Russia’s logic and Georgia’s place

Grigol KATAMADZE: “We highly appreciate the principled stand of Ukraine’s new political leadership regarding Abkhazia and South Ossetia”

Another anniversary of the Russo-Georgian conflict induced certain Russian experts, in particular, the director of the Moscow Carnegie Center Dmitri Trenin, to voice suggestions on ensuring peace between Russia and Georgia on the pages of The Moscow Times. He suggests, among others, that Tbilisi give up the idea of restoring its sovereignty over Abkhazia in return for bringing the ethnically Georgian Gali district back under Georgian control, while Georgia’s control over South Ossetia should be limited to the protection of Georgian citizens of this former autonomous region of Georgia. In the expert’s opinion, Russia, in its turn, should apply “soft force” against Tbilisi, i.e., lift the visa regime and let Georgian products back in.

What is Tbilisi’s opinion in this respect and generally — in what way can the internationally unrecognized Georgian territories be restored to the fold, after declaring independence from this Caucasian republic? How is Ukraine’s refusal to recognize the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia perceived? These are the issues raised in the interview with Grigol Katamadze, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Georgia to Ukraine.

“OUR PEOPLE ARE CONVINCED SUPPORTERS OF GEORGIA’S MEMBERSHIP IN NATO AND THE EU”

“Two years have passed since the Russo-Georgian war. This is exactly how this event should be dubbed. Russian troops invaded Georgian territory. Twenty percent of Georgian territory is still occupied.

“De-occupation of this territory is not taking place, despite the agreement on ceasing hostilities signed by the president of the RF and the president of France Nicolas Sarkozy. Unfortunately, most elements of this agreement are ignored, including those on the restoration of the status quo, which implies the withdrawal of Russian troops to the territory of Russia.

“Moreover, the situation is deteriorating due to Russia’s decision to build military bases on the territory of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, although the international community agreed that these territories belong to Georgia. And, despite the Istanbul Agreements on removing the Russian bases from Georgia, Russia is doing just the opposite, it starts building them now.

“I think that it will be interesting for your readers to learn about such raions as Akhalgori, which was not included in the zone of conflict and was out of the administrative borders of South Ossetia, deep within Georgia. This territory is also occupied. By the way, there are a lot of historical monuments and churches dating back to the 12th-13th centuries. And this is where a military airfield is being built.

“The situation is generally deteriorating. Despite the agreement signed by the presidents of France and Russia on August 12, 2008, European observers cannot get into Abkhazia and South Ossetia to study the situation.

“I think that Russia is to blame for the cul-de-sac in this situation, due to its hasty recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. I know that you have a lot of readers. Therefore, I would like to bring one important detail into the limelight. Many will profit from the thesis that the territory of South and North Ossetia is one and indivisible. They are separated by a natural border, the Caucasian Mountains. Only in 1985 was the notorious Roki tunnel built. That is how a 60 thousand army got into Georgia in order to seize Tbilisi in August, 2008.

“The Caucasian Ridge is a natural borderline separating these two territories. That is why speaking about the unity of these two formations is outright deception.”

What about Trenin’s suggestions, in particular, about Russia’s use of soft force to restore peaceful relations with Georgia?

“In my opinion, Russia has a unique opportunity to repair the situation.”

In which way?

“To de-occupy the territory, and denounce the fallacious recognition of the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. We see that virtually the whole world refuses to acknowledge the independence of these territories.

“Russia is a great country. I think that for the sake of restoring good neighborly relations with Georgia, some unpopular measures (from the viewpoint of domestic usage) should be taken. However, from a long-term perspective, this would be a boon for Russian interests.

“I do not know just how effective easing the visa regime and letting Georgian products back onto the Russian market can be at this stage, but I think that Russian authorities should be interested in letting more good products onto their market.

“It seems to me that Russia has a wrong conception of keeping Georgia under constant pressure, not letting it take its deserved place in the European community.

“I assure you that 75 percent of our people are convinced supporters of Georgia’s membership in NATO and the EU. This is where Georgia belongs, in this system of safety and values.”

