On August 8, the world will mark 6th anniversary of the beginning of the five-day Russo-Georgian war, which resulted in Georgia losing 20 percent of its territory. Through signing of the Sarkozy-Medvedev agreement, the West then managed to stop the advance of Russian troops on Tbilisi. However, one of the key points of the agreement, calling for the withdrawal of Russian troops from Georgian territory, has not been implemented. In the light of Russian aggression against Ukraine, it has become clear to all that the events of 2008 were not a fluke, but a planned action on the Kremlin’s part. Therefore, we started our conversation with the Ambassador of Georgia to Ukraine Mikheil Ukleba with lessons learned from the Russo-Georgian war.
“The main lesson for us is the occupation of 20 percent of the territory of Georgia. The Russian occupation troops are stationed there, and barbed wire demarcates the internal border between occupied and unoccupied parts of Georgia. They now want to replace barbed wire with something like the Berlin Wall in some sectors.
“This war did not start in August 2008, but in 1992 in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, when they pitted us against the Abkhazians and South Ossetians, and sent in the Cossacks and troops from the North Caucasus. We have been there and realized that peace and development are most valuable, because an occupation regime blocks any development. The occupied territories and the people living there cannot succeed while they stay under the boot of the stranger.
“So, Georgia is now focusing on reforms in the economy, the liberalization, reduction of number of taxes from 23 to 6, and the fight against corruption. Due to this, we have entered a qualitatively different stage. We are developing the prison system and reforming the prosecution service and the judiciary now.
“Of course, our chosen path is what the people demands. We had a difficult period of cohabitation. Despite it, the government and the opposition share the view that our course towards European integration and NATO membership should not be changed. The new government has accelerated work on the initialing, signing, and ratification of the Association Agreement with the EU.
“These steps towards rapprochement with the EU represent our civilizational choice to become a normal and successful European country.
“We do not aim high. We are a small nation that wants to have a successful state, so that our people live like human beings, like the Europeans do, despite the fact that they have their own problems. Still, they pale in comparison with the challenges faced by our country, and I am not even talking here about the Russian aggression and the occupied territories. We are fighting these challenges by our success, and this is the best example for the population of the occupied territories.”
How are they to see your progress, if these areas are on course to be walled-in?
“How did the Berlin Wall collapse? The GDR was considered the most successful of the socialist countries. Still, do you remember how people were breaking down that wall? It happened recently. No Berlin Wall or likeness of it can stop them. All people want to live a normal, civilized, and successful life. If the Russians spend their holidays in Europe, keep their money and educate their children there, why do they tell us refrain from going in that direction. I do not understand this paradox.”
What can you say about the West? Has it learned anything from Russia’s war in Georgia, given the ongoing Russia’s aggression against Ukraine?
“Of course, now is the moment of truth. We saw a little solidarity on the West’s part regarding Russia’s actions back in the 1990s, when it had provoked the Abkhazian conflict, fought against Georgia, and then became a mediator and peacemaker. It was not only a paradox, but a full-on disaster. It was Russia’s mediation and peacemaking that led to war in 2008. By the way, Russia was preparing to it, just as it was preparing for the war with Ukraine. It should be noted that it is much better prepared in your case. It has learned the lessons of the war with Georgia. Many people noticed then that the Russian army did not meet the criteria of a modern army.
“If we talk about the role of Europe, we had virtually no support. We were one-on-one against the Russian aggression, and nobody did anything. The UN and OSCE just watched, expressed their distress, adopted resolutions, and that was all. Nobody said that Russia was not a mediator but an obvious aggressor.
“What happened in your case was a complete surprise. A permanent member of the UN Security Council attacked a neighboring country in full view of the world and annexed 26,000 square kilometers, while we have lost 20 percent of our territory.
“What is now happening in the Donbas is very similar to how it started in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. On the other hand, the West and Europe’s solidarity with Ukraine is incomparably higher than with us in 2008.
“However, what can Georgia with 4 million citizens or Ukraine with 45 million do to resist the 145-million-strong Russia? Our security is at the zero level. You had the Budapest Memorandum and what good it did you? We had the Sarkozy-Medvedev agreement, according to which Russia pledged to withdraw its troops from the occupied territories and to allow international observers into the conflict zone. It has failed to do both.”
