An Interview With the President of NATO’s Most Persistent Applicant
In Washington this week, the Georgian president talks Trump, the Atlantic alliance, and Saakashvili.
When Giorgi Margvelashvili became president of Georgia in 2013, it marked the end of a turbulent decade under his charismatic predecessor Mikheil Saakashvili. President Margvelashvili, educated in philosophy, is less powerful than Saakashvili, who used his office to both push Western-style reforms and attack political opponents.
Over the past five years, Margvelashvili has battled with constitutional reforms that he felt weakened the powers of the presidency and contested allegations that he is a puppet controlled by Georgian billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, the former prime minister. Former President Saakashvili, meanwhile, is a wanted man in his home country (and was recently kicked out of Ukraine, where he was, briefly, governor of Odessa.)
Georgia hasn’t suffered any major new upheavals, at least on the foreign-policy front, but both South Ossetia and Abkhazia are under Russian occupation, and the country still isn’t in NATO despite years of efforts to join.
In Washington, Georgia has strong backers, like Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), but President Donald Trump has not come out and articulated a strong policy toward the country, or toward Russian aggression in the region.
Trump has, however, been interested in Georgia, if for reasons other than diplomacy: In 2011, he announced he was going to build a Trump Tower in Batumi, which he promised to make the “Monte Carlo of the Caucasus” — a project he abandoned after he won the U.S. presidency.
Margvelashvili is in Washington this week, meeting with members of Congress and talking at think tanks. He sat down with Foreign Policy to speak on U.S.-Georgia relations, the country’s NATO aspirations, Saakashvili, and what he wants out of Washington.
Foreign Policy: What are you hoping to get out of your visit here?
Giorgi Margvelashvili: Well, we are really looking to really accelerate and upgrade our bilateral [relations]. Because we have quite an impressive cooperation developed during the past year with the vice president’s visit, with the visit with the senators on both sides of the aisle, then continued with appropriate declarations from the Hill. We should very much emphasize also the military cooperation. All of this is extremely positive. Yet we need to further the process. Let’s put it this way: We’ve seen support for Georgia, but the support was not enough for Russia to refrain from Ukraine.
FP: In Washington, when we speak about Georgia, we often speak about it in the context of NATO enlargement. Do you feel that Georgia is still on the path to NATO, and, if so, how far along on that path?
GM: Well, this is the sixteenth year since we applied to NATO, and it’s the tenth year since NATO has given a commitment to Georgia that it will become a NATO member. Georgia has basically done everything that was a requirement for our country, in the context of reforms, in the context of — well, any kind of the “to-do list” that has been given by NATO to Georgia during these 10 years has been accomplished completely and acknowledged by NATO. And also we have to mention our standing together our battlefields. We have done everything on our side and contributed strongly to global security, while we don’t enjoy ourselves the benefits of global security. That’s where we are right now.
FP: How would you characterize your relationship with Moscow today? And do you feel like you’re getting what you need from Trump’s Washington?
GM: The situation with Moscow is stalled. We have been hoping that at some point that Moscow would start looking not from the perspective of tension and confrontation, but from a perspective of really bringing a better future for the peoples that are living within Georgia, within the occupied parts of Georgia, [and] the peoples that are living in Russia. But we don’t think that, really, this time and moment and phase of Russian history is the right moment to expect that sentiment would emerge within Russia’s highest circles. With President Putin’s re-election campaign, we see quite the opposite: the rhetoric of the Cold War.
Now, on the Trump administration side, as I mentioned, the year 2017 was just a total positive. In our experience, he has delivered. I do understand the question and the context you are describing. My response is that our experience with the Trump administration on Georgia-related issues has been positive.
FP: You mentioned Russian policy toward Ukraine. When you look at it, do you think, “Ten years from now, we’re going to have the same situation in Crimea, the same situation in the east” as you do with South Ossetia and Abkhazia?
GM: I hope that the understanding of the situation will be reached in the United States’ political circles. Sometimes I hear, “A Cold War isn’t possible, Russia doesn’t have the military comparable to what Soviets had at that point, Russia doesn’t have an economy comparable to what the Soviets had at that point.” It’s not about real strategic missile war, which never happened during the Cold War. It’s about the war in politics, in what people think, in what societies think — the proxy wars that were happening during the Cold War. This is what the Cold War was. I am looking for understanding of the situation. Russia is very open. They are sincere in their declarations. They are sincere in their foreign-policy goals. If we have the acknowledgement of all of this, then Georgia, Ukraine, other countries that could be potential areas where Russia could exercise its dominance should be totally included and embraced — embraced by NATO, embraced by the EU, embraced by the U.S. — so that we don’t create spaces where confrontation should take place.
FP: Saakashvili has been kicked out of Ukraine, and is back in Poland. Is Georgia still trying to extradite him?
GM: Frankly, those procedures — normally they are happening from the prosecutor’s office or the police of the respective states. I know they requested his extradition in Ukraine, but I don’t know whether this would be happening with other states.
FP: Do you think it should?
GM: I believe that being a president for two terms gives you the responsibility to respect the state institutions … That’s why I was not very apologetic when he [renounced] Georgian citizenship for Ukrainian [citizenship]. I thought it was not the right thing to do. He was the commander in chief and the president of this nation for two terms. Should he answer, in one or another form? He should respond to the questions. He should respect the institutions.
This interview has been condensed and edited.