“IT IS DIFFICULT TO SPEAK ABOUT THE PROSPECTS FOR RUSSIAN–GEORGIAN RELATIONS”

And what about the restoration of the country’s territorial integrity?

“It is obvious that the problem has to be solved. And we will solve it! The world is changing. I think Russia will have to look for ways to solve this problem. An increase of tension and military force in this region will do Russia no good.”

Just as Medvedev’s statement, earlier this year, to the effect that Saakashvili was a persona non grata in Russia...

“I wish I could see some logic in such statements. When it is said that Russia perceives Georgians as a brotherly nation, and at the same time does not acknowledge the president elected by this very nation, I fail to see logic here. My deep conviction is that this is an offense to the Georgian people: to treat a legitimately elected president in such a way and with such actions. This in no way promotes the normalization of relations,

“If the Georgian nation is considered a friend, why not allow its production to the Russian markets? A friendly nation should not be faced with any obstructions and additional barriers while visiting the friendly Russian nation.

“You know that despite the war we have not discriminated against Russian business in Georgia and have not toughened the visa regime for Russians. However, citizens of Georgia can only visit Russia on invitation from immediate relatives. Meanwhile, a Russian citizen gets a Georgian visa at any legal checkpoint without problems.

“When there is no logic, it is difficult to speak about the prospects for Russian-Georgian relations.

“On our part, we are trying to find a way out of this situation. To my deep regret, Russia will not meet us here. I reiterate: it is a misconception and, I’d say, brainwashing the nation, to say that the Georgian nation is friendly while the Georgian president is unfriendly. It is absolutely devoid of any logic.”

RE-INTEGRATION PROSPECTS

That is to say that it is re-integration which will become a key to the renewal of Georgia’s territorial integrity?

“Yes, we will not stop, and we’ll conduct, as our president said on August 7, ‘this struggle to the end, and liberate Georgia.’ By August, 2008, for two years we had invested tens of millions of dollars into the development of infrastructure on the territory of the former South Ossetian Autonomous Oblast controlled by the central government in Tbilisi. This meant first-rate highways, hospitals, schools, hotels. Could any politicians in their right mind invest tens of millions of dollars in order to start a war later and destroy it all? No way. Russia initiated this conflict, the war, in order to destroy the good example and prevent people to re-integrate into a single Georgian space. By the way, everything that we had reconstructed was wiped from the face of the earth.”

By the way, where is Georgia going to find funds to implement its re-integration program which, according to an article in Le Monde authored by the Georgian re-integration minister Temur Yakobashvili, provides for “free portable computers for all schoolchildren, and the right for the dwellers of these two regions to free education in Georgian universities and to scholarships to study abroad”?

“In the recent six years Georgia has wisely and efficiently administered all the capital coming from abroad, and also from domestic taxes. Just one example: in two years, (2007-08) two billion dollars worth of foreign capital was invested in Georgia. This is a clear sign of how attractive Georgia is for investors. The private sector will not come to the country with an unstable development, which is not attractive for business.

“After the war of 2008, donor states allotted 4.5 billion dollars for the continuation of the country’s development. These funds are also very properly invested into infrastructure, road construction, and tourist and energetic infrastructure.

“Today Georgia can say that it is an energetically independent country in terms of energy production. Georgia has been exporting electric energy for almost two years now. By the way, Russia buys Georgian electric energy for its southern regions. Georgia also exports electric energy to Turkey and Azerbaijan. We are going to further develop this infrastructure to make Georgia a state with a strong economy. We also use all our transit possibilities to make Georgia attractive for the transportation of energy carriers and ensure the diversification of the sources of energy carriers.

“Besides, we invest into our intellectual property, the development of the youth. Next year we are going to complete a total computerization of schools. On Sept. 1, 2011, all pupils will go to school with adapted portable computers with installed textbooks.

“Without this, this country will have no future. Georgia has no oil, no big deposits of gas, nor any particular mineral resources. Therefore, we have to develop the nation’s considerable intellect. You can’t develop what is missing.”

What is Georgia’s economic progress, with regard not only to the war of 2008, but also to the world economic crisis which has struck all countries in the world?

