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Kurt Volker speaks with Ani Chkhikvadze. Photo: VoA

Volker: US, Georgia enjoy strategic dialogue, close military ties

Voice of America’s Ani Chkhikvadze sat down with Ambassador Kurt Volker, U.S. Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations, to discuss Georgia’s domestic and foreign affairs.

Recently, Syria’s Assad Government recognized occupied Abkhazia and Ossetia as independent states. Why do you think we saw this right now, especially given that Georgia, as some argue, has ‘softened’ its rhetoric vis-à-vis Russia?

Syria is entirely dependent on Iran and Russia. Whether or not they would have thought about recognizing these territories independently, the interest of Russia is to have them do so. And, Syria is dependent on that. Now with Russia, I think, the Kremlin is deliberately trying to turn up the volume a little bit on a few different issues, whether it was the nerve agent attack in the U.K., attacks in Syria, fighting in eastern Ukraine or the recognitions in Georgia.

Can we fear other countries, such as Iran following the footsteps of Syria, and what can the West do to help Georgia avoid such a scenario? 

There is always a danger that some countries would do that. As you are well aware, other entities that have some dependency or interests with Russia have decided to do so. I believe Nicaragua was one, and some pacific island got paid to do this. It is conceivable. However, most states will not do this because almost every state has some region or some area, which would also aspire to break away, and they do not want to create a precedent. There are ethnic differences within Iran and they would not want to see a Kurdish region declare itself as separate, for instance.

Georgian government came out with a new initiative that allows occupied territories to benefit from the perks of Georgia’s partnership with the European Union. Given Russia’s robust control of these entities, is it more of a PR move or is it viable?

We have to separate them out. First off, there is no cause and effect between the government making this initiative and Russia’s bad behavior. Russia will do that bad behavior anyway. The question then is, what is the right policy from the perspective of the Georgian government. True, given Russia’s absolute blockage of everything, there is very little that the government can really execute in such a package. However, it is important both substantively, as well as in terms of the optics, for the government to adopt a position of wanting to support the Georgian citizens. It is exactly the right thing to do – to view the residents of South Ossetia and the residents of Abkhazia, independent of their ethnicity, as Georgian citizens or to make sure that they know that the benefits of being a Georgian citizen are available to them, and that the only reason those benefits are blocked is because of the Russian occupation.

Many in Georgia and the West, including the United States, have criticized the previous Georgian government for provoking Russia by its rhetoric or actions. The current – the Georgian Dream government – came to power with a declared “pragmatic” approach to Russia, with “softer” language. However, we see that despite the change, Russia continues to push for recognition of the occupied regions. Archil Tatunashvili, a Georgian citizen, was recently murdered in the occupied Tskhinvali, and Moscow has moved to integrate the regions even further. Under these conditions, how should Georgia approach the Russian Federation?

I do not think you can blame either government whether it is the Saakashvili government or the Kvirikashvili government for Russia’s behavior. Russia is doing what it has been doing for its own reasons, which is to keep its neighbors off balance, to create some instability and to divide Georgia from Europe, to divide Ukraine from Europe. And they are going to continue to do those things, as far as a matter of policy goes. I think there are a couple of key elements: there is a degree to which you want to be substantive in a dialogue with Russia. They are willing to do certain things. However, we need certain things from Russia and if Russia is not willing to do that, then there is a limit to what Georgia is able to do. And that has effectively been the policy of both governments. Second is to reach out to the local population in Abkhazia and South Ossetia with a sense of citizenship. Then the third is to keep a very clear orientation towards democracy, reform and integration with the rest of the world, especially Europe. That is again something that both governments have done. That is ultimately the best guarantee of Georgia’s prosperity, Georgia’s security and Georgia’s place in the world.

Prime Minister Kvirikashvili was in Washington recently and met with the Secretary of State. And once again, the discussion about free trade and deepened strategic partnership emerged. What do you think, what should be next step in U.S.-Georgia relations?

I think, things are on the right track. We have a good strategic dialogue and very close military cooperation. We have provided javelins to the Georgian military. We are also looking at trade issues with Georgia, which could be done very positively despite the context of trade issues elsewhere. There are a lot of things on the agenda, and it is a matter of staying focused and moving in the right direction. Ultimately, it is the policy of the U.S. that we very much support Georgia’s aspirations to be a member of NATO, support Georgia’s relations with the European Union and that is ultimately where Georgia will take its place – as a member of the larger European family.

Previous administration in the U.S., some argue, was less engaged with the region, including with Georgia. After 2008, the Obama administration abolished sanctions very quickly and the general response to Georgia-Russia war was more reserved. Do you think we see change in the U.S. policy towards the region, now that new administration is in the office? Do we see more engagement or less?

It is a very interesting question, because you can look at it through a Georgia prism. But I think the way to look at it is through a Washington prism. You have President Obama come in rejecting the policies of President Bush and despite what the Democrats are saying now about Russia, at the time, they wanted to reset the relations. So they downplayed problems with Russia including their invasion and occupation of Georgia in order to try to build a stronger relationship. Obviously, that failed because Russia did not change. We had a continuing series of problems. The Trump administration came in, and despite the criticism of the administration for being anxious to engage Russia, the reality is that they have had a much stronger and tougher policy toward Russia as compared with the Obama administration. And, that is positive because I think that it is necessary to try to draw some lines with Russia and see whether we can stabilize things and be able to move on in the future.

10 years passed since the Bucharest summit where Georgia and Ukraine were not given the Membership Action Plan (MAP), but were promised that they would become, at some point in the future, members of the Alliance. NATO is hosting the Brussels summit this summer, do you think the discussion on membership for Georgia can be put back on the table?

People in NATO are not ready to grant Georgia the Membership Action Plan. So, I think chasing that would be a mistake because then it will look like a failure even though people are not against Georgia. They are just not ready to take that step. Instead, what we have is the NATO-Georgia commission, a very robust action plan on an annual basis, a robust exercise schedule, a lot of bilateral contacts, and a lot of work on defense reform. I think there is a lot on the agenda between Georgia and NATO. There should be a Black Sea Summit which would include Georgia and Ukraine along with NATO members, and I think that would be a very positive signal for both Ukraine and Georgia that NATO is engaged in the region and interested in those countries and their security.

The material was prepared for Civil.ge by the Voice of America. In order to license this and other content free of charge, please contact Adam Gartner.

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