President Salome Zurabishvili sat down with journalist Zeinab Badawi on BBC’s Hard Talk to discuss Georgia’s European aspirations, the Russian occupation and the war in Ukraine, among other issues.
On EU candidate status
Asked about Georgia not receive candidate statusunlike Moldova and Ukraine, President Zurabishvili replied: “I was disappointed, the people of Georgia were disappointed but at the same time I think we understood, and they understood, that there was a specific situation in Ukraine, Ukraine has brought us to where we are with the European perspective […] and it is clear that this has to do with the political situation, the military situation, of Ukraine, […] and Moldova.
She also admitted that Georgia’s positions “over the past year or so” regarding EU recommendations and on the File Charles Michel“didn’t make all the conditions for it [to be granted].”
Nevertheless, the president emphasized:[…] it is vital that in 2023 Georgia obtains candidate status, which does not mean membership, we will have other criteria, more things to fulfill, more reforms to do, but in a strategic way, it is important for the EU to say that Georgia is part of this [Associated] Trio that we created and not something outside that could be an attraction for Russia to play games.
In a follow-up regarding criticism of the Georgian judiciary, as well as other sectors, and whether the Georgian government is “serious” about EU membership, the President stressed: “I think ‘they’re working on it, I think we’re not perfect.
Stressing that many countries today are struggling with “democratic achievements”, President Zurabishvili reiterated: “I would say that today, tomorrow, the decision of the EU must be a more strategic decision, than a decision formally based on criteria, not to say that we have to set aside democratic reforms, that it is not important, but I think that at the moment what predominates is the strategic question and the risks of giving Russia the wrong message on Georgia.
On the EU position towards Georgia
Asked whether the EU “really wanted” Georgia in light of statements made by representatives of the Georgian Dream party or those close to it that the EU would not grant Georgia’s candidacy regardless his actions, President Zurabishvili stressed: “I think I know the EU a little more [and] I think they are genuine.
In this sense, the Georgian President stressed that “the distances have been reduced and this is very important for the European Union […] to have a country across the Black Sea that is democratic, pro-European, and that is where the new transit routes, the new connectivity, are going to happen over the next decade.
Asked if Russia wants to “absorb” Georgia, the president noted that “Russia has always wanted to absorb Georgia” and cited the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union as vivid examples of this fact. , as well as Russia’s involvement in the 1992–93 Abkhazian War and later, its 2008 invasion of Georgia.
However, she stressed that today, “I don’t think [that Russia will invade Georgia]given 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 or military resources that Ukraine has”.
President Zurabishvili admitted that because of “Russia’s humiliation and the fact that it is losing this war in many ways […] at some point, for internal reasons, he might be tempted to make a point about Georgia, where it’s easier to make points.
“So I think we have to be very careful, at the same time, I would say, it should in no way determine our actions and our words, and our orientation towards Europe,” she stressed. “Nobody will ever stop Russia from trying something if Russia thinks it’s in their best interests at the time, but there are things we can do to make sure we don’t. not. […] makes their job easier. »
On the position of the government vis-à-vis Russia
In this context, the President was also asked whether the Georgian government had chosen the right course of “toeing the line” of trying not to antagonize the Kremlin while taking advantage of the current opportunity to get closer of the nation’s European aspirations and help Ukraine.
“Yes, but [there cannot be] too careful,” she said. “[We cannot] give the impression to Russia that we are so afraid, that we want to defer to any Russian claims that may arise.
In this context, she again underlined the importance of European partners consolidating “our paths towards Europe, and in this sense, I think we must have a positive response on [EU] candidate status.
According to the president, Georgia cannot “allow itself a second no because it would send the wrong message to Russia, that suddenly Georgia has become a gray area…” “So I think we have to be very clear, clarity is our best defence,” added President Zurabishvili.
On Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region/S. Ossetia
Asked whether the occupied regions of Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region/South Ossetia are “lost to Georgia forever”, the President replied: “You can ask any Georgian, and no Georgian will not answer yes to this question”.
“I think that today, as ever [before]we are entering a different geopolitical world, and I think that in these separatist enclaves and regions, the attitude towards Russia has changed a lot since the invasion of Ukraine,” she underlined.
In response to a follow-up highlighting the heavy financing of these regions by Russia, the number of Russian passport holders and the anti-Georgian statements made by the rulers of the occupied regions, President Zurabishvili asserted that in light of the plans efforts to cut funding for the two regions, as well as concerns over talks over the resort town of Bishvinta, attitudes towards Russia are changing.
“If Georgia is a path to prosperity, to Europe, to democracy, it could become, and I think will become, more attractive for the younger generation of Abkhazia,” she explained.
She pointed out that, especially for those in Abkhazia who want to “own their land”, “they may not dream of joining Georgia, but they certainly don’t dream – anymore – of joining Russia”.
President Zurabishvili stressed that to work in this direction, Georgia must show, among other things, that the propaganda that Georgia might be tempted to return militarily to these regions in light of the current geopolitical situation is a “Russian lie because that Georgia wants one thing, it is to unite with these citizens, who are our citizens, and not to unite only with the territories.
Asked about the position of the Georgian government vis-à-vis Ukraine, including in terms of statements on non-adherence to sanctions or on the “ineffectiveness” of sanctionsPresident Zurabishvili said: “This is where I differ from the rhetoric because the facts are very different, Georgia has joined international financial sanctions.
Adding that Georgian banks have in fact been “too 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 it’s a matter of rhetoric, I would never do it. say that we are not part of the sanctions…”
In a follow-up on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy being “angry” with Georgia and pulling his ambassador out of the country, President Zurabishvili pointed out that President Zelensky “has been very angry at times with different countries, not just Georgia. “.
However, she pointed out: “We have a separate problem with Ukraine, which is that we have Georgians leading the Ukrainian elite, who play Georgian politics a little more than Ukrainian politics.”
In response to a question about the possibility of Georgia “never” joining NATO in light of Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region/S. With Ossetia occupied, the president stressed: “Well, never say never” because “things are changing so fast…we are preparing to join NATO, we are doing exercises with NATO, including after the start of the war in Ukraine…”
On Mikheil Saakashvili
Asked why she didn’t use her powers to pardon the jailed ex-president Mikheil Saakashviliwhose deteriorating health has been a concern for months, President Zurabishvili replied that according to Georgian law she does not have “the power for a very simple reason which is that the sentence has not been completed, she is still on trial , and it’s the law in Georgia that a pardon can’t come until it’s all over.
Pressed in a follow-up on whether she will forgive him after sentencing, she explained: “That’s another issue, I spoke at length in Georgia, why I wouldn’t because that’s a major polarizer. “
In this sense, she pointed out that “there is hardly a single family in Georgia who has not experienced what it means to have this type of autocratic rule” and remarked: “I don’t think not that I should become an instrument for further polarization…”
Nevertheless, she stressed that she did not want “an ex-president to die in prison, or to suffer irreparable consequences, and so I have been very close to monitoring all the [facts]…”
The president also added that she had publicly requested that Saakashvili be transferred abroad for further treatment, “but that is a decision that has to be made by the court.”
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