Georgia's foreign minister, Grigol Vashadze, was in Washington Jan. 9 to sign a strategic partnership agreement with the United States, reaffirming security cooperation and preferential trade status between the two countries and U.S. support for Georgia's membership in NATO. Shortly after signing the agreement with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Vashadze spoke with FP's Joshua Keating about the future of U.S.-Georgia relations.
Foreign Policy: Now that this agreement has been signed, what are Georgia's prospects for joining NATO in the near term?
Grigol Vashadze: We got the word from [the April 2008 NATO summit in] Bucharest that Georgia is going to be a member of NATO. After the August war, everybody saw why Georgia was trying so desperately to become part of the North Atlantic structure. Everybody has seen the menaces and dangers we're facing. With this charter, which stipulates that America will do everything possible to help with Georgia's accession to NATO, I think our chances are pretty good. But, of course, nobody on the face of this Earth will give you an exact date. Yes, we're going to be members of NATO, sooner rather than later.
FP: One of the messages from the European states at the Bucharest summit was that Georgia would only be considered after it resolved the conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Isn't this an open invitation for Russia to make sure those conflicts don't get resolved?
GV: We are not speaking about conflicts. We could speak about conflicts before the August war. Now this is not a conflict; it's an occupation. From one point of view, it's absolutely dreadful because you wake up and 20 percent of your territory is occupied by an unwelcome neighbor. From another point of view, Russia played all their aces. Everything is called its proper name right now: Russia is not a peacekeeper; it is an occupier. We're not talking about ethnic conflict; we're talking about the cleaning of those territories of their core population to build up Russian military bases.
So we have a very simple question: Can Russia use those occupied territories as an instrument of influence? As this charter shows, and as the world's attitude changed, we see that, no, Russia cannot do that anymore.
FP: What do you mean that Russia has played its aces?
GV: What were Russia's aces? First, there was the promise that if Georgia behaves as a good neighbor, Russia would be a real peacekeeper and mediator. And, second, that Russia will never recognize the independence [of South Ossetia and Abkhazia]. Now they are an occupier and they have recognized the independence [of those regions], and ethnic cleansing is done. What are they going to do now? Enter Tbilisi and bring in one Russian soldier to stand over each Georgian?
After the August war, Russia discovered a simple thing: They have no political basis in Georgia. They don't have the right information. They don't have any allies in the political class, and they don't have any prospect of having any allies in the foreseeable future. If someone in Russia had been planning to make an enemy out of Georgia, it couldn't have been done more effectively than what they did.
FP: As you understand it, does this agreement increase the United States' obligation to come to Georgia's aid in case of future Russian aggression?
GV: We're all too experienced to believe that any international instrument of this kind provides any kind of obligation to involve one's ally in one's conflict. This document is not directed against anybody, but it's a very powerful signal to everybody that nobody -- first of all the United States -- is going to tolerate something like [the August war] again. I would like to add that we will be very, very responsible. The last thing we would like is to involve our main and sometimes only ally in our problems.
FP: Your president, Mikheil Saakashvili, has a very close relationship with U.S. President George W. Bush and also with Sen. John McCain. Do you have a sense of how Obama's team views Georgia, and how the relationship might change with the Democrats in power?
GV: Everybody from the Democratic Party and circles close to the new administration are repeating a simple thing: The Georgian-American relationship is not based on one administration's interests or tastes; it is based upon principles. America is supporting a new democracy, and this is a bipartisan effort. There's no way this is going to change. As far as the personal relationships, I wouldn't like to comment on that.
FP: Given Georgia's status as a transit link for gas from Central Asia, are you looking to take advantage of the ongoing Gazprom-Ukraine pricing dispute?
GV: We are not vultures to benefit from other countries' problems. What I can tell you is that everybody in Europe has again gotten proof, though I doubt there was really a need for supplementary proof, that alternative routes are vital and in the best interest of Europeans. America's insistence on creating new routes for oil and gas is not the caprice of a superpower. It is a very practical matter. If Russia can close the tap and leave all of Europe without gas at the end of December of every year, do you need any more proof that [the planned Nabucco pipeline that will carry Central Asian gas to Europe through Turkey] is necessary?
FP: Why is a close relationship with Georgia in the United States' interest?
GV: America is supporting democracy. America is supporting a state that supports and promotes human rights. This is very simple. Yes, Georgia is a very important link on the southern route to bring out Central Asian gas and oil. But this is not the reason Americans support Georgia. In the early '90s when America started supporting Georgia, nobody spoke about Georgia as a transit country. Only in the late '90s did everyone discover why Georgia was so important. Much more important is democracy, respect for the law, and human rights.