abkhazia.
Secondly, let us ask ourselves - would saying 'no' to NATO integration bring Abkhazia and Tskhinvali regions into Georgia's fold? Of course not. Conversely, there is no alternative to NATO membership for safeguarding security and independence of non-occupied Georgia. The discourse about incompatibility of NATO membership and Georgia's territorial integrity is a dangerous one, which is only in Russia's interests. By using its habitual covert propaganda tactics Russia is trying to, on one hand, play the role in NATO decisions and, on the other, to curtail our sovereign right to freely choose those organizations and alliances that we want to join.
If we look at the history of Russo-Georgian relations, the conflicts in Abkhazia and in Tskhinvali region pre-date any official mentioning of Georgia's NATO aspirations. Russia has only been guided by one aim: to keep Georgia within its own sphere of influence. Integration into the NATO is the most reliable way of settling our conflict with Russia so that the sad cycle of Georgia-Russia relations ceases to repeat itself. Speculations of the sort I've mentioned above can not turn us away from the Euro-Atlantic integration.
Q: Georgia has been grouped by NATO with three Balkan countries, out of which two already have been working under the Membership Action Plan (MAP) and the third one (Bosnia and Herzegovina) is to receive MAP as soon as it satisfies some criteria. Some have argued that this means that Georgia might enter the Alliance without formally needing to pass through MAP process. However, the last three NATO summit documents have referred to the need of implementing MAP by Georgia. Can you please clarify?
A.: During the Bucharest Summit in 2008, the Alliance already made the political decision to admit Georgia into the NATO. The timing and mechanisms of membership remain open for discussion and depend on the appropriate reforms and the political opportunities. The practices and precedent in the NATO are inconclusive when it comes to deployment of specific membership mechanisms. The last two waves of membership were done through MAP, although the majority of the older members did not need to go through this mechanism.
The main objective of the NATO is to assist the aspirant states in reaching the Alliance's shared standards through implementation of reforms. In this sense, Georgia is already using the key instrument - NATO-Georgia commission and the Annual National Plan. During the Chicago summit the allies have stressed the leading role of these instruments in Georgia's integration. It is the fourth year already that our country is implementing reforms which bring us closer to NATO standards, and our allies have repeatedly taken note of this.
Taking into account the scale of our success in establishing cooperation with the NATO, it might be that MAP will have formal, rather than substantive significance. Therefore, in the process of cooperation with the Alliance a specific "roadmap" will take shape, which will lead Georgia to membership.
Q: Non-recognition of Abkhazia and Tskhinvali region is one of Georgia's key foreign policy objectives. The annual submission of the draft resolution on IDPs to the UN General Assembly vote is partially seen in this light. It seems that one of Georgia's key aims is to see the number of supporters grow annually. What are your expectations for this year?
A.: During the past years the number of supporters has been growing through consistent and multi-dimensional work of the Georgian diplomacy. We hope that this positive trend will be further continued and strengthened. The most important issues is that the international community firmly supports the right of the population displaced from Georgia's regions to return to their homes in safety and dignity. That is why the number of supporters has been growing annually.
We are sure that in a couple of years this resolution will almost become consensual. This is a humanitarian, not a political resolution, so naturally the number of people to support principles espoused by it has been growing.
Q: It is obvious that the Georgian diplomacy has been more and more active in the regions, which were not previously the priority target, such as Oceania. This is clearly one component in implementation of non-recognition policy. Aside form using the support and influence of our traditional allies, to what extent is Georgia relying on the role of the leading regional powers? Which region of the world is the most problematic in this sense?
A.: Secure, stable and democratic international order is in our national interest. The capacities of our foreign policy are growing in parallel with country's general development. That is why we now can dedicate human and financial resources to opening the new embassies in Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, South Africa, India, South Korea, Australia, Indonesia and Norway. In the coming years the number of our embassies will continue to grow. The more our country develops, the wider our political and economic interests will be.
