Russia is destabilising the breakaway region of Abkhazia because Moscow wants to divert Georgia from its NATO bid, Salome Samadashvili, the Georgian ambassador to NATO and the EU, told EURACTIV in an interview.
Salome Samadashvili studied in the US. She was a member of the Georgian parliament before being appointed Georgian ambassador to the EU in 2005. She is also her country’s ambassador to NATO.
Madam Ambassador, how would you describe the new tension between your country and your big Russian neighbour?
The so-called ‘frozen conflicts’ (Abkhazia and South Ossetia) are used against us to prevent Georgia from advancing towards its goals of euro- and trans-Atlantic integration. What we see now is a response to the Bucharest NATO summit, but not to the positive outcome of Bucharest – the positive outcome was that it was declared Georgia will join NATO one day – but rather to the negative outcome – because we were not granted a Membership Action Plan.
And the Russians were told quite clearly they hold the key to our membership aspirations, because members of the EU said that until Georgia solves the conflicts on its territory, it will have very dire prospects of joining the Alliance.
And you say the conflict was unfrozen to give a signal.
Yes, Bucharest was a signal to the Russians that they can destablise the situation in the conflict regions and that they can divert us from our path toward NATO. That’s why we have asked our partners so vigorously not to connect those topics directly, not to connect the conflict regions with NATO membership, because it seems that Russia has made it a foreign policy priority to prevent Georgia and Ukraine from joining NATO.
And if they were just told that the conflicts are the key to our prospects of membership, it is obvious that the Russians have now become even more assertive to destabilise the situation in the breakaway regions.
What we are witnessing in Abkhazia is a fully-fledged military and legal campaign to legalise the result of the ethnic cleansing which was conducted against the Georgian and other ethnicities in the early 90s. Because the Abkhaz ethnicity constituted only 13% of the pre-war population.
Russia said Georgia started the tension by bringing troops close to Abkhazia.
We have the UN reports which confirm this is not the truth and there is no build-up on the Georgian side.
What about the use of drones? Some have even been brought down. Is your country using drones? Some officials in Georgia said this claim was ‘absurd disinformation’.
The drone is not military equipment. It has no military capabilities, and it’s not on the list of equipment which is not allowed in the conflict zone. And the reason why we had to use the drone in order to survey the situation was because we had reports on military build-up in Abkhazia by the Russians, and that there are eight Russian generals organising military trainings.
Russia said Georgia has no right to use these drones over Abkhazia.
The right of Georgia to survey its own borders is not decided by Russia. It’s decided by the agreements reached in the 90s and none mentioned the drones.
As part of the agreements, you mentioned Russia has peacekeepers in the breakaway regions. Or at least Russia calls them peacekeepers. Maybe you use another name?
Some people make fun of the Russian peacekeepers by calling them piece-keepers, trying to keep pieces of something. Because the Russians have obviously declared that they are a party in the conflict, they have said they will protect the interests of their citizens no matter where they are.
80% of the population in Abkhazia holds a Russian passport, because they have been given them in an illegal campaign of passportisation. But how can a party in the conflict be peacekeeper?
What do you expect from the EU in this context?
What we would expect from the EU is first of all to get serious about starting talks on changing the format of the peace negotiations, because currently all formats are monopolised by the Russian Federation. And after Russia has openly declared that it is a party in the conflict, I think the EU can step up and be the real objective broker in the process. We need to start to talk very seriously about replacing the formats.
We are very disappointed by the actions of the Russian Federation. We keep saying that these are acts of creeping annexation of our territories and my hope would be that the EU sends a very clear political signal to the RF that there will be a political cost of the relationship between the EU and Russia. And I certainly would hope the EU would reconsider how it would proceed in its relationship with Russia.
When Russia behaves like a hooligan in international relations, trying to see how far it can get away with violating standards of international law, I would expect the EU to send a very clear signal of what is acceptable behaviour from a strategic partner.
