Georgia minister: Russia could be a good neighbour

Russia could be a good neighbour if it respects international law and basic international behaviour, Giorgi Baramidze, deputy prime minister of Georgia, told EURACTIV in an exclusive interview. However, he later added that the problem with Russians is that they a priori do not respect rules.

Giorgi Baramidze, born in 1968, was a member of parliament in Georgia from 1992-2003 and has served as a minister in successive governments since 2003. 

He was speaking to Georgi Gotev.

To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here.  

Mr. Deputy Prime Minister: what brings you to Brussels? 

I am here in Brussels because yesterday I signed a declaration, together with the Swedish EU Presidency and sixteen member states, on a mobility partnership between the EU and Georgia. 

Is this aimed at helping your nationals travel to the EU? 

This is to help circular migration of Georgian citizens to study, to be trained and acquire professional experience in Europe. The system is based on quotas by member states. The agreement also enables us to have closer cooperation with the EU on border management and improvement of the documents for travel, with our business with emigrants and diaspora here in EU countries, as well as to help those who come back to Georgia to find employment. 

Is your country following in the footsteps of Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia, which obtained visa-free regimes with the EU after having complied with a number of requirements, including the adoption of biometric passports? 

We are introducing biometric passports with the help of the EU. The process started a long time ago. We have started an agreement on visa facilitation – not complete liberalisation – which hopefully will be signed in the coming weeks or months. Much depends on the recent reshuffling of the EU. But the documents are there and hopefully the agreement will be signed very soon. Maybe next year, our citizens will have easier access to visas for the EU. After this step, we will be looking forward to starting negotiations for the next step, which is visa liberalisation. 

You mentioned the re-shuffling of the European Commission. Are you happy now that its president, José Manuel Barroso, has merged the two portfolios of enlargement and neighbourhood policy? Do you see this as a step in the right direction? 

We do think that this is a step in the right direction, especially concerning the Eastern Neighbourhood. We are European neighbours of the EU. Many eastern neighbours of the European Union have a clear European membership perspective. And we hope that this merge will help bring this idea to the mind of EU officials. This is not a guarantee of anything, but it is an opportunity to work with the enlargement commissioner and it is no secret that among the neighbours of the EU, European neighbours have a big advantage. 

The Czechs have pushed very strongly for the Eastern Partnership and the new enlargement commissioner, Štefan Füle, is Czech. Do you think this gives you an advantage? 

I think that Mr. Füle is the right person for this job. Because being Czech, he has his country’s experience in EU enlargement. It is also relevant that he is a person who knows Eastern Europe and is aware of its strategic importance for the EU. He has adequate knowledge and experience to take the right decisions. But we should not forget that many things will not depend on him, but also on the member countries. Moreover, progress will be judged on the individual merit of neighbouring countries. 

You mention the fact that he knows enlargement well: we might assume that he knows Russia well too. You won’t have much to explain when you sit at the negotiating table with him, will you? 

Absolutely. This is a very important factor. He knows the challenges and perspectives. But I would like to add that we should not look at Russia simply as a problem. We think that Russia could be a good neighbour if it respects international law and basic international behaviour. 

But that would of course mean Russia must step back from Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Do you think that this is possible? 

Well, this is something that the entire international community has asked Russia to do. And this is what the EU has always been telling the Russian leaders. Russia must revise its recognition of illegally occupied Georgian regions and comply with the ceasefire agreement brokered by [French] President [Nicolas] Sarkozy. 

You know well the psychology of Russia. You know that Russians love war trophies and that they might consider the occupied territories as their trophy. 

Well, things might evolve. There was Stalin’s Russia. There was Brezhnev’s Russia. Now it is Putin’s Russia… … 

But where does Putin’s Russia stand? Things are changing, but Putin is white-washing Stalin’s image…

He is trying to. But he needs to put things in perspective. The USSR was much stronger than today’s Russia. And even the USSR failed. It failed because of its system of ideas, its totalitarianism and its idea of the spheres. Putin is trying to revive this experience, but I do not think that this time these ideas might be more successful. 

Some experts say that Russia is incapable of winning a war with a big neighbour, like Ukraine. But it is capable of winning a war with a small neighbour like Georgia. And so it did. 

