On January 16, 2003 leader of the United Democrats Zurab Zhvania met with Civil Georgia to respond to the key questions regarding his vision of Georgia’s national and international policy.
The meeting took place only days after announcement of Zhvania and Mikheil Saakashvili regarding the creation of the broad opposition coalition in Georgia. Zhvania said the coalition should be based on shared principles of liberal democracy and development, should present the framework of cooperation beyond the elections.
Zhvania stated that if his party or the coalition wins the elections, he would advocate for changing the constitutional model of governance, yielding the way to the strong political cabinet of ministers, accountable to the parliament. He said over-reliance on a single person to save Georgia would not contribute to country’s development.
When speaking about the relations with Russia, Zhvania noted there are “all chances” for building meaningful cooperation with the current Russian administration and President Vladimir Putin, whose governance style Zhvania “highly appreciates.”
Leader of the United Democrats spoke for the clearer unambiguous policy on Abkhazia issue, argued there is not prospect of flare-up of violence in Javakheti and said the chance for the political settlement in Tkskhinvali region has been wasted.
Regarding the foreign policy agenda of his party, Zhvania said Georgia should play central role in forging stronger ties of the regional cooperation in South Caucasus. Zhvania spoke against the possible strikes of the US forces on Iraq without UN sanction, arguing for retention of the world order created by the United Nations.
Transcript of the interview follows.
Q: You and Mikheil Saakashvili stated recently that you will support creation of the broad opposition coalition. This issue has been discussed for very long time. You also said that you are against a formal coalition and that this union should be based on certain principles. Which principles did you mean?
A: I believe that such coalition would be sensible only if it is created not just for pre-election campaign, but is based on the strong basis, which will make cooperation after the elections not only possible but also inevitable
Our voters do not need just the victory of Zhvania or Saakashvili. They want to find solutions to their specific problems.
We need a sustained, stable and effective cooperation between the political forces to achieve this goal. Therefore we need to be united around a concrete program, with very specific details laid out. While talking about the principles, I mean the traditional liberal values. I mean resumption and completion of interrupted reforms in the country. I mean intensive processes of integration into the European space. I mean finding of the common language with Russia and many more issues. More specific listing is, certainly, a matter of consultations.
Q: A statement by Mikheil Saakashvili on possible cooperation with Jumber Patiashvili, former communist leader of Georgia, came as surprise. Is this proposal a part of the proposed principled coalition or just a pragmatic step to win the votes before the elections?
A: The votes do not add up mechanically. A union is successful only when it is followed by the synergy effect, when one plus one is much more that two. This is possible, I would repeat, only if it is defined why, for how long and on what conditions political forces are uniting. Today the society wants united democratic opposition.
Of course, Saakashvili’s and my perception of the democratic opposition may differ. We will see... we have to continue the consultations.
You said that it would be impossible to have one leader in this opposition alliance and that Georgia’s future also cannot depend only on one person. Did you mean that if your party, or your coalition (if it will be created) wins in elections of 2003, you will change the constitutional model of the governance?
I am absolutely sure that this model must be changed. I want to underline that despite my relations with the President, Shevardnadze has played his very important role in this country. For instance, I was against the system [of governance] laid out in the present Constitution, but I must say that the model has worked [positively] for a certain period of time. But at this stage, this model is hindering further development of the country.
I believe that our country must have an effective government in form of a cabinet of ministers, subordinated to the Parliament and united under the shared political responsibility principles. The accountability to the parliament must be constant, to avoid the current situation when our debates on the budget have no influence on the government.
Thus the model must be changed. I do not believe that Georgia will develop successfully if we continue to look for an ultimate messiah, to save us all. Georgia’s future is in its democratic institutions. Georgia’s future is in cooperation of various the democratic forces, which have similar vision. And such forces do exist.
Q: In one of your public speeches you said it is hard to see logic in a “feeble policy” that this government is pursuing on Abkhazian issue. What are measures you would advocate for?
A: I am not for arms rattling, neither for facilitating the military provocations nor for assisting them. But it is obvious that we have to use the resources of the international organizations, to which Georgia is a member. These organizations were created to guard those fundamental norms of the international law that are so openly violated today.
