Saakashvili: ‘One day Russia will head towards the EU’

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Georgia remains committed to joining the European Union, said President Mikheil Saakashvili in an exclusive interview with EURACTIV Poland. In a conciliatory gesture towards Moscow, the Georgian leader argued that closer ties between his country and the EU could also pave the way for more integration between Russia and the 27-nation bloc.

Saakashvili claimed stronger ties with Europe would give him greater leverage in negotiations with Moscow. "The more closely Georgia integrates with EU institutions, the more Russia will have to rethink its policy towards Georgia," he said.

He said this was the case because "in the end Russia also wants to belong to Europe, even if in a different way or on different institutional levels."

"One day Russia will head towards the EU," he predicted.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has pushed in the past for an economic area "from Lisbon to Vladivostok" and Russian officials have mentioned the possibility of forming a customs union with the EU.

Saakashvili also said closer EU-Russia and EU-Georgia ties could go hand-in-hand: "If Georgia follows the path of integration, it would also be easier for Russia to do so as well."

"We are talking here about a long-term process," he said. "However, this means that Georgia should never leave the path of European integration."

Georgia is 'least dependent' on Russia

The Georgian president was harsh in his criticism of Putin, and referring to the latter's project for a Eurasian Union, he said: "Vladimir Putin says openly that he wants to recreate the Soviet Union. He not only speaks, but he also acts upon this. He took part of Georgia. He also announced the possibility of incorporating South Ossetia and Belarus."

"But I fear that the situation will deteriorate even further before it gets better. On the one hand we prepare for a worst-case scenario, but on the other we hope for changes and détente with Russia," he added.

Saakashvili, president since 2004, has been criticised for fuelling tensions with Russia over territorial disputes that led to a brief war in August 2008.

He added that Russian pressure had in some ways increased Georgian independence. "What Russia has achieved through embargoes, blackmail and pressure is that Georgia is the former Soviet republic least [energy] dependent on Russia," he said.

"We produce our own electricity and we even export electricity to Russia. … We import oil and gas from Azerbaijan and if we need more we will get it from Turkmenistan," he added.

He nonetheless conceded that "we are in a difficult situation due to the occupation of our territory and because of the refugees from these areas."

Saakashvili dismissed suggestions that, taking a note from Putin, he would become prime minister once his term of office as president ends in 2013. He said that under reforms to be passed "the prime minister is important but completely dependent on the parliament." As a result, "This is not so interesting a position for a person who is currently president."

To read the interview in full, please click here.

Russia and Georgia fought a five-day war in August 2008. The conflict saw Russian troops repel an assault on the breakaway pro-Russian region of South Ossetia, which broke free from Tbilisi's rule in the early 1990s.

Russia later recognised South Ossetia and Georgia's second breakaway region of Abkhazia as independent states. Russia has thousands of troops stationed in both regions.

Vladimir Putin, Russia's prime minister, was quoted at the time by a French diplomat as essentially saying that he wanted Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili hanged.

Privately, EU representatives generally recognise that Saakashvili was to blame for the August war. However, he still enjoys Western support as a symbol of the 2003 'Rose Revolution' in Georgia that eventually brought him to power.

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