“We have already held 28 rounds of negotiations with the Russian side in Geneva with the mediation of the OSCE, Russia ignores everything, does not withdraw its troops, and does not allow observers to the occupied territories. Now, this permanent member of the UN Security Council attacked Ukraine as well.
“The international system is now in total chaos, our countries do not feel themselves safe. What are we to do? The UN resolutions condemning the annexation of Crimea and addressing the situation of internally displaced persons and refugees from Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region have not yielded any results.
“Some countries blocked our nations joining the MAP in 2008, and it was a grave mistake.
“When your case had its moment of truth, the West imposed the third round of sanctions. This is a serious blow to the financial and economic system of Russia, presenting serious challenges to its business, investment situation, stability, and tourism. Of course, Russia should take this into account. I hope that the international community’s efforts will be successful.
“The destructive policy that Russia pursues against Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine, against its neighbors, has no future. I, for example, as a private person and a former Soviet resident, believe that Russia has more to gain from constructivism, good neighborliness, integration with the civilized world, which Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova all aspire to. Ours are European countries and our place is in Europe. The united Europe covers 28 countries, and those who want to join it get to stand in a queue.
“We have signed the Association Agreement, I hope that Ukraine will soon ratify it too, but we will need 8 to 10 years to fully integrate into the EU, because we have to meet all criteria. Desire is one thing, but one needs to carry out reforms.
“Moreover, against the background of our challenges, as you are conducting an anti-terrorist operation in the east of the country, and we have Russian troops stationed 40 kilometers from Tbilisi, we need to be successful, we must keep going forward.”
You have said that some countries made a grave mistake when blocking the MAP for Georgia and Ukraine at the NATO Summit in 2008. Are these countries sending the right signal now by saying that the eve of the summit in Wales is not the right moment to talk about the MAP for our countries?
“Georgia is a major ally of NATO, and we have proven our worth by deeds, not just words. We are among the largest contributors to the alliance’s activities. Overall 1,500 of our soldiers serve in Afghanistan. We were in Iraq before that. We believe we should make a contribution to the cause of international security. We hope that the Wales Summit participants will reward our efforts and progress in implementing reforms and our continued intention to join NATO. The reward’s precise form does not matter. Ignoring our aspirations on the West’s part has led to what is happening in Ukraine now. If they go further by ignoring the events in Ukraine as well, it will end badly for Europe. Unfortunately, I am sure of it.”
By the way, what hopes does Georgia place on obtaining the status of a “major non-NATO ally of the US”?
“We appreciate it. It is important that such a decision is now being taken in the US. We – Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine – would see this as another step to strengthen our security. How can anyone claim that we are fighting against someone or wanting to occupy foreign territory? We have had 20 percent of our own occupied, and we want to restore our nation’s sovereignty and territorial integrity within the internationally recognized borders. We want to live in peace with our neighbors.”
Indeed, many Georgians hoped that the resignation of Mikheil Saakashvili would improve your country’s relations with Russia. At first it seemed that it would. Georgian wine and mineral water began to return to the Russian market. However, Russia canceled the regime of free trade with your country the day before yesterday. [This interview was recorded on August 1. – Author.] One of the leaders of the National Democratic Party Guram Chakhvadze commented on this move as follows: “It is a tragic illusion to think that we can have civilized relations with Russia.” How would you respond to that?
“Indeed, we had a paradoxical situation. On the one hand, the new government has kept the country on course of integration into NATO and the EU. On the other hand, it began negotiations with Russia without crossing the ‘red lines,’ that is the issues of the occupied territories and Russia’s failure to comply with international agreements.
“We started to export Georgian wine and mineral water, fruits and vegetables to Russia, roads reopened between the two countries. All that happened in the absence of diplomatic relations. We have left the CIS. Georgia is now hosting three Russian embassies, in Sukhumi, Tskhinvali, and Tbilisi, with Russia’s interests section at the Swiss embassy representing that country in the latter city, while we have the interests section of Georgia at the Swiss embassy in Moscow.
“Being in such a paradoxical situation, we started negotiations, guided by the understanding that every war and every row had to end someday. We started this dialog, only for the other side to terminate the bilateral FTA two days ago in response to our signing and ratification of the Association Agreement with the EU.
