President to Defense Magazine: Georgia Has Always Been a Part of the European Family

The President of Georgia Salome Zurabishvili held an interview with the French magazine ‘Défense,’ in which she talked about Georgia's relations with France, the EU, and NATO.

The Defense magazine is a bimonthly publication by the Institut des Hautes Etudes de Défense Nationale (Institute of Higher Studies of National Defense), a public administration under the French Prime Minister's Office.

In the interview, the President pointed out that “Georgia has always been a part of the European family, from which it was separated by the Soviet occupation.”

See the English version below:

Your ancestors had to leave the country in 1921 due to the entry of Russian soldiers into Georgia. After being the Ambassador of France to Georgia, you became the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Georgia. With this status, as a result of your negotiations, Russian troops left the territory. Can you talk about such distinctive stages in your life?

My family was forced to leave Georgia in 1921 due to the Soviet occupation of Georgia, an independent, democratic republic, and move to France with most of the political diaspora fleeing the communist regime.

We were convinced from childhood that Georgia would gain independence; the question "if" was never asked, we thought - "when?" (It would happen).

After studying at Science Po and Columbia University, I joined the French diplomatic service in the 1970s and worked in Rome, New York, N'Djamena, Vienna and Brussels until 2003, when I became the Ambassador of France to Georgia.

After the Rose Revolution, when a new government came to Georgia, I was appointed Minister of Foreign Affairs. My appointment was distinguished by a double agreement from the President of Georgia and the President of France.

The fact that I was born outside the Soviet Union and received a Western education certainly played a major role in my choices and priorities - moving towards Europe and NATO, normalizing relations with Russia through negotiations on the withdrawal of Russian military bases. The agreement we negotiated with my Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, was implemented, and in 2005 I witnessed how the last ship with Russian armored vehicles left Batumi, the place from which my family had to leave Georgia in 1921 during the entry of Russian occupation troops. It was a historic blink of an eye...

At that time, no-one would have thought that I would return first as Minister of Foreign Affairs and then, on the 100th anniversary of Georgia's independence, as the elected President of Georgia, the first female president of a country that had already elected five women to the first Constituent Assembly a century earlier.

In November 2018, you were elected President of Georgia. With this status, your first visit took place in Brussels, and then in Paris. What relations does Georgia have with France, especially in the field of defense?

For Georgia, France is not just a country guiding the European values we share and respect. France is our old friend, with whom we have an in-depth relationship on a number of issues. After the Red Army invaded Georgia, France was the country that received the Georgian government in exile and recognized the new USSR without recognizing the annexation of Georgia until 1934, when the Georgian representation had to be closed following an agreement under the Laval-Litvinov Pact. We remember President Sarkozy's crucial involvement in 2008. He took part in the ceasefire talks when Russian troops invaded Georgia.

Shortly after I was elected as President, one of my first visits was to Paris, where I signed the Declaration of Dimitri Amilakhvari Georgian-French Dialogue with President Macron, which established a new format for dialogue in terms of policy, diplomacy, culture, education, security and defense between Tbilisi and Paris.

I should mention that the military relationship between France and Georgia is a relationship between two strategic partners. Within the framework of cooperation between the Georgian National Defense Academy and the Saint-Cyr military military school, students regularly participate in exchange programs. Georgia works with French military-industrial enterprises, as well as cooperating with NATO. Of course, we appreciate France's participation in the NATO military exercises in Georgia, and we hope that these exercises will be further expanded next year.

The Sachkhere Mountain Training School in Georgia, which operates near the occupation line, was equipped and developed with the help of France. The Georgian army is participating in international security missions in support of France, specifically in Mali and the Central African Republic.

Our relations with France also cover the fields of education, culture and economy. Last year, we welcomed the entry of Air France into the Georgian market, and although we are very careful about opening international flights, Air France continues to operate direct flights between the two countries.

Much more can be said, however, I would add one thing, France and Georgia will continue to work together as two friends and strategic partner countries.

Do you believe in the European destiny of Georgia? In other words, is Georgia's integration into the EU a realistic project?

Of course! Georgia has always been a European state and our integration into the European Union is nothing more than return to our large European family, separated from us by the Soviet occupation.

