Georgia-US relations

Interview with Giga Bokeria

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A segment of political opposition proved to be too weak to stand up to that temptation

Days before the official visit of the Georgian delegation to the United States of America, Tabula conducted a video-interview with Secretary of National Security Council of Georgia Giga Bokeria. Mr. Bokeria talked extensively about expectations concerning the scheduled meeting between the U.S. and Georgian Presidents, as well as challenges which the Georgian government faces in 2012. The complete version of this video-interview in the Georgian language can be viewed on the Tabula webpage.

- On 30 January, U.S. President Barack Obama will host Mikheil Saakashvili in the White House. The first question relates to the upcoming meeting of the Georgian and U.S. Presidents: What does the Georgian government expect from it?

Everyone knows that the United States is one of the most important key strategic partners of Georgia. Throughout the twenty years since the breakup of the Soviet Union and Georgia’s independence, a decisive factor – in terms of our security, sovereignty in general, building statehood and democracy, reforms and economic challenges – has been the support of this friendly country. The first official visit to the White House to meet the new President of the new Administration – even though a number of important meetings have been held before - is a significant political event itself.

It is important that, in the three years since this Administration came to power, one often heard from skeptics of Georgia in general and its Euro-Atlantic future that something had changed fundamentally and that some new approach had emerged, that President Obama’s Administration would lay aside those principles that envisaged support for free countries in this part of the world. All that was said because of the reset policy. An open propaganda campaign was in progress.

Since the spring of 2009, it has been clear that that is not the case. The U.S.-Georgia relationship – the politics of the new Administration in terms of support to our region, to those countries, and in rejecting “spheres of influence” – remains unchanged and firm. This first state visit to the White House is significant in this respect as well.

Issues which comprise U.S.-Georgia cooperation in the sphere of security and defense; further development of economic cooperation, elevating it to a new stage; cooperation in the area of reforms and democracy building, which is the most important in terms of content – these topics and Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic future, in particular, further integration of the country into NATO, will be the subject of discussion. The NATO Summit in Chicago is approaching and the Presidents will talk about this issue at the meeting as well.

- U.S.-Georgia cooperation in the area of defense has been a topical issue of late. The National Defense Authorization Act contains a separate article on Georgia. It says that the cooperation between these countries in the field of defense shall be “normalized,” inter alia, through the sale of defense weapons on the part of the USA. President Obama, however, referred to the article on Georgia among those provisions which could be considered non-binding. It is a fact that U.S.-Georgia cooperation in defense is largely focused on educational programs and training. Will the Georgian government achieve progress in the area of defense?

We are, of course, very grateful for the support – including to those people in the U.S. Senate who backed the sort of wording [in the Act] geared toward deepening the defense cooperation with Georgia. They are our long-time friends. Speculation that President Obama’s Administration meant that reservation on the Act in connection with Georgia is merely ignorance of the issue [on the part of those who engage in such speculation]. That reservation reflects the debate concerning jurisdiction – whether or not Congress has the right to point out to the executive power – in this case, the President – what the policy on such issues (and this Chapter is voluminous) must be. Such speculation, I think, results, in some cases, from a lack of knowledge; in other cases, it serves to deepen the narrative and propaganda about ostensible fundamental problems.

Similarly, the narrative that, during the past several years, cooperation in the area of defense has “weakened” is almost entirely invented. Quite the contrary, a tendency of deepening can be observed. We might wish that this cooperation accelerated much faster and this is natural. We will talk about these issues as well. But this cooperation is deepening and encompasses the military operation in Afghanistan as well as existing processes outside that area. Training and assistance of that type have occupied a significant place, although this is not the only sphere where cooperation has been and is underway. I do not want to talk about all the details, but depicting the picture as if it were stagnation, or even regress in this respect, is wide of the mark.

- Political analysts reckon that internal political stability, economic growth, further integration into the Euro-Atlantic space and neutralization of the Russian threat are key strategic objectives of the Georgian government this year. What are the challenges which must be dealt with by the Georgian government to fulfill these objectives?

These challenges and objectives were priorities of previous years and will remain as such for the next year too – unless, naturally, such a positive and unexpected development takes place that our Northern neighbor changes its policy toward its neighbors and, first and foremost, toward Georgia. If that happens, then the aversion, mitigation, neutralization of that threat will no longer be that topical. Today, it is urgent, unfortunately.

