Georgia’s Foreign Minister Gela Bezhuashvili has been visiting Europe trying to drum up support for his country, which has seen relations with its neighbour, Russia, steadily worsen since the ‘Rose Revolution’ three years ago. As he travelled, Georgia tried to reduce tensions by moving its outspoken, hardline defence minister to another cabinet post. Bezhuashvili, who was educated at Texas University and Harvard in the US, has indicated that Tbilisi’s future lies towards the west. But conflicts in the separatist regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia remain unsettled. And Moscow has been playing hardball.
EuroNews: “First lets talk about the incident last September, when Georgia charged four Russian military officers with spying. They were released, but it seems that since then, relations between Tbilisi and Moscow keep getting worse: Russia has imposed sanctions, they’ve cut transport links and even some Georgians living in Russia have been deported. Does your country now regret having made those arrests?”
Bezhuashvili: “The reaction, and overreaction of Russia to the spy case was just the tip of the iceberg. The iceberg itself was visible a long time ago. Because you mentioned economic sanctions; the economic sanctions against Georgia had been imposed by Russia a long time ago: a year ago when they put a ban on Georgian exports of wine and mineral waters and agricultural products. Eight months ago, unilaterally Russia closed the land borders, (which was) the only way to communicate and trade with Russia, (that was done) without any sound, legal explanations. On the other hand, what is happening concerning the harassment of ethnic Georgians in Russia is outside of any critics. It is absolutely unacceptable for any chair country in the Council of Europe to do something like this: harassing people only because they are Georgians. There is a total hunt on Georgians in Russia which I don’t think is good for Russia, for Russia’s reputation.
EuroNews: “But Russia just doubled its gas prices to your country and it seems they want to strangle you further economically. Remember what happened last January. Can Georgia survive another cold winter if Russia cuts off its exports to you completely?
Bezhuashvili: “Let me put it very, very clearly: we will survive. Because we understand the people. When I say “we”, I am talking to you on behalf of every single citizen of my country who are true believers in our choice. Our pro-western, pro-democratic orientation enjoys about 80% public support.
The people consider, and they are ready to pay a price for their choice.
EuroNews: “You said that Georgia was ready to have constructive dialogue with Russia, but what is your country ready to offer Russia?
Bezhuashvili: “We are offering Russia a hand of a friend that will be united, strong, democratic, transparent, which will be good for Russia. We want to be the country that will be a partner for Russia. That’s our offer. What we do expect from Russia is recognition of our identity, recognition of our choice and respect for Georgia’s sovereign right to choose its own way, and respect for our borders. We are going to compromise and we are ready to compromise – and they know about this – on many things. We are quite flexible. But one thing is very clear: we are not going to compromise on our borders.”
EuroNews: “So that means, for example, with South Ossetia, you’re not ready to compromise on South Ossetia?
Bezhuashvili: “No, we are going to compromise on the status of South Ossetia within Georgia, certainly, using European models of political status with the whole guarantees of Russia being a guarantor and an impartial broker. We accept Russia in such a capacity and playing this positive role. But we are not going to compromise on any changes of our borders with Russia.”
EuroNews: “My last question: your country has enjoyed political support from (the) EU and from the US these last three years. But is that political support enough? What else would you like to ask from the EU and from the United States?
Bezhuashvili: “Very good question. We need more political support and that’s why our meeting takes place right now, here in Paris because I am here for a European trip. We need more strong voices, and I would prefer one, united European voice in support of Georgia’s cause, because what has been very clear to everybody is that when Europe talks, with the partners in negotiations, in a united, strong voice then it is heard. And then you have results. Separate deals with Russia are not so good. But on a larger scale I think what we need is a larger debate with the united voice of Europe, with Russia on the issues of democracy, on the issue of how to behave with the neighbours, how to develop the common security with the European neighbourhood and so on and so forth. So (the more) united we stay, the stronger we are.”