“Two free economic zones have been created in Georgia, in Poti and Kutaisi, on the territory of the former Soviet automobile plant. The wealthiest Egyptian company came to us, to the territory of the huge Kutaisi automobile plant, to invest nearly two billion dollars into the construction of facilities for the production of a complete range of household appliances. It is noteworthy that 10 thousand people will be engaged in this plant. For Kutaisi with its 150 thousand of population, this is an immense figure.

“It is quite clear that it was impossible to change and reform everything in six years. However, we can speak of a serious breakthrough.”

By the way, what are the chances for Georgia to host the final games of the European League, as it is reported in the Georgian media?

“Indeed, over the recent years Georgia has hosted a great number of various interesting events, including finals of European championships and festivals. By the way, in late June there was a World Congress of wine-makers. 600 of greatest wine makers convened in the world’s cradle of wine-making, Georgia. By the way, the last time when such a forum was held here was in the late 1950s. This means that in this sphere Georgia is not merely the cradle of wine-making, but also that we have made great progress. Our wines have a long tradition and are of high quality.

“Russia closed its markets under the pretext of adulterated produce coming from Georgia. One could agree if it were one sort of product. But when everything turned out to be ‘adulterated,’ mineral water, vegetables, fruit... I even wonder why no one has yet come up with an idea to build something above the Caucasian mountains to block the access of the ‘adulterated’ air from across the Caucasian ridge.

“Georgia is becoming an attractive and interesting country, so no wonder that many events, including sports events, are taking place in Georgia. On December 31 last year, the brilliant singer Jose Carreras, together with the outstanding Georgian singers who had come from all over the world, ushered in the New Year at a concert in Batumi. Today, you will not recognize Batumi. Something changes in that town each month.”

“GEORGIA NOW HAS A LOT OF INTERESTING OFFERS FOR THE UKRAINIAN BUSINESS ELITE”

Ukrainian Vice Prime Minister Serhii Tihipko recently visited Georgia and later spoke about the necessity of studying the know-how of your country. He also said that soon Ukrainian Prime Minister Mykola Azarov would make a visit to your country. Do you see a sincere interest on the part of the Ukrainian authorities to study Georgian know-how in carrying out reforms?

“It was indeed a very interesting visit. Tihipko showed a vivid interest in all the reforms which were carried out in Georgia. I want to make it clear that we do not impose our reforms on anyone. These reforms were made for the sake of the Georgian people, for the improvement of the domestic situation, to attract investments, to make Georgia’s economy stronger, so our country can take an honorable place within the civilized world.

“Yet we are always open for those who are interested in our reforms. We are always ready to share anything, tell everything, in order to prevent our friends from making errors in carrying out this or other reforms.”

When can we expect the visit of the Ukrainian prime minister?

“I wouldn’t like to associate this visit with the acquaintance with our know-how. The matter is that during a working visit of Georgia’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr. Vashadze, and his meeting with Mr. Azarov in Kyiv, a question was raised of the state-to-state commission which has not gathered since February, 2005.

“Taking into consideration that the previous session took place in Kyiv, the next one will be in Tbilisi. And we really hope that the prime minister and the governmental delegation of Ukraine will arrive in the fall to hold the meeting of the commission.

“Moreover, we have an agreement to host a large Ukrainian-Russian business forum as a part of this visit. Unlike in former times, Georgia now has a lot of interesting offers for the Ukrainian business elite. I think in this case the Ukrainian business elite must be more aggressive. We welcome this aggressiveness of the Ukrainian business elite concerning Georgia.”

And what can you say of the official contacts between the presidents of our countries? One of the commentaries published in the Ukrainian mass media says that Saakashvili’s attempts to establish contacts with the Ukrainian leader look very comical.

“I will not comment the commentary, but I want to say one thing. The president of Georgia has met Viktor Yanukovych many times, both when the incumbent president was prime minister, and when he was in opposition. I would like to remind that there is a very good Georgian tradition to wish a happy birthday to the leader of a friendly country. On receiving an invitation from the Ukrainian counterpart to visist Kyiv on July 9, the president could not but use this opportunity in order to greet the president of Ukraine on the occasion of his birthday and, of course, to discuss, albeit briefly, very important questions in our bilateral cooperation.