This question almost answers itself – regardless of the problems Georgia faces throughout these years, the country must continue its course, must not halt domestic reforms designed to strengthen political and liberal democracy or the economic reforms conducive to creating new jobs, and it must continue to seek new markets. Progress in the area of free trade with the European Union [EU] is needed, as well as advancement of economic cooperation with the United States in the free trade area. At the same time, we must remain on radar (in a positive sense of this word) in order to retain that key deterrent factor for our security and sovereignty which is expressed in international support toward our problematic relations with Russia. The attention of our allies, in this respect, must not slacken.

The main work must be done inside the country. We do not live in isolation. No one is a Robinson Crusoe. If the economic crisis or post-crisis is further aggravated – I mean economic challenges faced by the EU, which also affect the United States – it will create an unfavorable setting. It may not be as dramatic as it was in 2009, including because of the war factor then too. Against such a challenge, Georgia must manage to exercise that degree of firmness which it managed to do after 2009. By many predictions – not of skeptics or critics, but neutral and competent people – such an emergence from the crisis in 2010, 2011, was not expected. Indicators of economic growth and the overall trend in the country have showed that, owing to those reforms which are carried on today as well, we have demonstrated a strong ability to endure in a difficult situation. We must manage to maintain this form. This requires a constant forward march in terms of reforms. Marching in place will mean moving backward.

- The Georgian government is accused of panicking after the emergence of a new player, Bidzina Ivanishvili, on the domestic political scene. Amendments to the Law of Georgia on Political Unions of Citizens are cited as an example of that panic. What prompted those legislative amendments, and do you share that opinion?

I do not share that opinion. We are not a multiyear liberal democracy, but I believe that Georgia is a free and democratic country. The movement in this direction continues. People of different types participate in the political and social life, including – unfortunately – such people who question the issue which, in my view and in the opinion of the majority of the Georgian population, is most fundamental. That is also part of, the price of freedom. We have had such figures at various times and in various forms. A free society absorbs this and moves forward.

My opinions about that persona are widely known. My attitude to his foreign course and speculation on this issue are extremely negative. But this is also part of freedom.

As regards legislative changes and regulations concerning political party funding, such things happen in every developed liberal democracy – I mean, regulation to prevent large finances from having a disproportionate influence on democratic decision-making processes. On the other hand, there is a need for extremely effective filters to prevent attempts to influence internal democratic processes by means of financial inflows from outside the country.

That does not mean that affluent people are suspicious per se. Quite the reverse, economic success means having many affluent people. That’s exactly why I say that the proportion of this influence must be confined within certain limits. That is how it happens everywhere. This law reflects the sharing of experience of European and developed liberal democracies in this area.

If [critics] mean that these legislative changes coincided with the appearance of a concrete persona – that is how it generally happens. Often, concrete political developments clearly demonstrate attempts to manipulate existing holes in the legislation. In this particular case, we dealt with a very transparent declaration. We are not talking here about conspiracy theory, but about what has been said and done.

If anyone tries to exploit existing holes in the system in relation to legitimate regulations, the legislative body will react to it. This is a natural process. Regulations have been improved so far as well, including in accordance with recommendations of international organizations – not for the sake of those recommendations, but because those recommendations help you and correct your course.

I will allow myself the liberty of making a political statement: It is an illusion that, through these methods, the long-standing choice of the country can be thrown out with the bathwater – a choice which has cost lives over many generations. However, this may inflict certain damage on the fundamental consensus which has existed among main political forces in recent years. A segment of political opposition proved to be too weak to stand up to that temptation.

- Let us touch upon NATO-Georgia relations. The NATO Secretary General stated just recently that Georgia has made headway in reforms and that it significantly contributes to the Afghan mission, but that it still has much work to do. The NATO Summit in Chicago will be held in May. What are the works that Georgia must fulfill to come closer to NATO and what is the objective that the Georgian government sets to achieve at the Chicago Summit?