First of all we have to call Russia’s present activities its name sharply and objectively. What we are witnessing these last weeks is Abkhazia’s annexation by Russia.
When I say that our government has unclear and weak policy, I mean that in response to resumption of the railway communication, in response to issuing of the Russian passports [to Abkhaz residents], in response to merger of the Abkhazian communication systems with Russia and in response to many, very many other such activities, the Georgian President could not come up with a clear position understandable to our partners in the UN, OSCE, the Council of Europe, or bilateral partners.
You mentioned that you are not calling for the military solution. But several days ago you asked the government why it did not provide assistance to [Georgian] partisans [in Abkhazia].
It is true, I have expressed my regret that the government never helped the partisan movement. Existence of the partisan movement in Abkhazia is fully legitimate, as it is the last and desperate attempt of those people, who struggle for return to their homes, where they were born and where graves of their grandfathers and grandmothers are.
When my foreign friends criticized the partisans, I used to remind them that I have initiated a tradition in the Parliament – on May 9 we hold a ceremony in honor of the heroes of the WWII. Among them were the partisans, who fought against Nazis in Ukraine and Byelorussia for the right of people to return to their homeland.
So it would be absolutely immoral to brand as bandits the people who want to fight not for others property, but for return to houses, when the government’s every step or measure has failed.
Today I am not a governmental official. Today I am just one of the members of the Parliament, representative of one of the political groups and, therefore, I can talk more openly about many issues [than while being the Chairman of the Parliament].
Again, I am not saying that the government should speak about these things openly. I am not saying that the government should demonstrate military power. I am saying that there must be at least basic coordination among the governmental agencies, that there must be some kind of action plan on Abkhazian issues. And, most regrettably, we do see it to exist.
Q: Today the international attention is focused elsewhere, and many analysts argue that Russia has used this possibility to step up the pressure on Georgia. Would you think Georgia could have acted proactively to reach more favorable deal with Russia on Abkhazia, even at the price of re-opening the railway communication?
A: Russian side has raised the issue of reopening the railway communication [with Abkhazia] quite often. I was always against unilateral and unconditional decisions on this issue. Although I was supporting idea of reopening the railway, this should have been a part of a broader solution to the Abkhazian problem. Opening of the railway should be accompanied, or even preceded by the return of the displaced persons [IDPs] return to their homes.
I am not saying that the railway must open only after the last IDP returns to Abkhazia. What I mean is that this should have happened at least after the return to the Gali district and adjacent areas, up to the river Ghalidzga.
Otherwise we are having a situation, in which the separatist regime maintains status quo and improves its economic status. The last argument [from the Georgian side], for which they [the Abkhaz de facto government] would have agreed to make certain concessions, was lifting of the existent economic restrictions. The word ‘blockade’ is too strong and inappropriate to depict the situation. Removal of these restrictions means telling the IDPs that they must abandon hopes that anyone would ever care for their return to their homes.
Q: Recently the parliament chairperson visited Russia. The Russian State Duma members openly stated that the process of Georgia’s disintegration has begun and continues. They mentioned possibility of the military campaign in South Osetia, allegedly plotted by the Georgian government and possibility of outbreak of violence in Samtskhe-Javakheti. How probable this scenario can be, especially in Samtskhe-Javakheti?
A: Samtskhe-Javakheti is a separate issue. I want to state that there are no grounds for expecting any development of separatist [secessionist] movements in Javakheti, Ninotsminda and Akhalkalaki.
I know the region very well and have good relations with the local leaders in Javakheti. There definitely are some separatist groups, but they are marginalized. They do not reflect opinion and aspirations of the majority of population.
The main problem for Javakheti is lack of any policy on part of the government. It is also true for any other region [of Georgia]. We have to demonstrate that we are trying to solve people’s problems, trying to make Akhalkalaki closer to Tbilisi, attempt to make new ties, to build the new ‘bridges’ between Akhalkalaki and Tbilisi. But in reality, sometimes I have an impression that Tbilisi is purposely isolating itself from Akhalkalaki.