Yes, indeed it did so. We know that we cannot confront Russia militarily and we do not want to confront Russia militarily. But if Russia attacks us, we think that this is not just a matter of Georgia; the problem of Georgia is not just Georgia’s problem. Willingly or unwillingly this is also a European problem. Europe, together with the US, needs to cooperate in order to confront this issue and assure peace and stability for Georgia. 

Some experts say that Russia might take some steps forward, but not before Mikheil Saakashvili has left office. What do you think? 

Seriously speaking – based on simple historical observations – none of the Georgian leaders have ever been acceptable to Russia. At the beginning of the twentieth century, we had Prime Minister and then President Noe Zhordania. His government was kicked out by Bolshevik Russians and, then, Russia occupied Georgia. Even though Zhordania was a member of the socialist movement and should have been appreciated by Lenin and his mates. Then there was President Zviad Gamsakhurdia and they organised a coup d’etat against him. Then we had Eduard Shevardnadze. 

Some people say that he was the most important aide to Gorbachev. 

Yes, he was. That is my point. Despite being close to Gorbachev, the events of 9 April 1989 happened [when an anti-Soviet demonstration took place and was repressed by the Red Army, which killed 20 protesters]. 

Under Eduard Shevardnadze, we had ethnic cleansing in Abkhazia. Then we had between 1992 and 2003 these territories effectively under Russian control and nothing changed in this respect. So Russians did not like Shevardnadze either. So it is not a big surprise to us that they did not like Saakashvili. Any leader that would try to make Georgia a truly independent and sovereign country would be opposed by Russia. 

I would challenge you. If a new Georgian leader claimed that Georgia is not interested in joining NATO, Russians might be happy with him… 

Surprisingly for you, informally, we told Russia this before the war. We told Russia that if the price of Georgian freedom, security and independence was NATO membership, we were ready to discuss this in a trilateral format with the West, Russia and Georgia. Saakashvili proposed this to Putin. And Putin replied: “I am not going to exchange your territories with your foreign policy.” 

This means that he was already considering Georgian territories as Russian territories because they had so-called ‘peacekeeping troops’ there. All of us, and I underline all of us, knew that although they pretended to be neutral, these troops were one-sided. We knew what was going on there, and this is well reflected by the Tagliavini report [EURACTIV 01/10/09]. We all knew from the very beginning that the Russians were sided with the separatists, and they emboldened them. 

Are you unhappy with the Brussels press, which widely stated that the Tagliavini report was favourable to Russia? 

I think that the mood is shifting now. Many people at that time probably only read the first page, which stated that Georgia shot first on 7 August 2008. But whoever read the material, thousands of pages long, would see that this was a response to the existing invasion. The report shows that Russians were already beyond the lines defined by the supposed Russian peacekeeping mission. These were mercenaries and volunteers. Then there were bombardments of Georgian villages and the evacuation of the civilian population from Tskhinvali in the week before 7 August. So the whole preparation of the war activities started well before the 7th. 

People who have read very carefully these materials understand that things are different. Of course politically it would be very difficult for the Commission to put blame just on the Russian side because then it would create a dilemma in front of the European Union on how to proceed. From the very beginning, the fact-finding mission was going to issue a very balanced analysis. 

Nonetheless, we are happy with the findings of the mission. These are practical materials, worth reading. Every fact that we have been claiming is in the report: not only ethnic cleansing, but also how Russia prepared this invasion, the provocations, the illegal ‘passportisation’ and all other kind of illegal things that Russians have done before and after the war. I would underline especially ethnic cleansing, which is totally unacceptable in the twenty-first century in Europe. Moreover, Russians keep violating the ceasefire agreement.

Do you sense a new mood with your Western counterpart after the war of August 2008? With regard to NATO, isn’t there a growing distance? NATO does not rule out completely Georgia’s accession, but what is clear is that it is not going to happen in the near future… 

Well it’s not very close objectively, because we have to do our job, our homework. 

But were you closer to it at the NATO summit in Bucharest in April 2008?

Well, at the NATO summit we were talking about a MAP [Membership Action Plan]. 

But this was seen as opening the doors towards membership. 

Yes in fact, quite surprisingly and maybe quite controversially, immediately after the war we got what we were requesting. We did not get formally MAP, but we got an instrument which is absolutely equal to the MAP, which is the Annual National Programme. If you look at the content, MAP is absolutely equal to ANP. 

