Interview: Eka Tkeshelashvili

Georgia's national security advisor Eka Tkeshelashvili was in Washington this week for meetings at the White House and State Department. She spoke with Foreign Policy's Susan Glasser and Joshua Keating about Russia's aggression, France's appeasement, and her country's interests in Afghanistan.

Foreign Policy: Have you been talking to people this week in Washington about your concerns over Russia?

Eka Tkeshelashvili: It's always part of the conversation. Russia continues to occupy important parts of Georgian territory -- not only from a territory point of view, but from the military standpoint. These are very convenient areas to be located militarily.

They can easily cut off communication lines if they just come a few kilometers out of Abkhazia. And when it comes to South Ossetia, it's only 40 miles from the capital. So this military presence is not only [a] political burden of being under partial occupation, but a substantial security threat because ... we firmly believe that Russia's aim when invading Georgia was not to annex Abkhazia and South Ossetia through occupation. The aims were much larger. Even larger than Georgia itself. And that those aims are not yet fulfilled.

FP: So do you see the prospect of future tensions?

ET: It's hard to say how it can pop up in reality, but it cannot be excluded. You really have to give credit to the Russian side for one thing: They never do anything as a surprise. They test the situation, and they warn about the situation in the way they test about it. Usually, if there's a good attention paid to what they do and what they say, one can be cautious about what can be expected and take preventative measures.

So what are the statements recently?

First of all, they continue to say regime change must come to Georgia, and the time will come to that, and only then will they have normal relations with Georgia.

In terms of the Russian military structure in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, there are no signs that they would be willing to withdraw, but they say they will now have legal arrangements with the local regimes to build bases in the territories. They want to have a bigger military presence on the ground, so it's institutionalized.

Then, they say that Georgia is still a continuous danger. They call us a regional threat -- words that [Russian Foreign Minister Sergei] Lavrov has used several times. It's become a pattern across the whole Russian political establishment to connect Georgia with what is happening in the North Caucasus right now. They say that Georgia -- together with al Qaeda -- is training, financing, and supporting terrorist groups in the North Caucasus.

Obviously, nobody believes this because it's ridiculous to think this way. Georgians would have to be lunatics to be connected with terrorism. We are the ones now standing in Afghanistan helping to fight terrorism. Then there is a spillover effect that can be expected from anything that happens in the North Caucasus or neighboring areas. We don't want to have more instability in the neighborhood. We don't want to assist that to happen -- you really have to be a lunatic!

FP: How does the French Mistral warship sale change the equation of the Russian security threat?

ET: It has great potential of changing the security equation for Russia, though the French have tried to downgrade that. First of all, [the French] frequently cite that it's a humanitarian ship. [But] a ship is a ship. It has great amphibious capacities for carrying arms, helicopters, armed vehicles, soldiers, having a hospital attached to it, or a military headquarters. You can use it for humanitarian purposes if you wish, or you can use it for military purposes. It's pretty much the pride of the French navy.

The Russian navy is in very poor shape right now. They have an ambition to be a big superpower, but militarily they're very outdated. Everyone saw during the invasion in Georgia, how poorly they performed. It's just they outnumbered us. If they'd gone after a bigger country in a different situation, it would have been disaster for Russia.

In addition, the Mistral sale is a political sign from France, which was the broker of our cease-fire agreement. It's a political signal to Russia that it's OK that they continue to occupy the territory of Georgia and are still aggressive in their rhetoric. It sends the signal that the occupation of our territory is a fait accompli.

It's not even appeasement of Russia. It's a reward for Russia.

FP: How do the French respond to your protests?

ET: It's the same response they say openly: that Russia is not the Soviet Union anymore, that it's very bad to think of Russia in terms of the Cold War mentality, and that Russia is not an enemy -- rather Russia is a partner. They ask why we are protesting this?

But respect towards the sovereignty of neighboring countries, nonaggression, not intruding into their internal affairs; not occupying other nations' territory -- these are current rules and not from the Cold War. So the country that violates these should [undergo] some restrictions -- especially for military armaments.

Russia itself said that if they had had Mistrals [during the August war], they would have finished the job in Georgia in 40 minutes rather than 26 hours. They are open about that. While the French were saying [the ship] is humanitarian and that it's not military capacity being given to Russia, [Prime Minister Vladimir] Putin was asked by a journalist how the ship will be used while in Paris. He clearly said that the ship will be used whenever, wherever, and however we'll deem it necessary. They don't see themselves being restricted in any way by the humanitarian purpose of this ship and by any location -- be that the Black Sea or the Baltic Sea.

FP:So what about the troops in Afghanistan. [Georgia recently committed a force of around 1,000 troops to the war in Afghanistan.] You're probably going to be the biggest per capita contributor now. Did the Obama administration specifically request a force of that size?

ET: Of course, they started the conversation on this issue with us. We already had a very good case record with our participation in Iraq, being the largest contributor to the mission per capita at one time. We had 2,000 troops in Iraq with very good assessments of their contribution from General [David] Petraeus from a combat-operations perspective. In Afghanistan this is the continuation of the vision, that we are reliable partners. When there is need for common action, if we are capable of it, we will not be shy to contribute.

We will be sending one battalion with the Americans to Helmand without any caveats. They are willing to run combat operations, unlike many European nations.

FP: Does that enhance your security in any way? NATO has once again refused to offer you a membership action plan.

ET: We're not doing it to get a membership action plan. It's not a quid pro quo -- we believe that it's a cause we share. Common security is threatened by an unsuccessful operation in Afghanistan. If our country can contribute, then we will. We are also getting good training for our forces.