We had a very good EU statement which asked Russia to recall the measures they intend to implement with respect to the conflict regions, and I would hope the EU would consider introducing measures which would have an impact in real terms, and not just as a statement.
You just said Russia is behaving like a hooligan. Is this language conducive to solving the problems?
Unfortunately we have tried all sorts of language with our neighbours. We have tried to use very delicate language, and all we got is more aggressive, more aggressive Russian behaviour.
But Russia has announced steps to improve the climate with Georgia, like lifting the embargo, lifting travel restrictions…
I’m not aware of any steps, only of declarations. I want to clarify: nothing is written anywhere about these measures Russia has introduced against Georgia. So I wonder how Russia can lift an embargo that was not legally enforced. Besides I’m not aware of any measures imposed by Russia having been lifted, despite their claims.
You cited the NATO bid as a cause of the tensions, but you neglected to mention the developments since Kosovo declared independence. Isn’t there a direct link?
There have been statements, also by the EU, that Kosovo is a sui generis case that has no application to any other situation. If you analyse Kosovo and the conflicts in Georgia, you will notice they have nothing in common. Not in terms of the history of the conflicts, not in terms of the international arrangements for solving the conflicts, not in terms of the political and economic context. The only country which has been trying to establish the linkage between Kosovo and the conflict region is Russia.
This raises the question of why they do not see the connection between Kosovo and Chechnya, or between other federal subjects who are trying to break free from the Russian Federation. Why are the Russians talking about Kosovo? It’s because they are extremely upset and angry they could not stop Kosovo.
I think they have some bruised pride and they are trying to settle an account on Kosovo. Georgia presents a very useful ground for settling this account, but if we are talking about moral or legal grounds for such an account, it’s nonsense.
Are you asking for peacekeepers from the EU to be sent to the conflict zones in your country?
We will push the question of the legitimacy of the presence of the Russian peace keepers on our soil very hard.
But will you specifically ask for peacekeepers from the EU?
We are not currently talking about any specific replacement. We are talking about the need to start a very broad dialogue with all international organisations, with the UN, with the OSCE, with the EU, and we need to start discussing what is feasible. Because what we are very concerned about is that the presence of the Russian peacekeepers, in the absence of an international force on the ground, is the recipe for destabilisation.
Do you have any hint from Mr. Solana or other interlocutors that they would be ready to discuss such a change of the format?
We are conducting very active diplomacy. Our minister for conflict resolution is here in Brussels today and tomorrow presenting our initiatives to the EU side. We will have our deputy prime minister here tomorrow. Our chair of the Parliament is in the US now and we will be discussing very actively over the course of several weeks what the possibilities are.
The road leading to the airport of Tbilisi was named after US President George W. Bush following his visit to your country. Is the US your favourite interlocutor?
I would say that we do not have favourite interlocutors, we have strategic partners, and the US and the EU are such partners who share our values.
One of the objectives of your country is to join NATO, and the US has been strongly supportive of your country. But joining NATO means that NATO must be ready to wage a war for your country. Do you believe this is realistic, with such conflicts unsolved?
At this point we are not talking about immediate membership of NATO, but making a step forward and acquiring a Membership Action Plan. After that we will still have some years of co-operation with NATO.
I’m sure that in the course of those years we will find a solution to those conflicts. You have to understand this government inherited an extremely difficult country, because before there was not even an attempt to address the situation on the ground. This government has achieved a lot in four years and we still have a few years ahead of us and we will still have some progress.
The International Crisis Group wrote in its latest reports that human rights were regressing in your country, that there was more and more corruption and nepotism. How would you like to comment?
I don’t know what the ICG says. There are other organisations with very strong reputations for reporting on corruption, and I know that the index of corruption in Georgia has improved a great deal according to Transparency International and other groups.
I know that Georgia has been ranked the number one reformer by the World Bank and this was a result of our efforts to eliminate corruption and red tape for starting business.
Well, nepotism, I admit it’s probably present at some level, but it’s also present in many EU member states. I compare Georgia with any southern European EU country and say the situation is no worse.