Yes, but these words have a special meaning for diplomats, and it was ‘not MAP’. 

I know and I understand that. But in addition to the ANP, we have the Georgia-NATO Commission, which would not be included in the MAP: it is on top of MAP. So you could even claim that we are a step beyond the MAP. 

Are you happy with the Obama administration? They seem more willing to develop relations with Russia rather than strengthening your military capability in your country. 

We know that our solutions are not linked to military strengthening. Strengthening our military is important, but is not the solution to our problems. Our goal is to have a strong democracy and open market economy and get closer to the EU. This is our strategic objective. We are happy with the formula, which states that the EU and the US want good neighbourly relations with Russia, but this should not be at the expense of Ukraine, Georgia and other neighbouring countries. The West does not recognise the notion of the ‘spheres of influence’. 

We are happy that we have a mechanism that allows us to move on with the reform agenda. We have the EU neighborhood policy action plan, where clearly we have our agenda for what to do and how to do it, and in parallel we have Annual National Programme with NATO, where it is defined what to do and how to do it. Everything is in our hands and then in two or three years when we have done our job, we will see how to proceed and what the political mood is. 

There was the donors’ conference in October last year: after the war, 3.5 billion euros was pledged (EURACTIV 23/10/08). What is happening with this money? Is it actually being disbursed? 

This money goes to the minister of finance and then it is the minister of finance who decides what to do. But since I am coordinating the operations, I am very well aware of what is happening. It is not just me, the whole parliament is aware, the wider public as well. We have created an anti-crisis commission headed by a leading opposition member to have a clear understanding of where this money goes and how it is distributed. 

The money goes essentially in two directions: support for internally displaced persons – and I think that the Georgian government has done a very, very effective job to be able to build within literally few months, during winter last year, thousands and thousands of houses for internally displaced persons – and this process continues: we have now quite a number of big villages created through these funds and we are providing extra services for these people. 

And the other big chunk of this money goes to sustaining the Georgian economy, which practically collapsed after the war, also in conjunction with the economic crisis. And now we have used this money to build new roads, new hydropower stations, power lines and other major infrastructure in the country. 

Was it critical to receive this money? 

Absolutely. Without the money that arrived from Europe, the US and even Japan, we would probably not have managed to survive, because it would have created internal social strain, tensions, turbulences, and Georgia would not have survived in this kind of situation: both the government and the people. 

The EU sent an observer mission to the border… 

Well I would not put it like that. The EU has sent an observer mission throughout the country to observe what Russians are doing. Russians are setting up installations which are remindful of the Berlin Wall. The EU observatory mission has a mandate on the entire territory of Georgia. 

But they cannot go where Russians are – in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. 

They cannot go to occupied territories both in South Ossetia and Abkhazia because of Russian occupiers. And Russian occupiers are in breach of practically all of the six points of the ceasefire agreement. This is the reason. Not because the EU envoys lack the mandate or the will. 

But this mission helps you politically? 

The mission helps us, but I would not say politically. It helps us to stabilise the situation, it helps us to prevent provocations, even if 150 provocations have happened alongside occupation lines. Twenty-three people have been killed and now [1 December] we have four teenagers imprisoned in Tskhinvali [the main city of South Ossetia] for absurd reasons. EU observers have been prevented from seeing them. Russians are trying to play games with Europe and the Council of Europe. Clearly they dislike both NATO and the EU, so they want to have an organisation where they are involved and where they can stop plans. 

There is a new Russian initiative for a new Euro-Atlantic security treaty (EURACTIV 30/11/09). What do you think of it? 

Well I think that is very cynical by Russia to say in the very first chapter of this document that territorial integrity should never be violated and that countries should not use force against other countries. If Russians had respected the existing security mechanisms and the existing rules, nothing like the war in Georgia would have happened and nothing like the 17 years of ethnic cleansing that preceded the war would have taken place. 

You are very much critical of this proposal. But Western countries seem to be more moderate.

Well, we will see what is going to happen. I am just more straightforward because it is our obligation to speak more clearly and less diplomatically. I am not a diplomat myself. We will see what the response will be for the West. I am quite confident that the existing rules are sufficient to ensure Western security. The problem with Russia is that they a priori do not respect the rules, so, no matter what rules you invent, nothing is going to work. 

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