FP: From the outside it might seem that the much larger security concern for Georgia is from the north. Are you worried about sending so many troops to Afghanistan while your territory is still occupied?

ET: Our main deterrence against Russia right now is not a military one, but a political one. We hope to develop, over time, a territorial defense capacity. But we are not yet there. It is very important that we do not waste time and panic in the face of Russia, but rather to be active in the common mission and to be a contributing nation. That's why it's not illogical from our standpoint to be participating in the mission like this.

FP: Do you think the United States has succeeded in resetting relations with Russia?

ET: It still has to be seen. If any relationship is a difficult one, it's with Russia. 2010 will be a challenging year so we can see how this is going. We actually hope the reset will be successful, because this would mean that Russia is changing its behavior vis-à-vis Georgia rather than vice versa. But it's difficult to predict -- with Russia one needs a crystal ball.



Interview: Fethullah Gülen

Meet Foreign Policy's Top Public Intellectual of 2008

When Foreign Policy and Prospect magazine asked readers to vote for the world's top public intellectual, one man won in a landslide: Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen, an inspirational leader to millions of followers around the world and persona non grata to many in his native Turkey, where some consider him a threat to the country's secular order. In a rare interview, Gülen speaks to FP about terrorism, political ambitions, and why his movement is so misunderstood.

Foreign Policy: How do you feel about being named the world's top public intellectual?

Fethullah Gülen: I have never imagined being or wished to be chosen as something important in the world. I have always tried to be a humble servant of God and a humble member of humanity. The Koran says that humanity has been created to recognize and worship God and, as a dimension of this worship, to improve the world in strict avoidance of corruption and bloodshed. It requires treating all things and beings with deep compassion. This is my philosophy, which obliges me to remain aloof from all worldly titles and ranks. However, I am not indifferent to the appreciation of kind people. [The voters were] extremely kind in naming me the world's top public intellectual, a title to which I can never see myself as entitled.

FP: Do you harbor any political ambitions?

FG: I have never had, nor will I ever have, any [political] ambitions. The only thing on which I have always set my heart is being able to gain God's good pleasure and, therefore, trying to make him known correctly and loved by humanity.

FP: Where does Islam fit in a Muslim's political life?

FG: Islam as a religion focuses primarily on the immutable aspects of life and existence, whereas a political system concerns only social aspects of our worldly life. Islam's basic principles of belief, worship, morality, and behavior are not affected by changing times. Islam does not propose a certain unchangeable form of government or attempt to shape it. Islam has never offered nor established a theocracy in its name. Instead, Islam establishes fundamental principles that orient a government's general character. So, politics can be a factor neither in shaping Islam nor directing Muslims' acts and attitudes in Islam's name.

FP: Why do you believe your movement is suspected by so many Turks?

FG: I do not believe so many Turks suspect my activities. The idea that this movement of volunteers is suspected by many Turks arises in the same way and for the same reasons that the world hears more about those Muslims whom the media call radicals. Since those who give this impression are extremely loud, some observers can be deceived.

FP: Hundreds of schools have been opened around the world based on a model you pioneered, blending science and religion. How centrally controlled are the schools run by the Gülenist movement?

FG: My only role in the opening of the schools has been to suggest and encourage opening them. But it is impossible for there to be a [central authority] controlling the schools. They are in more than 100 countries, and there must be many different companies that have opened and run them. Some of them may have closer relations or interactions. Some may be sharing their experiences with others.

FP: What is the most misunderstood thing about the Gülenist movement?

FG: I cannot accept concepts such as Gülenism or Gülenist. I was only a writer and an official preacher among people. I can have no direct influence on any person or activity. It is inconceivable that I can exert pressure on anybody.

But some people may regard my views well and show respect to me, and I hope they have not deceived themselves in doing so. Some people think that I am a leader of a movement. Some think that there is a central organization responsible for all the institutions they wrongly think affiliated with me. They ignore the zeal of many to serve humanity and to gain God's good pleasure in doing so. They ignore people's generosity. Such misunderstandings may lead others to have suspicions about the financial resources of the schools. A small minority in Turkey even accuses me of having political ambitions, when in fact I have been struggling with various illnesses for many years.

FP: You preach a moderate, tolerant Islam. What do you think causes terrorism?.

FG: Islam abhors and absolutely condemns terrorism and any terrorist activity. I have repeatedly declared that it is impossible for a true Muslim to be a terrorist, nor can a terrorist be regarded as a true Muslim. Terrorism is one of the cardinal sins that the Koran threatens with hellfire.

It is a fact that Muslims have lagged behind in science and technology for the last few centuries. The Muslim world suffers from internal divisions, antidemocratic practices, and the violation of fundamental human rights and freedoms. But Muslims have never been and never can be so base as to expect any solutions to their problems through terror.

[Terrorism] is formed of certain fundamental problems, [including] ignorance, poverty, and fear of others. Some people take advantage of the young and foolish. They are manipulated, abused, and even drugged to such an extent that they can be used as murderers on the pretext of some crazy ideals or goals.

To defeat terrorism, we must acknowledge that we are all human beings. It is not our choice to belong to a particular race or family. We should be freed from fear of the other and enjoy diversity within democracy. I believe that dialogue and education are the most effective means to surpass our differences.

FP: Would you like to return to Turkey someday?

FG: I certainly long for my country and my friends there. However, I have submitted myself to my fate and am willingly resigned to however it judges.

Illustration: Lara Tomlin for FP