Zurab Abashidze

Zurab Abashidze: We must not create the impression that we have sorted everything out with Russia and it is now time for festivities

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Five months have passed since Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili introduced the new post of Special Representative for Relations with Russia and appointed Georgia’s former ambassador to Moscow Zurab Abashidze to this post. The introduction of this institution signaled that Georgia’s new government was serious about mending ties with Russia.

In an interview with Tabula, the Prime Minister’s Special Representative for Relations with Russia Zurab Abashidze spoke about the ongoing dialogue with Russia and Georgia-Russia relations in general.

Since your appointment on 1 November 2012, a bilateral dialogue with Russia has started and a couple of meetings have already been held. How do you evaluate your activity over that period? Have the hopes that the government has pinned on this institution and the bilateral talks proved to be correct?

Overall, I think that the Georgian prime minister’s initiative was absolutely correct. We offered a concrete bilateral dialogue to the Russian side because it is impossible to be in constant confrontation with Russia. That would have been unacceptable and ruinous for Georgia.

Over a certain period an exchange of opinions took place. We learned about their vision through a number of statements that were made. From the very beginning, Russia indicated certain preconditions.

What preconditions are you talking about?

Statements were made that Georgia must accept the so-called new reality of the South Caucasus – referring to the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. We declared that such preconditions were unacceptable for us. We neither put preconditions on nor expect preconditions from Russia.

At the end of the day, we agreed to hold our first meeting in Switzerland in mid-December.

In this regard, I would like to note that the former government repeatedly said that it was prepared for such a dialogue with Russia at any place, any time and without any preconditions. Thus, in principle, nothing has been done differently by us. The only difference was that we received a positive reaction from the Russian side. The criticism we have received from the opposition for starting this dialogue is therefore unreasonable.

During the first meeting we identified those topics we intended to discuss in future. In order to prevent the dialogue from reaching a dead end from the outset, we decided to refrain from discussing those so-called “red line” topics which cannot be transgressed. As you know, those issues for us are the territorial integrity of Georgia and having free choice in our foreign affairs. Russia, however, approaches the issue in such a way that it does not intend to revoke its recognition of the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

At that first meeting we also agreed that we will not touch upon those topics which are discussed within the multilateral format of the Geneva talks. We thus selected to start with such topics as trade, transportation links, humanitarian and cultural relations.

Later, we held another meeting on 1 March. In between these two meetings some interesting things occurred. A number of opinions were expressed and many interesting proposals and critical remarks were made. We took some of the critical remarks, including those from the political opposition, as being rather rational. For example, the one suggesting that meetings would be better held somewhere other than Geneva in order to avoid any connection, even just an emotional link, with the Geneva format.

So, the next meeting was held in Prague. At this meeting we emphasized that discussions within the Geneva format must continue, that the level and format of those talks must be maintained and that it is desirable that they focus on issues essential to security.

The attitude of Russia is similar, by the way. Proof of this is a comment made on 2 March by the Foreign Affairs Ministry of Russia that the Geneva talks have distinguished features.

That time around [at the second meeting] we went through those topics which we agreed upon during the first meeting. We noted that some steps in terms of trade, economic relations and transportation links had already been taken: I mean some moves for the return of Georgian wine, mineral waters and other products to the Russian market. In this area, contacts have already been established and groups of experts have arrived in Georgia [to inspect the quality of Georgian wines]. We are now discussing the possibilities of restoring transportation links and facilitating the export of our products to Russia. In particular, beginning in June, the Kazbegi-Zemo Larsi border checkpoint will begin operating around the clock. We also discussed the possibilities of cargo transportation, there are certain details related to this issue. Talks about the restoration of regular flights are also underway. These are very serious issues and we think that all this will probably be realized in the coming months. This will give a spur to certain sectors of our economy.

We do not entertain any illusions. We do not think that all this will happen immediately; that some political breakthrough will take place in the foreseeable future or that trade and economic ties will work miracles and improve our lives overnight. However, all in all, this will benefit our country and its citizens.