There is a risk of provocations in the regions as long as the Russian military base is stationed there.
Concerning Tskinvali region, I prefer using this term, I would say that regrettably the situation has worsened dramatically during the past two years. In 1997 and 1998 the conflict was basically settled on the people’s level. We only had to confirm the conflict resolution politically, but we have lost this absolutely unique opportunity.
Q: I would like to tackle the Chechens’ issue as well. Russia urges Georgia to extradite all Chechen prisoners. Do you think that Georgia should follow Russia’s will and extradite the prisoners? What kind of relations should Georgia have with Chechens in general?
A: Georgia must build its relations with Chechens in accordance with its Constitution, the international law and on the precedents in international affairs. Georgia has no right to deny assistance to the Chechen refugees. Georgia also must take all necessary measures to arrest the terrorists, or any person who has perpetrated a crime and extradite him or her. But Georgia also has no right to even think of extraditing those, against whom the Russian side has fabricated false allegations and evidence.
We do not need to come up with new rules in this case. We have to deal with terrorism very strictly. But fight against terrorism must not become a fight against Chechen people and this is what Russians have done. I do not want Georgia to repeat what Russians did by “fighting the Chechen terrorism.”
Unfortunately we already had a regrettable example in Tbilisi, when during the total anti-Chechen campaign in Tbilisi, every ethnic Chechen, women and men, was detained.
Q: Let us revert to the South Caucasus regional politics. During your chairmanship, Georgia tried to lobby Armenia and Azerbaijan’s accession to the Council of Europe. What is the current regional policy vision of your party?
A: For us the regional cooperation between Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia, both bilateral and trilateral, whenever it’s possible, always was and will be one of the main priorities.
This is a cornerstone of success of Georgia’s foreign policy. I am very proud that I was the initiator of regular meetings of the chairpersons of the three parliaments. We had trilateral meetings in Tbilisi, Paris and Strasbourg.
Azerbaijan is our closest partner. It can be argued that today we have strategic cooperation with Azrebaijan and this cooperation will definitely continue in the future. We also can do a lot so that nobody in Armenia has even a suspicion that Georgia is trying to isolate Armenia. It is very important that Armenia is participating in development of the region.
Of course we will not be able to play a main mediating role on Karabakh issue and we should not try to do so. But we must do everything to provide as many as many reasons as possible for meetings and negotiations at any possible level [between the three countries]. I regret that this area of foreign policy has been sidelined recently.
Q: Any serious political force, which intends to come to power in Georgia, must have its own vision on relations with Russia. What is your vision?
A: Settlement of relations with Russia will be a number one priority for us and for any other political force, which would come to replace this incapable government. It is just impossible to have such completely unregulated and uncertain relations with such a big neighbor and for so many years.
We have a very good example of what Azerbaijan and Heydar Aliev personally have done during the past year. Although Azerbaijan’s relations with Russia were also strained earlier, Azerbaijan managed to establish harmonious and cooperative relations with Russia without making even a smallest concession.
It is not correct to expect Uncle Sam to solve all our problems with Russia. The US can certainly play an extremely important role in these matters, but first of all we must find common language with Russia in most painful issues ourselves.
I believe that we can establish very successful relations with the new Russian leadership. Current leadership provides good chances for this. I highly appreciate President [Vladimir] Putin’s governing style, who made Russia’s state policy, both internal and external, much better organized and firm.
Q: What would be your comment on what seems the decision of the President Bush administration, to start the war in Iraq even without the consent of the UN Security Council?
In general I support the world order established by the creation of the United Nations Organization. Therefore it is very painful for me to see any action, which significantly diminishes role of the UN, and even questions viability of the whole system.
However, on the other hand the US has every ground to be worried about what is going on in Iraq. Today, when terrorism has reached unprecedented scale, the US and other countries, which bear responsibility for world peace and international order, have the right to react.
I hope that the US and the UN will manage to create a framework, which will not undermine the international system and at the same time uproot the criminal regimes in the world.