Interview with Nikoloz Khatiashvili on the Georgian foreign policy, Eastern Partnership and future of the country.
Within the Eastern Partnership, Georgia has started to orient itself towards the West. What opportunities did the Eastern Partnership offer, what opportunities did Georgia successfully exploit?
Eastern Partnership is one of the most important initiatives by the EU. This decision was accelerated by the Russian aggression against Georgia in 2008. During this war, Georgia had paid a heavy price – Georgian people were punished for their historical choice to become a part of European and Euro-Atlantic space. As a result, the Eastern Partnership created new opportunities not only for Georgia, but also for Ukraine, Moldova and other participant countries (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus). Only 3 of these 6 countries managed to successfully implement reforms and commitments and obtain such tangible results as visa liberalization, free trade and association agreement. These achievements took Georgia-EU relations to a completely new and qualitatively higher level. For now, the Eastern Partnership has almost exhausted its potential and countries such Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine, which are front-runners in reforms have formed an “Associate Trio”. This format represents a kind of continuation of the Eastern Partnership, in order to accelerate the process of rapprochement of these three countries with the European Union.
At the same time, the Eastern Partnership has been overwhelmed by the war in Ukraine. What has changed in Georgian foreign policy in the last nine months?
Before the war in Ukraine, Georgia was planning to apply for EU candidate status in 2024, but the current geopolitical situation has accelerated many processes, including the EU accession issues. Ukraine is on the front line, and we must admit that Ukrainians are fighting not only for the freedom of their own country, but also for the European Security and values. It is not a war between Russia and Ukraine, it is confrontation between the values. On one side there is freedom, democracy, development, independence and progress and on the other side is authoritarianism, imperialism, violence and regress. Georgia was, is and will always remain devoted to European aspirations and values. It is Ukraine's achievement that a new reality has emerged. A new window of opportunities has opened and Georgia has received European perspective sooner that it was expected and has a chance to become EU member candidate state for the next year.
Russian-Georgian relations have been cool since 2008, but Russian immigration to Georgia is significant. What kind of relationship with Moscow is worth cultivating in the current situation?
For this moment, Georgia-Russia relations consist only of trade, culture and humanitarian issues. After the 2008 Russia-Georgia war, when Russia recognized the so-called independence of the occupied territories of Georgia, the Georgian government cut diplomatic ties with Russia. The only official format where political issues are discussed is Geneva International Discussions, where our partners from the US and EU are engaged. The Georgian government has taken number of constructive steps to de-escalate the situation in order to have a positive impact on the Geneva Talks. Unfortunately, there was no progress in terms of political settlement. Russia continues destructive actions and prevents the effective work of the Geneva format. Restoration of full-fledged relations with Russia is only possible after the DE occupation of Georgian territories and withdrawal of Russian troops from Georgian territories. Everyone including the Russian Federation, is obliged to respect the norms of international law and the basic principle of recognizing the country's territorial integrity and sovereignty. There is also an unofficial format, the so-called "Abashidze-Karasin" format, where special representatives from Georgia and Russia discuss only trade, cultural and humanitarian issues.
Is it possible that, if Russia weakens its report, Georgia will reconquer South Ossetia and Abkhazia?
The ongoing war in Ukraine and the sanctions imposed by the West are having a negative impact on Russia. This process will significantly weaken Russia in the long term. Nevertheless, Georgia does not intend to return the occupied territories by forceful means. The government of Georgia plans to restore territorial integrity, resolve this conflict and unify Georgia only peacefully, within the framework of international law. The Georgian government has declared a peace policy, which is supported by the whole West. For years, Georgia has been implementing the peace policy aimed at restoring trust with the population living across the occupation line. Therefore, when the appropriate time comes, the issue of the occupied territories of Georgia will be resolved only through peaceful means and dialogue. The peace policy has no alternative.
The European Council is ready to grant candidate country status to Georgia. What happens next? Decades of stasis as in the case of Turkey or rapid and effective European integration?
I do not think that it is right to draw parallels with Turkey. Georgia was always a part of Europe, both historically and culturally. Turkey is a large country with large population, and it has always been more difficult for large countries to join the EU than for the smaller ones like Georgia. Georgia’s, in case of its membership, will not have any important influence on the decision-making process in the EU, while the Turkey's being the most populated state in the EU will have great impact in the decision making. Therefore, accession of influential and powerful states to the EU meet more difficulties. In terms of reforms, it is much easier for small states like Georgia to carry out reforms. Therefore, I think that the cases of Georgia and Turkey are significantly different from each other. I suppose that if Georgia will fulfil all obligations issued by the EU, there will not be any obstacles to grant EU membership to Georgia.
What are relations with Armenia and Azerbaijan in the light of the Armenian-Azerbaijani war?
Georgia has a strategic partnership with Azerbaijan, as well as good and friendly relations with Armenia. Georgia's current relations with its neighbors - Turkey, Azerbaijan and Armenia are at high historical level. There is strong trust and respect for Tbilisi in Baku and Yerevan. Taking into consideration the above mentioned, Georgia has a real potential to effectively mediate the normalization of relations between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Georgia has already proven this several times. With the facilitation of Georgia, Armenian prisoners were exchanged for the maps of mined areas on the territory of Azerbaijan. Also, Tbilisi hosted the foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan. It should be underlined that during the European Political Union Summit in Prague, the President of Azerbaijan – Ilham Alyev stated that it will be very important to establish a common platform for Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia, which will ensure peace and stability in the South Caucasus. It is expected that this format will be established in the nearest future, which on the one hand will contribute to peace and stability in the Caucasus region, and on the other hand will increase the role of Georgia as a regional player. In case of establishment of the mentioned format, it will be interesting to create the parliamentary dimension within the framework of it, where legislators of the three countries will be involved.
How economically significant is China's influence in Georgia? How much is the New Silk Road project affecting the country?
Compared to other countries, China does not have any major economic influence in Georgia, despite a free trade agreement between China and Georgia. As for investments, China is not distinguished by large investments in Georgia. Therefore, we can say that China has no significant influence in Georgia at this moment. As for the New Silk Road, it certainly has great potential in terms of transit. Amid the ongoing war in Ukraine, the turnover of goods from Central and Far Asia to Europe have increased significantly through Georgia. Asian countries see that trust in Russia is decreasing, and the safest and most profitable path to Europe lies on Georgia. I can say the same about energy resources. Georgia has the appropriate infrastructure through which it is possible to transport even greater amount of goods and energy resources from Asia to Europe. We have also relevant expertise to manage this process. I think that the capacity will be increased significantly in the upcoming years, which will have a positive impact on Georgian economy and the development of the country. Also, it should be mentioned, that in recent months, the EU’s strategic goal has been to reduce dependence on Russian energy resources, and to achieve this goal, the best way is to find alternative energy supply chains. One of the best supply routes lie along the Azerbaijan-Georgia-Turkiye corridor, through which the energy resources of the Caspian basin and Central Asia can be transported to Europe. We have already seen an increase in Azerbaijan’s gas supplies to Europe via the Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum gas pipeline. Generally, the role of the South Caucasus is emerging. I hope that this tendency will continue and soon, we will see new projects, which will connect more closely East and West.
Nikoloz Khatiashvili is a Foreign and Security Policy Research Fellow at one of the leading think tanks in Georgia, Geocase. The main areas of his interests include international security, international relations and diplomacy, intelligence and counterintelligence, national security, and terrorism.