A new development at the second meeting was that my Russian colleague [Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin] informed us that Russia is considering the issue of visa simplification for certain categories of Georgian citizens. What they mean, when this will happen and which categories of people will be affected will probably become known to us a bit later. These are the issues being discussed at this stage and I think these are spheres which are mutually beneficial for both sides.

A positive development, in my view, is that the atmosphere has somewhat changed, our rhetoric towards each other has become less belligerent. This has somewhat diminished the threat of military escalation. This is good for Georgia and its economic life because no serious investor will invest money in a country which poses a risk of being invaded by the Russian army every once in a while.

Yet another positive side of these talks is the issue of Georgian diaspora in Russia. Establishing a dialogue and abating confrontation between the two countries will enable many Georgians living in Russia to increase their contact with their homeland and also to invest in Georgia, something they have refrained from doing because of the tensions between the countries and political restrictions from both sides.

You are talking about a mutually beneficial relationship even though Vladimir Putin and several other high Russian officials have said that this dialogue is more in the interests of Georgia than Russia. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin also made a statement after the second meeting that visa regimes between those countries which do not have diplomatic ties are always strict. Does that mean that the issue of a restoration of diplomatic ties can become a precondition for the simplification or abolition of the visa regime?

No, we must not view this like that. If this had been the case, I would have reported that to society. Our principle is to conduct this process openly – no agreements are made, or topics discussed, backstage there. There are, of course, issues upon which we disagree; that was already said. Our Russian colleagues know perfectly well that we will not agree to restore diplomatic ties because that would amount to acknowledging that we have no claims against Russia, are no longer concerned about our territorial integrity and accept those borders with which Russia views Georgia. That would be a very negative and absolutely unacceptable signal for both our society and the rest of the world. Consequently, this is not on the agenda in any form.

However, we always say that if this dialogue brings about some serious results, and if, at some stage, a serious breakthrough occurs in political and security issues or the issue of territorial integrity, we will not rule out that, as a result of some process, the issue of diplomatic ties will be discussed.

You mentioned “red lines.” The key red line is the issue of our territorial integrity. However, at present, amendments to the Law on Occupied Territories are being discussed which envisage partial decriminalization of violations of our territorial integrity. Critics assert that this is unacceptable because a person violating Georgia’s borders from any neighboring state will be punished under criminal law, whereas a person entering Abkhazia for the first time will only pay a fine. Why are we imposing different sanctions on those trespassing over our borders? Does that not mean we are ceding sovereignty? What is your take on that? Do you think this is a good signal for the restoration of relations? Does that not mean the transgression of the established “red lines”?

No, this is not being done to signal anything. That has a purely pragmatic argumentation. The thing is that this amendment [to the Law on Occupied Territories] refers to a purely technical aspect. If citizens of foreign countries tried to cross our borders and they had a stamp proving crossing the “borders” of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, criminal sanctions would automatically apply to them. In order to avoid this, exceptions were sometimes made in previous years. There were instances of turning a blind eye and accepting those people whose visits to Georgia were in the country’s interest. Or such people were asked to use another passport without such a stamp and to arrive with that passport. Why should we deceive ourselves?

Therefore, we propose that parliament makes a pragmatic change to the law. If we want to invite someone whose arrival is in our interests, the government will have the right to do so in the form of making an exception. An administrative sanction will be applied to those people arriving here without such a permit who have traveled to those regions once, and they will be penalized. If such people repeat the same action, criminal sanctions will be applied. Thus, we are dealing with a purely technical change which does not envisage the introduction of any essential amendments to the law.

Was the restoration of the Abkhazia railway a topic of your meetings? What do you think about that initiative?

No, we did not have any concrete discussion on that issue. We only discussed those issues related to transportation which I have already mentioned – cargo traffic via the Kazbegi-Zemo Larsi checkpoint and the restoration of regular flights.

