Between Russian and U.S. Saber Rattling, Georgia Seeks a Middle Path
An exclusive FP interview with Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili.
NEW YORK — In a United Nations summit defined by the competing world visions of the United States and Russia, the tiny South Caucasus nation of Georgia is doing all it can to stay out of the fray and avoid angering either Washington or Moscow.
Doing so, according to Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili, would only set back Tbilisi’s efforts to regain control of its lost territories and improve its economic situation.
“What we are concentrated on is the belief that Georgia has the right to exercise its own policy vis-à-vis Russia and vis-à-vis its other neighbors,” he told Foreign Policy in a wide-ranging interview in New York.
Slouching back in his hotel-room chair with his tie loosened and the top of his shirt unbuttoned, Margvelashvili appeared tired of the heated rhetoric between Moscow and Washington that has fueled so much of the international headlines surrounding the summit.
It’s not as if Tbilisi doesn’t have major complaints to register with Russia: The Kremlin continues to provide military, economic, and political support to two separatist regions in the country, and rebels in the Russian-backed region of South Ossetia have pushed their boundary line deeper into Georgia proper in recent months. In February, Russia ratified a military and economic partnership with Abkhazia, which some consider a de facto annexation.
But the current Georgian governing class is all too aware of what provocative anti-Russian rhetoric can lead to after Moscow’s devastating invasion of Georgia in 2008, a five-day war set off by a Georgian military operation in South Ossetia followed by an overwhelming Russian military incursion. The conflict took place during the tenure of then-Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, a pro-American stalwart who took delight in publicly bashing Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“I don’t think we have to be emotional about this,” said Margvelashvili. “What we need in our relationship with Russia is an opportunity for rational dialogue.”
Margvelashvili’s softer approach stands in stark contrast to his Ukrainian counterparts, who used this week’s General Assembly to lambast Moscow for its annexation of Crimea and continued support of pro-Russian separatists in the country’s chaotic east. On Tuesday, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko delivered a venomous diatribe against Putin, calling him a “double-tongued” promoter of “terrorism” and instability in his country.
“Georgia’s leaders still have a firm resolve to move West, but their rhetoric tries to hit some place in the middle so they can’t be accused of provoking Russia like the previous administration,” said Laura Linderman, a Georgia expert at the Atlantic Council. “It strikes me as smarter and more prudent.”
Since Margvelashvili’s Georgian Dream coalition came into power in 2012, the government has promised better relations with Russia and improvements in the Georgian economy — a development viewed with skepticism by American neoconservatives fearful of losing a fiercely pro-American ally in a strategic part of the world. While the Georgian Dream’s policies have succeeded in boosting trade with Moscow (Russia is now Georgia’s fourth-largest trading partner), the Kremlin has only increased its support for rebels in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and Tbilisi’s economy remains deeply troubled by the second-order effects of the Russian ruble collapse. The economy grew by only 2.5 percent in the first five months of 2015, according to the national statistics service, compared with 4.5 percent in the same period last year.
Still, fears of a pro-Russian satellite state emerging from the ashes of Saakashvili’s tenure proved ill-founded. Margvelashvili and Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili have steadfastly pursued membership in key Western institutions, including NATO and the European Union, despite Germany and France’s long-held opposition to its NATO accession due to concerns about Georgia’s territorial integrity.
On Tuesday, Margvelashvili reiterated his support for further integration with the West. “We have a clear vision that we are developing ourselves in the direction of the [European Union] and of NATO, and that is not at the expense of anyone because we are a nation that is looking for more security and looking for more stability and not at the expense of other countries’ interest,” he said, an obvious allusion to Russia.
But that doesn’t mean the current government hasn’t badly stumbled in a range of areas, including judicial independence and good governance issues. The State Department and human rights groups have repeatedly expressed concern about politically motivated prosecutions targeting a range of members of Saakashvili’s United National Movement (UNM) party.
Earlier this month, a UNM member and former mayor of Tbilisi, Gigi Ugulava, was sent back to prison after a one-day release from 14 months of pre-trial detention. He was sentenced to four-and-a half years in prison for misusing public funds as mayor, but critics have called the ruling politically motivated.
Margvelashvili dismissed criticisms that Georgia’s judicial system is any more politicized than in other countries. “There will always be questions about the fairness of the justice system, and there will always be critics of the fairness of this or that decision, and we find that all around the world,” he said. However, he said he remained open to the idea of pardoning Ugulava, a determination he could not make until the case is “brought formally to the pardoning committee.”
“The state is the one that punishes when there is a crime, but on the other hand, it is able to be favorable and show a human component in relationship to an individual,” he said. “This is how I have used the pardoning mechanism before and this is how I will use the pardoning mechanism in the future.”
Margvelashvili also addressed last week’s pro-Russian demonstrations in Tbilisi by several dozen Georgians calling for the restoration of diplomatic ties with Russia. Although small, the protests made international headlines, given the rarity of such demonstrations in the strongly pro-Western country.
“There are pro-Russians and pro-Eurasian Union talking heads in Tbilisi and Georgia. I believe there always were, but now, with the further development of democracy and further freedom of speech, they just started speaking out,” Margvelashvili said.
“Am I happy about that? No, definitely not,” he added. “But I consider that part of the democratic process. I consider that normal when in a democracy there are voices that are not in sync with my vision, but we have to tolerate that.”
While he noted that there have always been small pockets of pro-Russian sentiment in Georgia, he said pro-Russian propaganda funneled through Kremlin-backed media outlets accounts for some of the sentiment held by the protesters.
When asked if the United States has done enough in recent months to support Georgia as Moscow has consolidated its support for its separatist territories, he refused to criticize the Obama administration.
“The United States is a great ally for Georgia, and we have a great partnership that we are developing,” he said. “But the reason I’m here is to increase the visibility of Georgia on the U.S. radar screen and … to discuss further and more collaboration with our U.S. partners.”
On Monday, President Barack Obama and Putin offered dueling visions of the proper international order, with Obama championing universal human rights and Putin criticizing counterproductive military interventions by the West, such as in Libya and Iraq. When asked if Putin’s message carried a certain irony given his incursions into Georgia, Margvelashvili didn’t take the bait.
“The issue of different camps blaming each other and the consequences about this, this is not something that we are looking at,” he said.
Photo credit: VANO SHLAMOV/Getty Images