In the past four years we established diplomatic ties with 50 countries, which means that only around 20 counties of the world remain with which Georgia has not yet established formal ties. We hope that this process will be completed very soon and thus Georgia will join the number of those states that cover the whole world with its diplomatic ties.
Certainly, the states that have decided not to recognize Georgia’s territorial integrity will not be among those: Russia, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Nauru and Tuvalu. The moment they abandon their absurd stance, we will restore our diplomatic relations with them too. I am sure this day is not to far off.
Certainly, we have friends and allies that support and defend Georgia's territorial integrity. We greatly value their unprecedented support. But it would not be accurate to assume that it is only due to the influence of our allies that Russia has not managed to mobilize more than four countries in the past four years to support its stance. Georgia has learned to better defend its own interests on the international arena. The international law and the truth are on our side, and no matter how significant are the financial resources that Russia dedicates to advance its cause, it will fail to significantly increase the number of its client states. A brief glance at the list of its supporters is a clear testimony to the weakness of Russia's position. We are extending the hand of friendship to all. And we are pleased to see that this gesture is reciprocated in an open and cordial way throughout the world.
It would not be accurate to argue that non-recognition is the only item on our agenda when we talk to our new partners. We sign economic and political agreements with many states with which we haven't had close ties up to now. For instance in 2012 the Georgian Embassy will be opened in Norway. Among other things, this is due to our active cooperation in field of energy projects. The political consultations are being held with some 70 countries. With most of them we cooperate on humanitarian issues, coordinate efforts in international organization. The interest in Georgia's reforms has also been growing. In the past three years more than 50 states have approached us, asking to share experience in reforming the justice system, police, customs and tax collection.
More than 400 meetings were held on those themes. This is an extremely important resource that Georgia’s foreign policy can rely on. We plans to expand and further institutionalize the way we share our successes and knowledge - only recently the Georgia's Reforms and Partnership Enterprise, GRAPE, has been established, which will become a vehicle for these plans.
Importance of economic diplomacy can not be underestimated. Our economy is growing - despite the global financial crisis, our GDP expanded by 7% last year. We forecast return to double-digit growth very soon. Attracting additional investments and encouraging Georgian exports is therefore important. The more of the international markets will be open for us, the higher our growth rate will be. So the economic aspects also play part in our expanding diplomatic coverage of the world.
Q: You have mentioned that the possibilities and capacities of our diplomacy have been expanding. Does this also mean that Georgia interprets its foreign policy priorities more widely?
A.: In the recent past we were more focused on our immediate neighbors, European and Euro-Atlantic integration. These remain our priorities and we are spending the lion's share of our diplomatic resources on addressing these matters. But as I said before, our development and our successes led us to diversify our interests.
Q: President of Iran Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has congratulated his Georgian counterpart with the Independence Day and expressed hope for deepening relations with the "brotherly Georgian people". Can you please explain Georgia's foreign policy position in tense environment between Iran and the West. Do you think Iran should be allowed to develop its nuclear program?
A.: Georgia and Iran are linked by centuries of relations. Both countries are interested in further expanding good-neighborly relations and cooperation in trade, economy, tourism and culture. So the wording of deepening ties that the President of Iran is using is not at all surprising.
The number of Iranian tourists visiting Georgia has grown considerably - in 2011 we received more than 60 thousand guests from Iran. Preliminary data shows that this number will grow further in 2012.
These expanding and deepening ties do not mean that we have identical approaches to all political and humanitarian issues. This also does not mean that we disagree with our Western colleagues on fundamental issues that concern Iran. The differences of opinion we have with Iran are not however a ground for worsening our relations. Iran is our neighbor, and we all understand the importance of having normal relationships among neighbors.
As to your question on whether Iran should have a possibility for developing its nuclear program: as you know, Iran is a party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which grants its some rights and places some obligations. According to NPT all signatories, including Iran have the right to develop peaceful nuclear technologies. I am underlining this - only peaceful nuclear technologies.