As regards the Abkhazia railway, this is a very complicated issue. I will remind you that the prime minister [Bidzina Ivanishvili] was asked about that during his visit to Yerevan. The answer was, and is, the following: ‘well, let’s hear your opinion about how you see that’. My opinion is the same – if our neighbors, Armenia and Russia, are really interested in that, we can listen to their opinions. The only formula that will be acceptable for us is one which does not run counter to our principles of territorial integrity in any way. As far as I know, taking any practical steps in this direction is not on the agenda yet.

At your first briefing both you and prime minister named the reopening of the Russian market for Georgian products as one of the top priorities. However, there are statistics showing that the export of those products which may be renewed to Russia, such as wine, mineral waters, fruit and citrus, never accounted for a large share of total exports. Why, then, do we declare this as a priority and pin great hopes on the issue? 

I cannot say that we are pinning great hopes on that or that people are being fed the illusion that the restoration of exports will radically change our economic situation. The point is to use the possibilities of the Russian market to restore exports. By the way, this is in line with the requirements of World Trade Organization.

In general, the priorities of our country, in both political and economic directions, fit into a strategy called the Euro-Atlantic orientation. In particular, we talk about trade and economic topics with the European Union and the United States.

But we must not lose the possibilities of the Russian market, from which benefits can be derived.

In my opinion, we must open doors to our businesses wherever we can. The businesses can then decide for themselves whether a door is worth entering or not.

However, the question arises – at what cost?

At no cost. I do not yet see the cost which we have paid, or the Russian side has paid, for allowing Georgian products into the Russian market.

There are some doubts that this may create a feeling in the West that Georgia and Russia have already agreed terms, have already sorted everything out and that Georgia no longer needs assistance. Such doubts have ground to exist, but I want to say quite clearly that all our Western partners welcome and positively assess the dialogue we have launched with Russia. I meet them regularly and feel only support from them. Second, we officially declare and tell our society, western partners and Russian colleagues that the restoration of trade ties does not at all mean that we are rejecting our principles or that we will alleviate our criticism towards Russia concerning those red lines I have mentioned.

The rhetoric, however, has somewhat softened…

I would say that hysteria has abated rather than criticism softened. The criticism is still sharp. Representatives of Georgia maintain their principled tone in discussing our key issues in international organizations.

We also inform our Russian colleagues that our criticism will not abate and explain to them why. This criticism will continue as well as our efforts in other directions.

You say that there is agreement between you and Karasin that the Geneva talks will be maintained as a separate format and the issues discussed in that format will be considered with the involvement of international mediators. But do you not see the threat that Russia will gain an advantage in the bilateral format and will eventually cease the Geneva format to focus on the bilateral format?

We must not allow that. We must be very cautious. I have talked with my Russian colleague about that and I see a quite constructive approach to this issue on his part. We must work with our Western partners and international organizations.

In today’s world the choice is often between bad and worse. We had a choice either to maintain the catastrophic relations inherited from the previous government, which meant no contact with Russia at all, or to start a dialogue. Dialogue is the more difficult path, it requires more wisdom, calculation and reasoning. Confrontation, opposition and fighting, is way easier. However, the thing is that our past experience of fighting and confronting Russia has repeatedly proved to be very bad for Georgia.

Therefore, we do not have any other alternative – we can either take the path of dialogue and attempt to seek solutions or we can go back to the deadlock of confrontation with Russia. By the way, no other country in the world had the type of relationship with Russia that Georgia had before October 2012.

However, in that period Russia did not invade any other country, our situation was extraordinary….

Yes, the situation was indeed out of the ordinary, but we also contributed to that situation with our unreasonableness, incautiousness, irrationalism and absolutely unacceptable infantilism. Everyone who does not suffer from amnesia remembers that perfectly well.

In one of your first interviews after your appointment, you said: “If Moscow manages to listen to our arguments about why we want to join NATO, we may succeed in reconciliating our positions. Perhaps, Russia has an argument which will convince us of the unfoundedness of our ambitions [towards NATO integration].” Did you intend to discuss Georgia’s desires towards NATO with Russia? Were there any talks about this issue, and have you heard such argument from the Russian side that you talked about in that interview? Could any argument exist which Moscow could to offer Tbilisi?