When talking about works to be performed or reforms to be continued, I am, in principle, against framing the question in such a way – as if reforms and the country’s headway are important only because progress has to be demonstrated for international organizations (which is important but not determinative). The key thing is that all this is what we want. Under “we,” I mean every citizen of Georgia who wants to live in a free, normal, strong country. Those organizations which can be called a club of liberal democracies (including NATO) pay attention to that. That is in our own interest and, at the same time, coincides with internal and external interests. On the other hand, however, that integration itself contributes to the strengthening of liberal democracy, including, first and foremost, in terms of security. We all understand perfectly well that our democracy faces a threat not only because of challenges inherited from the past and because reforms must be continued, but because our country is under a physical threat.

We cannot deceive ourselves that some barriers which we have encountered on this path and which impeded our headway were not related to the degree of our reforms. Nevertheless, it was of utmost importance – especially after the aggression in 2008 – to make a crystal-clear political declaration that those barriers are not, so to speak, cemented. No one can block our advancement because of political, military and energy weight – I mean our Northern neighbor. Integration may ultimately take a much longer time than desired, but we must continue moving along that path.

The NATO Secretary General said that Georgia has never been so close to NATO – the demonstration of this is a very positive political signal for us. That does not mean that the process will finally come to the end and Georgia will become a member of NATO at that Summit in Chicago. The upcoming Summit is not dedicated to NATO expansion at all but is related to ISAF and regional cooperation. We, of course, must use any opportunity and seek to take one more step forward.

In this regard, the last year was successful. The objective, however, remains the same and we will achieve that objective – Georgia will become a member of NATO. This is significant for us in terms of security as well as general development of the country.

- In late December 2011, the Georgian Parliament adopted a new concept of national security. Among the main threats to Georgia, according to the document, is the risk of new aggression from Russia. In autumn 2012, Moscow plans to conduct in the Caucasus a large-scale strategic military exercise named “Kavkaz 2012.” The conduct of military drills closely imitating military actions on the part of Moscow, when the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe is actually ineffective, is, to put it mildly, a provocative gesture. How does the Georgian government respond to the Russian threat?

I believe that this, as well as multiple other steps, is more than a provocation. It is a provocation when you do something and aggression is not undertaken yet. Twenty percent of our territories is occupied, ethnic cleansing has been carried out, and Russia refuses yet to start a process on negotiations in this direction.

The Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe has been rendered ineffective for many years now. Russia withdrew from it at the end of 2007, before the aggression against Georgia. That was a reaction to the withdrawal of Georgia and, in general, this space from the sphere of its influence.

Those drills, the statements we heard for the past few years, terrorist acts in which involvement of Russia special services was established by very strong evidence – all these represent the continuation of aggression against Georgia in various forms. Given the political price that a new aggression would cost Russia, we do not face the threat of a large-scale instant action. That does not mean that we are satisfied, but it is important to retain that deterrence.

The Russian Federation is not North Korea, not concerned about its image. [Russia] always tries to package its actions, though in an extremely cynical manner. Through the presence of the European Union Monitoring Mission, as well as through other forms of exerting constant political influence on this issue, we must try to restrict such cynical possibilities as well.

- To touch upon the internal political situation in Russia, the awakening of a politically inert segment of the Russian public has raised hopes among Kremlin opponents. How would you evaluate ongoing processes in Russia, especially in the context of upcoming presidential elections scheduled there in March?

Naturally, I am not a political analyst to review in detail the internal situation in Russia. For me, first and foremost is our national interest. I wish Russia were such a country that respects its neighbors, their sovereignty, territorial integrity and liberty (and I believe this is the interest of Russian people as well). To realize that any attempts at restoring empire are futile is very important. I repeat once again that that is in the interest of any country, in the interest of ordinary citizens of Russia who want Russia to be a free country. It is important that such a transformation is accompanied with more civilized relations with neighbors.

Returning to the topic [of Bidzina Ivanishvili] we discussed: The whole concept that Russia will never change, that this or that figure – in this case Prime Minister Putin – is the choice of the Russian people and therefore we should change to fit in with him is, of course, categorically unacceptable, politically immoral and unethical and, moreover, pragmatically wrong. No one having embarked on that path has ever achieved success. Quite the contrary, those who withdrew from the sphere of influence in principle managed to “sort out” relations with Russia. And one more thing – that choice of the Russian people is, to say the least, exaggerated – as the recent events have shown.

 

This article first appeared in Tabula Georgian Issue # 86, published 6 February 2012.

 

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