Georgia’s Location Both a Blessing and a Curse, Former US Ambassador Says

Former U.S. Ambassador to Georgia, Kenneth Yalowitz, sat down with us to talk Georgia’s foreign policy and the challenges ahead. While the former diplomat urges the West to send strong signals to Georgia, implying that it is not forgotten, he admits that the Georgian government also needs to take some measures itself.

You claim that Georgia has a difficult predicament due to its location at a strategic crossroads. What makes this location difficult?

If you look back at the history, all three South Caucasus countries were parts of something else, except for a brief period before the Soviet Union, until 1991. The reality today is that these are three small countries. Russia is a declining power, but it is still a major country; Turkey is a very important country; and, obviously, Iran is an important country. Georgia is perched right in the center of that. This location is a blessing because of it being a strategic crossroads between east-west and north-south, but it’s also a bit of a curse, because it has always been an object of invasions.

The situation today is the most concerning, particularly regarding Russia- since the war in 2008 and the occupation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. What Georgia has done since 2008 is very important and very logical. While keeping their principal part of the foreign policy to the West, the new government is trying to improve the relationship with Russia where possible. It’s a delicate balance that Georgia is trying to keep – to be sure that nobody else recognizes Abkhazia and South Ossetia and at the same time trying to deal with the Russians without giving up on their principal position on Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Considering the difficulties you just described, do you think Georgia is a good neighbor?

Yes, I do. First of all, Georgia talks with both Armenia and Azerbaijan. Georgia also has a very good relationship with Turkey. Turkey has been a very big supporter of Georgia since its independence. Further, Georgia has a good relationship with Iran. As long as that stays within the boundaries we have all set in terms of dealing with Iran, I think that it’s very much a relationship to be welcomed. Georgia also has good relations with Ukraine, also very important, because both countries are dealing with difficult issues because of Russia. The Russian relationship is very difficult. I think that’s where the United States and the EU come in. Georgia has very solid people conducting its foreign policy and they realize that to balance a great power to the north you need good relations with the European Union and with the United States. When you look at Georgian foreign policy right now, Georgia is doing everything that any foreign policy specialist would recommend.

By becoming a part of the West, Georgia may compromise or weaken European security. In your opinion, does this argument have any merit?

I don’t think so. Georgia has been promised membership [to NATO]. It's not a question of if, it's a question of when. When Georgia becomes a member of NATO, it will be decided by all member states that Georgia is a plus and can contribute to the overall security of the region.

I wouldn’t hold up hopes that this is going to happen immediately. If a MAP is not given to Georgia, which seems likely at this point, there should be a very strong expression of support for Georgia. I think this is very important.

There’s a lot of Russian-inspired propaganda that the West does not like Georgia, and the West will never make a home for Georgia. This is false. I think I can understand why people in Georgia may be wondering something along the lines of ‘what do you really think of us?’ This is why I believe that at the summit there should offer a very strong signal of support. I also argue that the Secretary of State and other leading figures should visit Georgia soon!

These kinds of things will underscore that this is a valued relationship and valued friendship and that we appreciate the military support Georgia gives to what we do in Afghanistan and Iraq. Georgia deserves acknowledgment for what it's doing.

You argue that the Western governments should show support for Georgia and signal to Tbilisi that it is not forgotten. What do you think the Georgian government should do to solicit such support from the west?

When I was an ambassador to Georgia, there was a tendency by some to blame Russians for everything that went wrong. I’d agree with some of that, but I would also say that in the end, the Georgians are the ones who need to make corrections, build solid state institutions, get rid of corruption.

There is a lot the Georgian government and the people can do. First and most important is the October parliamentary elections. The fact that Georgia had two very good elections is terrific, but what everyone wants to see is that it can now have elections without there being a question about how open, free and fair the elections were.

Another thing is the military modernization. I know that Georgia is purchasing an air defense system from France. Developing and improving defense capabilities is excellent, and also very important. However, I still hear that from the stand point of modernization and organization of the Georgian military, there is still a lot that needs to be done in terms of being interoperable with NATO. Hopefully, having the NATO training center will help in this regard.

The third issue is the economy. Georgia – statistically – is not a rich country. Prime Minister Kvirikashvili has a number of ideas to stimulate economic growth. That is absolutely crucial along with all these other things. Georgia must have a strong functioning economy. The best way Georgia is going to attract Abkhazia and South Ossetia back is not through military means but through the strength of its economy. Going through with the EU Association Agreement is vital. There’s going to be short term pain; adjustments that may hurt some industries. But every country that has joined the European Union has benefited. There may be a hard transition but Georgia will ultimately benefit from it greatly.

Ia Meurmishvili for Voice of America Georgian Service

27 June 2016 19:24