Georgia is against dilution of the NPT regime and against any new nuclear power emerging, irrespective of which country that is. This is the starting point of our policy and we guide our actions by this policy. We are supporting the regime of sanctions aimed at ensuring NPT compliance and will do everything to meet our international obligations fully and in good faith.
Q: Would you say that a potential military action against Iran would also increase the military threat to Georgia from Russia?
A.: Any military action against Iran will necessarily increase the threat of Russian military action against Georgia. The latest statements of the Russian officials are a clear testimony to that.
The strategic military drills Kavkaz-2012 scheduled for this fall and CSTO [Collective Security Treaty Organization] drills Interaction-2012 planned on the Armenian territory also confirm Russia's intentions. The perception of threat on our part is even greater since Russia does not hide its hostile attitude towards Georgia and openly refuses to make a non-use of force pledge. We are sharing our serious concerns on this matter with our Western partners regularly, and I have to say that they take our concerns and the situation in our region realistically and seriously.
There have been other, not-so-subtle hints in the classical style of Russia's state-run propaganda machine. Let me remind you that by the end of last year the leak in Russia's Nezavisimaya Gazeta said Russia would use Georgia as a transit route to re-enforce its 102nd military base in Armenia in case the United States and its allies use force against Iran. In the current context this scenario is imaginable only against Georgia's sovereign will. The Russian state-controlled media also reported deployment of the modernized command-and-control systems, allowing for rapid creation of precise target maps. The footage showed Russian soldiers exercising their skills on Tbilisi maps.
Q: You said in April that Kavkaz-2012 drills are source of concern not only for Georgia, but also for absolutely all countries of the region; you also said that the main objective of these exercises is to quash the sovereignty of all three South Caucasus states with one sweep. Can you please clarify how you think these drills can be used against the sovereignty of all three South Caucasus states?
A.: I will be straightforward: the threat of 2012 military drills being used by Russia against the independence and sovereignty of South Caucasus states is very real. It is also clear that Georgia and then Azerbaijan will be Russia's primary targets. If such scenario is implemented, obviously the sovereignty and independence of all three South Caucasus states will come into question.
Russia never hides its intention to dominate South Caucasus and the wider region. If given an opportunity, Russia will use its military force to solve "the South Caucasus problem".
We have to keep in mind that after similar drills in 2008 the units taking part were kept in deployed in the field and used in military operations against Georgia. It is not only our claim. The former commander of the Russia's 58th Army that headed the operation against Georgia, General [Anatoly] Khrulyov has confirmed in his recent interview - the first one after the hostilities - that the parts of the units deployed for the 2008 military drills were dispatched in Abkhazia and to Tskhinvali region.
Similar danger exists this year, that the troops mobilized ostensibly for the drills will be used for aggressive purposes against Georgia to achieve Russia's stated objective - change democratically elected government of Georgia and set back Georgia's democratic development. By this action, Russia will gain control of South Caucasus.
I already mentioned that Russia is not hiding the motives for its aggressive conduct. Former President Medvedev, addressing Russia's top military brass in the end of 2011 said 'if we have hesitated in 2008, we would have had a different geo-political situation and several countries, first of all Georgia, which were being dragged into North Atlantic alliance, would have already been its members.'
It is also worrying that the 2012 drills, differently from the past ones, are of strategic character and cover a wider geographic area. They will be held in Georgia's occupied territories, Armenia, southern military district of Russia with participation of the air and sea units, strategic missile forces, space and air defense units, as well as the paramilitary and special forces units subordinated to the Ministry of Interior, Federal Security Service and airborne units of the Ministry of Emergency Situations. These are complemented by what are the ostensibly separate, but tactically compatible drills of the rapid deployment units of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation [CSTO] Interaction-2012 to be held in September in Armenia.