“I think that these contacts will last. The presidents will communicate. There are very many moments for our bilateral relations. Receiving the Georgian minister of foreign affairs on June 11, the president of Ukraine confirmed the importance of cooperation between Ukraine and Georgia, and discussed the prospects of this cooperation. A lot depends on concrete factors and how efficiently they are going to work and help the leaders to actively cooperate. All involved in this process must help the presidents establish good relations.”

I would like to hear from you how Georgia perceives the position of the present administration, which repeatedly declared that it does not recognize the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

“There have been a lot of arguments about this during the presidential campaign in Ukraine, as well as after the new president’s inauguration. The words of gratitude will mean nothing perhaps, because this is Ukraine’s principled stand. And we highly estimate the new leadership’s principled stand in its refusal to acknowledge the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

“It is of principal importance, and believe me that the Georgian public and the people of Georgia highly appreciate such decisions and statements made by the president of Ukraine and its minister of foreign affairs. I think when the president of Ukraine visits Georgia he himself will feel the same sentiment and the attitude of the Georgian people to him personally, due to this stand in particular.”

When can we expect the visit of the president of Ukraine to Georgia?

“It’s hard to say. But the visit will be made by all means. I know that the Ukrainian president’s schedule is very busy this year, but we are working on this.”

THE PROSPECTS OF RELATIONS AND THE RUSSIAN FACTOR

Mr. Ambassador, doesn’t the dramatic warming up between Ukraine and Russia in the recent months affect the relations between our countries?

“Thanks God, Ukraine is a self-sufficient state and cooperates with many countries including Russia. We have never allowed to raise questions which would put Ukraine in an awkward position and affect its relations with Russia. This will never happen. We value and highly appreciate our historical relations with Ukraine. I don’t think that the improvement of Ukraine-Russia relations will damage Ukraine-Georgia relations in any possible way. I do not exclude it having a positive impact on our relations rather than a negative one. Besides, we don’t see any problems in our relations which would require immediate actions on a monthly basis.

“I have already mentioned the visits of Georgian minister of foreign affairs to Kyiv and of the Ukrainian vice-prime minister to Tbilisi. We also expect the visits of the prime minister, minister of foreign affairs, minister of defense, and the Secretary of the CNSD of Ukraine to Tbilisi. If these plans are carried out this year, it will become a proof of our active relations.

“Besides, there are very many interesting projects in various branches including the economy, energetics, culture, military technical cooperation, and staff training. We could name a wide range of themes where we might cooperate effectively and to our mutual benefit.

“I think that one cannot lose such opportunities, or put them off for later. I think that Georgia is a very interesting country for Ukraine in terms of cooperation, and vice versa.

“We are very actively promoting Georgia’s tourism potential, in order to enable Ukrainian citizens to come here for vacations. If five years ago 300 thousand tourists visited Georgia each year, last year their number was one and a half million. This year we expect around two million tourists, of which 800 thousand will come to Batumi, where cruise Mediterranean liners carrying up to 2.5 thousands European tourists started to come this year. We have built infrastructure for this.

“I would like to use the opportunity and address the citizens of Ukraine via your newspaper, which has a huge audience. If anyone should want to have a holiday in Georgia, we are prepared to receive visitors any time of the year at the seaside in Adjara and at the ski resorts of Bakuriani and Gudauri. Another ski resort is being built in Svanetia. We can also offer wine-tasting and historical tours. Or just come and have a rest.

“But I would like to address the law-abiding citizens of Ukraine and ask them not to violate the law of Georgia on occupied territories and refrain from visiting the territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia which are now under a special regime of occupied territories. We cannot guarantee the safety of Ukrainian citizens there. I would not even rule out deliberate provocations in order to inspire clashes between the Ukrainian and Georgian peoples. In order to avoid any such misunderstandings, I would recommend, and plead everyone, to refrain in the nearest future, until the status of the occupied territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia is resolved.”