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President Zurabishvili Talks EU, Russian Occupation, Ukraine

President Salome Zurabishvili sat down with journalist Zeinab Badawi on BBC’s Hard Talk to discuss Georgia’s European aspirations, Russian occupation, and the war in Ukraine, among other issues.

On EU Candidate Status

Asked about Georgia not receiving candidate status, unlike Moldova and Ukraine, President Zurabishvili responded, “I was disappointed, the Georgian population was disappointed but at the same time I think we understood, and they understood, that there was a specific situation in Ukraine, Ukraine got us where we are with the European perspective […] and it’s clear that it has a link with the political situation, the military situation, of Ukraine, […] and of Moldova.”

She also admitted that Georgia’s positions “in the last year or so” regarding the EU’s recommendations and on the Charles Michel document, “did not make all the conditions for this [to be granted].”

Nevertheless, the President stressed, “[…] it’s vital that in 2023 Georgia is granted candidate status, which doesn’t mean membership, we will have other criteria, more things to fulfill, more reforms to make, but in a strategic manner it’s important that the EU says that Georgia is part of this [Associated] Trio that we have created and not something outside that could be an attraction for Russia to play games.”

In a follow-up regarding the criticism of Georgia’s judiciary, as well as other sectors, and whether the Georgian government is “serious” about joining the EU, the President emphasized, “I think they’re working on it, I think that we are not perfect.”

Pointing out that many countries struggle with “democratic achievements” today, President Zurabishvili reiterated, “I would say that today, tomorrow, the decision of the EU has to be a more strategic one, than one based formally on criteria, not to say that we should push aside democratic reforms, that it’s not important, but I think at this moment, what is predominant is the strategic issue and the risks of giving Russia the wrong message on Georgia.”

On the EU’s Stance Toward Georgia

Asked about whether the EU “really wants” Georgia in light of statements made by representatives of the Georgian Dream party or those close to it that the EU will not grant Georgia candidacy regardless of its actions, President Zurabishvili underlined, “I think I know the EU a bit more [and] I think that they are genuine.”

In that sense, the Georgian President pointed out that “distances have been reduced and it’s very important for the European Union […] to have a country on the other side of the Black Sea that is democratic, pro-European, and that’s where the new transit lanes, new connectivity, is going to happen in the next decade.”

On Russia

Asked about whether Russia wants to “absorb” Georgia, the President noted that “Russia has always wanted to absorb Georgia,” and pointed to the Russian Empire, and the Soviet Union as prominent examples of that fact, as well as to Russia’s involvement in the 1992-1993 Abkhazia War and later, its invasion of Georgia in 2008.

She emphasized, however, that today, “I don’t think [that Russia will invade Georgia],” considering the resistance it has encountered in Ukraine, and despite the fact that Georgia has “neither the army nor the depth of territory, not the human resource or military resource that Ukraine has.”

President Zurabishvili did admit that due to “the humiliation of Russia and the fact that it’s losing this war in many respects […] at one point in time, for internal reasons, it might be tempted towards making a point over Georgia, where it’s easier, to make some points.”

“So I think that we have to be very careful, at the same time, I would say, that should in no way determine our actions and words, and our orientation towards Europe,” she underscored. “Nobody will ever prevent Russia from attempting something if Russia thinks that at that point in time it is in their best interests but there are things that we can do to make sure that we do not […] make it easier for them.”

On the Government’s Stance vis-à-vis Russia

In that context, the President was also asked about whether the Georgian government has chosen the right path by “walking the line” of trying not to antagonize the Kremlin while still using the current opportunity to move toward the nation’s European aspirations and assist Ukraine.

“Yes, but [there cannot be] too much caution,” she stressed. “[We cannot] give the impression to Russia that we are so scared, that we want to defer to all Russian pretensions that can happen.”

In that context, she again underlined the importance of European partners consolidating “our paths towards Europe, and in that sense, I think we have to have a positive answer on [EU] candidate status.”