As I have said, this topic belongs to those red lines which we do not discuss. I would listen to such argument on a personal level, but I have not heard any yet – from any politician or diplomat – including during that time when I was an independent expert [during the rule of the previous government]. Over that time I met with many such people.

The dialogue and meetings with experts never stopped during those years, but I have never heard an argument that sounded convincing to me.

Russia has its own vision concerning NATO. Russia is a powerful state, it treats security issues in its own way. After all, everyone has the right to make their own choice. We fight for the maintenance of that very choice.

The concert of the Georgian state folk ensemble Erisioni in the State Kremlin Palace in March and other similar cultural events have caused uproar in society. There are concerns that such cultural events in Russia send the wrong messages, that they show a lack of self-esteem and so on and so forth. What is your stance on that?

Such cultural exchanges have never stopped – either before or after the [August 2008 Georgia-Russia] war. They took place on commercial, private initiatives. Suspension or termination of this is unimaginable and unnecessary. Culture must play a role. Nothing can stop cultural, humanitarian, people-to-people relationships and it is not my function to perform the role of political commissar.

However, one should be sensitive to the moment and recognize that certain symbols [such as the Kremlin palace] hold certain significance. Let’s say that the same Erisioni group that visited Russia within the framework of a commercial project, could have explained to the inviting party that, for this or that reason, performing a concert in this or that hall might be incorrect or not welcome in Georgia. I think that such a request would have been treated with understanding. Others have performed in other concert halls but have never caused such indignation.

I favor a measured approach – after passivity we must not plunge into hyperactivity and must not create the impression, and should not give others such an impression, that we have sorted everything out with Russia and that it is now time for celebration and festivities. Were this to happen, we would confuse not only our Western partners, but Russia and ourselves too. Therefore, measuredness is a very good word; this cannot be explained by decree, law or resolution. This should be our inner quality. We are just beginning to break the deadlock and therefore we must thoroughly consider each and every step and fit these into the boundaries of measuredness. We must explain to our Russian partners what we can and cannot do. Excessive and imprudent actions may do us more harm than good. However, we must seriously take care of cultural and humanitarian relations.

During your meeting with Karasin you discussed practical issues, such as visa facilitation, concerning Georgia’s participation in the Sochi Winter Olympics. In your opinion, can our participation in the Sochi Games be perceived as a wrong message by our Western allies or Russian society?

We agreed that this topic will be dealt with by the Olympic Committees. Georgia’s Olympic Committee works with the Russian and International Olympic Committees. A decision has already been taken. Generally, when politics interferes with sport, it is only sport that suffers. I view this decision as the correct one. We must look at this topic more broadly from both today’s as well as from tomorrow’s standpoint. We should also take into account that only those teams from countries who have been invited by the International Olympic Committee will participate in those games and no one else. That is very important and I think readers will understand what I mean.

You mentioned the issues you discuss with the Russian side. What further prospects do you see in these negotiations, what other issues that can be resolved through dialogue can be put on the agenda in future?

At our second meeting [with the Russian side] we introduced two new topics – science and health care. My understanding of this is the following: if governments do not prevent people from establishing contact or do not obstruct some relations in the health care sphere, this would be good. If governments can actively facilitate such relations, that will be better. These are the spheres which are not questioned by any of the parties.

What will happen after that? Say, our wine has returned to the Russian market and transportation links have been restored, what are we going to do after that? I cannot say. I have no answer to that. This cannot be considered by only a few people. Experts, people who are experienced in that, who have critical vision, and who can generate ideas must get involved in this process.

The political opposition must not lie in ambush – waiting to attack Abashidze or anyone else for a word, a phrase, or in wait of a mistake from an individual or a group not doing something as it should have done. This is the sphere where we must succeed in combining our potential.

Thumbnail photo: Tabula

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