Today, the EU faces many big challenges. The COVID-19 pandemic is unequivocally the newest and toughest challenge, and it will change the future of Europe. This pandemic forced Europe to decide whether to confront this tragedy alone, or with international solidarity.

However, Europe is a history of institutions that can rise from the ashes of challenges. Each crisis of the past has seen a stronger, more united, and future-oriented Europe emerging. Pandemics are no exception.

I understand that now in Brussels may not yet be a suitable time to make a political decision on new candidates. During this waiting period, to achieve sectoral integration in Europe, we will knock on all the doors and turn over each stone.

Georgia already enjoys a deep and comprehensive free trade agreement with the EU, visa-free travel to the Schengen area, the Association Agreement and, at the same time, is one of the key members of the Eastern Partnership. Europe is Georgia's main trading partner and thousands of our students benefit from the Erasmus program every year. We are fully prepared for the next stage.

Last year, I proposed an "ad hoc" integration system that would allow us to start negotiations on accession chapters before we get candidate status. This is a pragmatic approach that deserves discussion. So, yes, Georgia's integration into the European Union is not only a realistic project, but also our only perspective. The EU has no alternative for us!

How possible is it for Georgia to join NATO, when the country has a 700 km border with Russia?

Georgia's membership in NATO is one of the issues on which the Georgian people have a common opinion. Each poll shows that at least 70% of Georgians of all political backgrounds want to join NATO. On the other hand, the sentiments are clear: Georgia has been one of NATO's closest and most reliable partners for years. Secretary General Ian Stoltenberg confirmed that Georgia will sooner or later join the Alliance.

This year, northern Macedonia became the 30th member of NATO, which shows that there is a desire to expand the alliance and we are in a privileged position. We are constantly adapting to the NATO military spending standard, constantly updating our defense capabilities, and the Georgian Armed Forces is one of the Alliance's largest contributors to the Mission in Afghanistan.

Yes, in 2008 we had to confront Russia in an unequal and tragic war; Yes, we still have to live with unresolved conflicts, which include human rights abuses, large-scale occupation, and the borderization of our territory. However, Russia has not achieved its main goal, it has not been able to divert us from the road to the West. Georgia has proved its resilience. The resilience that has shaped our identity for centuries and of which we are proud.

Georgia is closer to NATO than ever before, and the international community is constantly making statements in support of our national sovereignty, territorial integrity and Euro-Atlantic integration. Our allies have also stated that no third country will be able to veto our path.

Since 2008, 20% of Georgia (the [Tskhinvali] South Ossetia and Abkhazia regions) have been occupied by Russian troops. Does the conflict remain frozen if there is a possibility of resolving it?

It is difficult to qualify this conflict frozen when we see what is happening directly on the ground. Dozens of Georgians have died after the checkpoints were closed due to lack of access to health services, and our citizens are being held hostage in their homes. Human rights abuses have become a daily struggle, while borderization continues to alienate families.

These processes are still going on, despite Secretary-General Antonio Guterres' call for a ceasefire around the world during the pandemic. However, this pandemic has shown the people living in the occupied territories that Georgia will be able to manage the global crisis and deserve the praise of the international community. Georgian hospitals received patients from the occupied territories and received international assistance through Georgia.

Ultimately, the only way to resolve the conflict is through dialogue. We know that war is not the solution, and Georgia has chosen the path of peace. The Geneva International Talks played a crucial role in maintaining the dialogue, although it became too technical and did not allow for the discussion of key issues.

That is why I call for the transition to a more political stage in the negotiations. Diplomacy and dialogue can help us solve the biggest problems. In 2005, we were able to withdraw Russian military bases from Georgia through dialogue. To resolve this conflict, we need political dialogue, under the supervision of our Western partners.

I am hopeful!

This is not the first case of occupation of Georgia, yet we always find our unity. To me, during President Steinmeier's visit to Georgia last year, the part of the Berlin Wall delivered was very symbolic. If Europe divided by the Iron Curtain was able to unite and become stronger, Georgia will be able to do the same! 

Translated by Ana Dumbadze 

Interview with the French publication Défense

14 October 2020 11:10