According to the President, Georgia cannot “afford a second no because that would give the wrong message to Russia, that suddenly Georgia has become a grey zone…” “So I think that we have to be very clear, clarity is our best defense,” President Zurabishvili added.

On Abkhazia and Tskhinvali Region/S. Ossetia

In a question about whether the occupied regions of Abkhazia and Tskhinvali region/South Ossetia are “lost to Georgia forever,” the President retorted, “You can ask any Georgian, and no Georgian will answer yes to that question.”

“I think that today, like never [before], we are entering a different world of geopolitics, and I think that in these enclaves, and separatist regions, the attitude toward Russia has changed a lot since the invasion in Ukraine,” she stressed.

In response to a follow-up highlighting Russia’s significant financing of those regions, the number of Russian passport holders, and the anti-Georgian statements made by those governing the occupied regions, President Zurabishvili claimed that in light of Russian plans to reduce funding to both regions, as well as anxieties sparked by talks over the Bichvinta resort town, attitudes towards Russia are changing.

“If Georgia is a way to prosperity, to Europe, to democracy, that might become, and I think is becoming, more attractive to the younger generation of Abkhazia,” she explained.

She underscored that, especially for those in Abkhazia who want to “own their lands,” “they might not dream of joining Georgia, but they certainly do not dream – anymore – of joining Russia.”

President Zurabishvili emphasized that to work in that direction, Georgia must show, among other things, that the propaganda that Georgia might be tempted to return to those regions militarily in light of the ongoing geopolitical situation is a “Russian lie because Georgia wants one thing, its to reunite with those citizens, that are our citizens, and not to reunite only with the territories.”

On Ukraine

Asked about the Georgian government’s stance on Ukraine, including in terms of statements about not joining sanctions or the “ineffectiveness” of sanctions, President Zurabishvili stated, “That’s where I differ from the rhetoric because the facts are very different, Georgia has joined the international financial sanctions.”

Adding that Georgian banks have actually been “overly compliant” with sanctions and that the Government has also supported Ukraine in all international resolutions and formats, the President said, “So that’s what I say when I say its a question of rhetoric, I would never say that we are not part of the sanctions…”

In a follow-up about Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy being “cross” with Georgia and withdrawing its Ambassador from the country, President Zurabishvili pointed out that President Zelensky “has sometimes been very cross with different countries, not only with Georgia.”

She emphasized, however, “We have a separate issue with Ukraine which is that we have some Georgians leading in the elite of Ukraine, that are playing a little bit of Georgian politics more than Ukrainian politics.”

On NATO

In response to a question about Georgia “never” being able to join NATO in light of Abkhazia and Tskhinvali region/S. Ossetia being occupied, the President underscored, “Well don’t say never” because “things are changing so fast… we are getting prepared for joining NATO, we are having exercises with NATO, including after the war started in Ukraine…”

On Mikheil Saakashvili

Asked why she has not used her powers to pardon imprisoned ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili, whose deteriorating health has been of concern for months, President Zurabishvili responded that according to Georgian legislation she does not “have the power for one very simple reason which is that sentencing is not closed, it is still being judged, and that’s the law in Georgia that a pardon can intervene only once everything is finished.”

Pressed in a follow-up on whether she will pardon him after the sentencing, she explained, “That’s another issue, I’ve explained at length in Georgia, why I would not do it because it’s a factor for major polarization.”

In that sense, she highlighted that “there is practically not one family in Georgia that has not experienced what it meant to have that type of autocratic regime,” and remarked, “I don’t feel that I have to become an instrument for more polarization…”

Nevertheless, she emphasized that she does not want “an ex-President to die in prison, or to suffer irredeemable consequences, and so I’ve been very close to monitoring all the medical [facts]…”

The President also added that publicly, she has been calling for Saakashvili to be transferred abroad to receive additional treatment, “but that’s a decision that has to be taken by the Court.”

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