Russia is pursuing several objectives. On one hand it wants to increase tensions in the region further and deploy force that can be used to attack Georgia just like in 2008. If this objective is not feasible, demonstration of force can be used to affect Georgia's political life through supporting marginalized, pro-Russian political forces or fomenting political instability during or after the planned parliamentary elections, with the aim of changing Georgia's democratically elected government. Russia is keen on replicating what it sees as the Western-inspired plot of displacing sitting governments following the elections in the Arab world. We consider that Russia has planned the drills to coincide with Georgia's parliamentary elections, creating favorable grounds for exploiting any vulnerabilities that might emerge.
Expressed readiness of the Russian Federation to change the post-Soviet borders through use of force is already a significant security challenge to its neighbors, dramatically affecting their sovereignty. Since Russia's declared aim of creating a 'zone of privileged interests' in former Soviet space remains far from accomplished, we can expect more nasty surprises from Moscow. Notably, after taking the presidential office for the second time, President Vladimir Putin has created yet another context for implementing these objective. He put forward his new foreign policy program, which purports to create economic basis for the Eurasian Union by 2015.
Nobody should cherish the illusion that simply by the similarity of names, the Eurasian Union will become an association of the free, sovereign and equal partners just like the European Union is. The dominant political culture of Russia would not allow for it - the Eurasian Union is seen in the light of the Russian diktat and domination. The international community should pay closer attention to this project of President Putin, since the methods that he is prone to deploy can lead to tragic consequences to the Central Asian and, especially, South Caucasus regions.
Georgia poses a philosophical obstacle in creating the Russia-dominated Eurasian Union, because it crushes the myth of hopelessness of the post-Soviet countries in replicating the model of transparent and accountable governance. Georgia is the only post-Soviet country that has managed to break itself from the Soviet mentality, successfully tackled corruption and is consistently working towards European and Euro-Atlantic future. Based on its objectives and on its preferred ways of operating in its neighborhood, Russia has the only solution - to bring Georgia back to the Russian orbit, by crashing its sovereignty.
This is the analysis that leads me to conclude that the Russia is dedicated to instrumentalizing the military drills this fall against the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the South Caucasus states.
Q: In your opinion, to what extent other conflicts close of far - from Nagorno Karabakh to Israeli-Palestinian conflict - can affect peace in our region?
A.: Peace in neighboring countries and regions is in Georgia's vital interest. Firstly, as the number of conflicts and sources of instability around us decreases, the opportunities and resources for finding solutions to conflicts in Georgia will increase. Secondly, the lack of solutions to conflicts in our neighborhood and wider afield has a negative impact on conflicts within our borders, and often leads to negative spillover effects.
It is vitally important for us that Nagorno-Karabakh problem is settled peacefully and that we avoid military confrontation in the region. Only Russia will win from any escalation of hostilities between Azerbaijan and Armenia, by resolving once and for all its South Caucasus dilemma in its favor. We can also safely say that Georgia will be the most affected - as Russia will not shy from using force in a situation of wider instability and under the pretext of addressing Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. I hope all involved will exercise sound judgment so that a new war in South Caucasus is averted.
It might seem further afield, but the Middle East field process is extremely important to us too. We hope that advances in this process will bring a settlement based on a two-state solution, and will entrench peace and security in this region. We have very good, neighborly relations with Israel. We were also one of the first states that recognized Palestine and established the diplomatic relations as early as in 1992. We consider that Palestine's independent statehood is justified historically, legally and in human terms.
The attempts are being made to take this issue out of the Peace Process format and into multilateral organizations. This triggers additional problems and the positions of the states differ on the issue. We follow these discussions closely, and I can say that Georgia's position is becoming more and more consolidated and clearer. We consider that co-existence of the Israeli and Palestinian states in peace and security is imperative for the peaceful development of the Middle East. This conflict needs to be settled peacefully, within the frames of the ongoing international process. Georgia remains faithful to the recognition of the rights of the Palestinian people, as espoused in the numerous UN resolutions. We consider that any settlement must be based on recognition and respect to human rights, irrespective of ethnic and national belonging. That is why we support the right of the Palestinian refugees and displaced persons to return to their homes in safety and dignity, and we also join the calls for full respect to the rights of Palestinians in occupied territories.
