President Zourabichvili: Georgia Should Not Be ‘Forgotten’

As the Ukraine war rages, Tbilisi leans West and hedges East.

By , a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy.
Georgian President Salome Zourabichvili gives a joint press conference.
Georgian President Salome Zourabichvili gives a joint press conference.
Georgian President Salome Zourabichvili gives a joint press conference with her Lithuanian counterpart during a meeting in Vilnius, Lithuania, on March 7, 2019. Petras Malukas/AFP/Getty Images

For many in the small south Caucasus country of Georgia, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine brought back painful memories of its own war with Russia in 2008. Although that war lasted only five days, Russian troops have maintained a permanent presence in two breakaway regions in Georgia, accounting for around 20 percent of the country’s territory.

Yet, the current Georgian government has opted not to join ranks with Western countries imposing sanctions on Moscow in the wake of its brutal invasion of Ukraine; Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili argued that sanctioning Russia was not in his country’s best interests. The move sparked a diplomatic spat with Ukraine, which led Kyiv to recall its ambassador to Tbilisi. 

Foreign Policy spoke with Georgian President Salome Zourabichvili about what the war in Ukraine means for Tbilisi, Georgia’s unrelenting NATO ambitions, and the country’s decision not to join Western sanctions on Russia. 

For many in the small south Caucasus country of Georgia, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine brought back painful memories of its own war with Russia in 2008. Although that war lasted only five days, Russian troops have maintained a permanent presence in two breakaway regions in Georgia, accounting for around 20 percent of the country’s territory.

Yet, the current Georgian government has opted not to join ranks with Western countries imposing sanctions on Moscow in the wake of its brutal invasion of Ukraine; Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili argued that sanctioning Russia was not in his country’s best interests. The move sparked a diplomatic spat with Ukraine, which led Kyiv to recall its ambassador to Tbilisi. 

Foreign Policy spoke with Georgian President Salome Zourabichvili about what the war in Ukraine means for Tbilisi, Georgia’s unrelenting NATO ambitions, and the country’s decision not to join Western sanctions on Russia. 

This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Foreign Policy: What is the mood like right now in Georgia? How has Russia’s invasion of Ukraine affected Georgia’s position, particularly with regards to its own security?

Salome Zourabichvili: We are very much aware of being the neighbor to Russia—and a Russia that has never changed from the time it was imperial Russia, to Soviet Russia, to today’s Russia. So what is different this time is the dimension of the conflict in Ukraine and the resistance and the resilience of Ukraine towards this aggression. So the Georgian public is both concerned but in an also resilient way and is showing a lot of solidarity with Ukraine because of the fact that we understand what it means when there is a direct threat to your sovereignty, to your independence.

FP: Do you feel like Georgia is getting enough support from the West, from Europe and the United States, at this moment?

SZ: It’s a mixed picture. We are getting support. It’s very clear in all the meetings. We just had a delegation from Congress visiting Georgia. We’ve had contacts and visits before the conflict from the European Union; [European Council President] Charles Michel was three times in Georgia last year. So there is support to Georgia, and we are now on the path toward this accelerated integration or whatever it will be. 

At the same time, I think that it’s the time for Georgia to be more clearly in the mind of everyone. Because we are, together with Moldova, we are the two countries that are on the “front lines” close to Russia, and which are not protected by either the European Union security system nor by, of course, the NATO security guarantees. So that makes us more vulnerable in both scenarios, in fact: whether Russia wins and gets more ambitious or whether, as it seems now, Russia loses or doesn’t win in the way that they would wish, and then could be looking for compensation. So I’m not saying that it’s scenarios that we think are necessarily going to happen. But I think that we would need to be more frequently mentioned. Of course, the priority and the focus has been on Ukraine and should be on Ukraine. There is no doubt about that. And there’s no competition there. But that should not mean that Georgia is somehow forgotten because that might be sending the very wrong message to Moscow. 

FP: What about material support? Is Georgia looking for further security assistance from your partners in the West? Do you have any concrete requests in that regard? 

SZ: As a partner to NATO, there was an exercise with NATO just a month ago, and we have been doing all the things that would have been included in the [NATO] Membership Action Plan, if there was one. We could always get more support and assistance. I think that what will be very important in the time to come is going to be the Black Sea. And that’s where we need assistance in terms of intelligence sharing, so that we know better what’s happening, especially as Russia is now trying to control more of the shores of the Black Sea. Cybersecurity is a field in which we have been asking for more support and more cooperation. Defensive armaments are something that we need more of.

FP: I know that Georgia has applied for EU membership, and you’ve received a questionnaire from the EU. But on NATO, have you heard any positive signs from the alliance that they may extend an invitation to Georgia to apply to join?

SZ: I’ve not heard anything. What I hope is that the next summit in Madrid will allow for participation and where we’ll see whether NATO members are ready to offer something more that would parallel what the EU has been doing in terms of accelerated integration. But for the time being, I’ve not heard that discussion in such terms. 