“Of course, we will suffer from it, although we and Russia are both members of the WTO. On the other hand, we have the huge EU market opening to us, as the FTA with the EU comes into effect on September 1. It is a 500-million-strong market of 28 countries which is more attractive than a 145-million-strong market of one country, which can close access to it at any moment, as it did before by claiming that our products were adulterated.
“When Georgian products were driven off the Russian market in 2006, it was a heavy blow to our economy. Still, it helped us to diversify our markets. We export Georgian wine to 42 countries now, and with the signing of this agreement the EU market has opened for us. We are ready to meet these challenges.”
How can the West get Russia to act in a civilized manner?
“The international community tells Russia at various forums and in different formats that it is violating international agreements, including by failing to comply with the agreements its representatives signed as recently as 2014. Every effort has failed so far, so let us hope that the recently imposed sectoral sanctions will force Russia to understand its responsibility.
“However, we are worried about appearance of double standards in the most civilized capitalist countries that ought to set an example, these same countries that preach to us about human rights and democratic society. Worse, they engage in double standards at our expense.”
Based on the lessons of the “five-day war,” should Ukraine rely on the OSCE to resolve the crisis in the Donbas, in your opinion?
“We have about 300 EU observers stationed in our country. They see how barbed wire fences are erected to separate part of the occupied territory from the unoccupied one. What can we do in this case? The only positive is that the EU’s international observers see it all for themselves.
“As for Ukraine, I would say the following. One should definitely do what one can. No foreign power will protect another country’s territorial integrity. We immediately moved about 2,000 our soldiers from Iraq to strengthen the defenses of Tbilisi back in 2008. It is highly important to demonstrate to the enemy that is invading your country your ability to protect its territorial integrity, your people, your families.”
What is your take on the activities of the Donbas contact group, which is doing Russia’s bidding by trying to force the Ukrainian government to enter into direct talks with the separatists, who are actually terrorists?
“In fact, one needs to call a spade a spade. This is a conflict between Russia and Ukraine, as it was in our case, when they tried to impose the view that it was the Abkhazian-Georgian conflict in the 1990s and the South Ossetian-Georgian conflict in 2008, while it really was the Russian-Georgian conflict in both cases.
“Thus, the negotiations on the settlement of your problem must be held between Russia and Ukraine with the assistance of international mediators. We Georgians do not talk to Russia one-on-one.”
How can you comment on the criminal case against Saakashvili? Why is this topic raised, despite it being likely to damage the image of your country?
“When making this decision, the prosecution service understood its importance and the great responsibility coming with it, as it is a case against a former president of Georgia. We must wait now, as the investigation is ongoing, and then it will be the trial time. A former prime minister is already in jail, and the mayor of Tbilisi has been arrested as well [Ivane Merabishvili and Giorgi Ugulava respectively. – Ed.]. They have been charged with several crimes. The government of Georgia understands the complexity of the situation, since the international community is monitoring these trials. Our authorities have invited renowned prosecutors, who have extensive experience investigating cases involving prominent political figures. These prosecutors are providing advice to the Georgian government which has stated that it needs it for transparency’s sake. The government is ready to provide all the documents to prove the current ruling group is not guilty of political bias in prosecuting criminals.”
How is the current situation in eastern Ukraine impacting on trade relations between the two countries?
“The bilateral trade turnover amounted to 795 million dollars in 2013. Ukraine was the third largest trade partner of Georgia. In the first six months of 2014, the turnover exceeded 327 million dollars.
“Georgia received 126,000 visitors from Ukraine in 2013, marking a 60 percent increase year-on-year. This year, over 60,000 Ukrainian visitors came in the first six months. Ukraine is the fifth largest source of visitors for us. Despite the difficulties you have, this year is expected to see another increase in visitors’ numbers.
“Of course, the anti-terrorist operation and the Crimean situation are affecting business and investment, but despite this, the figures speak for themselves. I have a very optimistic outlook. May God grant us peace and tranquility. The Georgians are the best-equipped people to understand what is happening in Ukraine. We stand in solidarity with you, both the people and the government. May you be blessed with peace and prosperity!”