At the same time, we condemn violence and terror and support all those mechanisms and actions that are based on recognizing the right of all inhabitants of the Middle East to live in security, develop peacefully and reap the benefits of prosperity. Israel has the right to exist in secure environment. I want to wish our Israeli and Palestinian friends a prompt resumption of the peace process, which must bring tangible steps towards the security and stability in that region.
It is clear to us, that all conflicts have one common characteristic - to achieve economic development and restoration of ties among people, one needs lasting and just peace. Any conflict is an impediment to development and prosperity. Poverty and despair in turn impede resolution of conflicts, lead to further violence and suffering. So we support not any peace, but just and lasting peace that will bring the whole wider region forward.
Q: I want to ask you about Syria: in February, Georgia was among those 137 countries that supported the UN General Assembly resolution calling for the resignation of the Syrian President. Would you say that the Western military intervention in Syria is necessary?
A.: Yes, we have supported the UN General Assembly resolution on Syrian crisis. Georgia is also a member of the Group of Friends of Syrian People, which unites not only the western stats, but almost all Arab countries. We support the plan being implemented by Mr. Kofi Annan, supported by the Arab League, and condemn the acts of horrible violence that continue taking place in Syria.
It is a great tragedy when peaceful civilian population is targeted, and when the government does not fulfill its international obligations and obligations towards humanity. Our position is clear - the crisis needs to be settled based on the will the Syrian people irrespective of their ethnic or religious belonging. The international community, including the Arab League and the Gulf Cooperation Council [GCC] have a significant role to play. Our analysis of the region sees the GCC as the new leader emerging from the traditional configuration of the regional organizations. This is to be welcome, and we count on GCC playing a positive role in supporting peace and security in the wider region.
As to military action in Syria: such need arises when all means for peacefully protecting the population are exhausted. The best way to agree on such action is through clear mandate of the UN Security Council, although we have seen very well the negative part played by Russia, whose actions have essentially paralyzed the Security Council and led to further casualties in Syria. Sadly, the loss of life of innocent people is less of a concern in Moscow, than keeping to Soviet geo-political orthodoxy. Despite an extremely grave situation, we hope that there is still a chance for addressing the crisis through the concerted efforts of the international community. This can save many lives.
But as the time passes, as the casualties mount, the window of opportunity is getting narrower. Very soon, the Group of Friends will meet in Paris and I plan to participate. I hope that justice will triumph in Syria soon, the coming months are crucial.
Q: To continue on Georgia's tangible contribution to international peace: the EU has a practice to invite non-member states to participate in police or military peace operations implemented under Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP). Is Georgia planning to participate in these operations?
A.: We are already consulting with the EU to sign a framework agreement on participation in CSDP missions. This will be the natural extension of our close partnership with the EU. Significant progress is being made - the talks on Association Agreement are proceeding smoothly, and so are the talks on Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA). I hope these talks will be concluded successfully next year.
This summer we have started visa dialogue that will eventually lead to abolishment of visa requirements for all Georgian citizens. In other words, our relations with the EU are as intensive as never before, and we are looking forward to expanding the partnership to the area of security as well. By the way, the 2011 Joint Declaration of Eastern Partnership already foresees Georgia's participation in CSDP civilian and military missions. Our military and police have amassed significant experience in various multilateral operations and we are keen to use our knowledge under the EU aegis too. Our place is in the EU and we are advancing on this path methodically. Becoming not only a consumer, but also a provider of security is our responsibility towards our partners. Our capacity to contribute and our willingness to do so is demonstrated clearly since 1999 in the Balkans, in Iraq and most recently in Afghanistan. So our participation in conflict prevention and crisis management will be beneficial both to us and our EU partners.