FP: Georgia can best understand, to some extent, what the Ukrainians are going through right now, having previously been invaded by Russia. But at the same time, Georgia has not joined with Western sanctions against Russia.

SZ: That’s factually absolutely not true. And I know where it comes from because the governmental authorities [in Georgia] have at certain times said that we’re not going to have sanctions. And that was [intended for] internal public opinion, explaining that we were not going to have national sanctions in addition [to international sanctions]. Because in fact, we are a part of all the international sanctions, SWIFT, all the financial sanctions. Not only are Georgian financial authorities and banks compliant, but they are over-compliant because they’re very worried to be in any way diverging from the rest. And that is the most important because that is what is really costing a lot to Georgia. 

But the other thing is that, in fact, there is nothing much that Georgia can do in terms of individual sanctions. What we have with Russia is that we were importing wheat from Ukraine and Russian wheat; we are 90 percent dependent. Now it’s a problem of payments, so if we cannot pay, we’re not going to be importing. And there is some trade, of course, between Georgia and Russia, but that’s basically fruits, which are not sanctioned goods, so it’s really a mismanagement, I would say, of the presentation of what Georgia is doing rather than the difference in terms of applying or not applying sanctions.

FP: But the Ukrainians did withdraw their ambassador from Tbilisi. Are you saying they misunderstood Georgia’s position?

SZ: I think there are some political undertones to that, that are linked to internal Georgian politics and links of some of the [Georgian] opposition parties, with some of the Ukrainian leaders.

FP: What do you mean by that? 

SZ: Well, I think that there are some opposition. … But that’s not something I would like to have really exposed because I think that, at this time, we need the relationship to be as close as possible between Ukraine and Georgia. And anything that is projecting any form of difference, and this is something that I told to Ukrainian leaders, about the expulsion of the ambassador, it’s something that is playing into the hands of Russia and nobody else. So that’s why it’s an issue that I don’t like to discuss, but it’s clear that there are some opposition leaders in Georgia, close to [former Georgian President and Odesa Gov. Mikheil] Saakashvili—who was in Ukraine and has his friends there—and he’s trying to pull strings between Georgia and Ukraine, which I don’t think is really the right moment to be played.

FP: You mentioned Saakashvili, who is obviously still imprisoned. I know you’ve said before that you wouldn’t consider pardoning him, but the decision to imprison him in the first place, do you think that was the right move?

SZ: That’s a very strange question. It’s the tribunals that have decided, and I don’t have to support or to be against. I pardoned a number of the leaders of Saakashvili’s party once they were sentenced. At that time, that was last year, I was thinking that this would help the process of internal reconciliation and depolarization. Here, we are in a completely reverse position, which is that pardoning Saakashvili would be a matter for intense polarization in Georgia because there is either half of the country that is as adamant on one side and probably more, a majority, against any form of pardon. 

And as I’ve said, there is a different issue that if he’s really diagnosed for any serious illness, then I think that all the measures should be taken to protect his health. What is most important, given the security situation we are in, is to maintain unity. What we’ve seen in Ukraine is a demonstration of that, that you are resilient and you can resist anything if you’re united, and we have a fantastic example of real unity of the population around the leadership in Ukraine.

FP: Are you concerned about the message that Saakashvili’s arrest sends to the world?

SZ: I don’t think that Saakashvili is a very important issue today.

FP: It is seen as an important issue for the health of a democracy though. Going after former heads of state is often seen as a concerning sign. 

SZ: [Former French President Nicolas] Sarkozy has been sentenced and is under house arrest. And there are many others, [including former Italian Prime Minister Silvio] Berlusconi. So I don’t think it’s a measurement of any form of democracy. And I don’t think that given the very serious issues in and around Georgia today and [in] the region, I don’t think that it’s an actual very serious issue. 

FP: I just wanted to quickly touch on your own relationship with the government of Georgia. There have been reports that they were going to take you to court accusing you of overstepping your remit as president. What do you make of these challenges?

SZ: Nothing. 

FP: Nothing?

SZ: I don’t think again that it’s an issue for an international news outlet because it’s an internal political issue.

FP: There has been a lot of attention to what has been described as democratic backsliding in Georgia. 

SZ: But I think that, too, is a bit exaggerated. I think that there are, like in many other countries, problems. But I think that we have, for instance, an extremely free media. We have the problem of the reform of the judicial system that has not been going forward as fast as I would have wished and as we were expected to do, but it’s not a backsliding. It’s not going forward as fast as necessary. 

And I think that the new path toward Euro integration is very welcome beyond the fact that it’s a more direct path because it will force us to do certain things that we need to be forced to do with more energy. So I’m an optimist. I think that we’re going in the very right direction. Anybody that comes to Georgia does not see the country as being a nondemocratic country or backsliding. And I think that the more attention we get, the more we will move in that direction in a more determined way.

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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