Russia's invasion of Ukraine has revealed fault lines in Georgia. Many in the country strongly condemn Russia, but some pro-Russian voices have positioned the country as a Kremlin ally. In an exclusive interview with Ukrainska Pravda, Georgian President Salomé Zourabichvili draws the line on what side of history her country will ultimately stand.
TBLISI — The capital of Georgia feels like a Ukrainian city. Tbilisi is covered not only with Ukrainian flags but also with slogans in support of Kyiv, which has been facing down an invasion from the two country's respective Russian neighbor.
You can feel the solidarity even more strongly when speaking with the residents of the Georgian capital. They all admire the Ukrainian resistance, help Ukrainian refugees, and can recite by heart the names of Georgian volunteer soldiers who have lost their lives fighting for Ukraine since the beginning of the full-scale Russian invasion. They also often apologize for the Georgian government and Parliament, which have lately been drifting openly towards Russia’s side.
The Customs Office reports that the volume of trade between Georgia and Russia has increased by almost 22% since the beginning of the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine. Georgia is also considered one of the countries that is helping Russia to evade Western sanctions, and recently Moscow and Tbilisi have resumed direct flights between the two countries, which, according to Georgia’s Prime Minister, Irakli Garibashvili, is "nothing unusual".
These flights are being carried out by Azimuth Airlines, which also operates flights to the Russian-occupied Crimean peninsula, so this move cannot be called "friendly" towards Ukraine. Reportedly, the Office of the President of Ukraine even considered implementing sanctions against the Georgian officials responsible for adopting this decision.
The arrest two years ago of Mikheil Saakashvili, the Georgian President from 2004-2013, does not speak well of official Georgian-Ukrainian relations either. Volodymyr Zelensky, the President of Ukraine, has on several occasions called for the former Georgian leader to be allowed to go abroad for medical treatment.
These are the reasons why Ukrainska Pravda decided to speak with Salomé Zourabichvili, the President of Georgia. The daughter of Georgian political emigrants, she built a brilliant diplomatic career in France.
In 2004, after Saakashvili was elected president of Georgia, she became the country’s Minister of Foreign Affairs. Yet, in 2005 Zourabichvili turned strongly against Saakashvili. She won the presidential elections in Georgia in 2018 thanks to the support of Bidzina Ivanishvili, one of the main Georgian oligarchs and a former leader of the Georgian Dream political party.
In an interview for Ukrainska Pravda, Zourabishvili reflects on the future of Georgia’s European integration and on Saakashvili’s fate, and reveals why she has not visited Ukraine and whether Georgia is prepared to use military means to reclaim its Russian-occupied territories.
Zourabishvili also makes very clear how she believes this all will end:
– So, thank you for your time. Our countries have a very long history of collaboration, friendship and mutual assistance, and actually in 2008, our president was the first political leader who came to Georgia when Russian tanks were very close to Tbilisi. How would you describe our relations since the war started in one word?
– In one word? Not up to the standards of our history. The feelings, mutual feelings of our population, which is something that I've always seen and was impressed by even long before the war: that each time you go to Ukraine or you meet with Ukrainians or Ukrainians who are here, there is this feeling of mutual real friendship, not something that is created.
I think it's due to the fact that we have gone through many of the same things, not only recent history, but the past two centuries and more. We have experienced the same developments and that really creates a lot of mutual understanding.
And I personally can remember in my previous life when I was in France as the daughter of a Georgian emigrant and we had many struggles in common with the Ukrainian young people. Each time a Soviet leader came to Paris and we were demonstrating together; sometimes we were arrested together. So that creates many, many bonds.
And there were these international organizations in which Georgians and Ukrainians, as representatives of countries that were within the Soviet Union, were very much linked together. So, these are old ties.
No Kyiv invite
– A lot of Western leaders have come to Ukraine to show solidarity. But you have not visited Ukraine since the war started. Why?
– Well, I've been ready all the time to come, and I'm ready today. So, if you can pass on the message, I can come tomorrow.
– But why do you think Zelenskyy has not invited you?
– It's not personal, and I think that it's what we have described as the not completely satisfactory relations at this stage between the governmental circles. So in a way I'm experiencing the aftershock of that, but yet again, [I'm] ready, and I'm sure that we will have an occasion. I hope that the occasion will come with the Crimean platform.
– Have you received an invitation?
– Not yet. I think it hasn't been organized yet.
March 11, 2023, Munich, Bavaria, Germany: As Russia pounds cities across Ukraine with waves of missiles, Ukrainians and Germans made demands for peace and the immediate withdrawal of Russia from Ukrainian territory.
Occupied by Russia
– I don't want to speak on behalf of Ukrainian authorities or the Ukrainian president, but I want to speak on behalf of Ukrainian society. Ukrainian society loves Georgians and they support Georgians in many ways. But at the same time, unfortunately, over the last 16 months, Ukrainians think that the Georgian authorities have drifted towards Russia, and there is some evidence of that as well. Even with the recent decision to resume flights between Tbilisi and Moscow, there was a big public reaction in Ukraine to this.
And the question is not only because you restored the flights. The question is because this flight will be operated by Azimuth, a company which also flies to occupied Crimea, unfortunately. Do you consider this a betrayal of not only Ukraine, but also Georgia, where part of the country (Abkhazia and South Ossetia) is still occupied by the Russians?
– I have objected publicly and very seriously to this step, as I have to many of the other steps that I think are not in line with the Georgian vision of its future, the Georgian vision of who its partners are. I think there is a clear distance that is growing, I would say, between the expressions at least of the Georgian authorities and what the will of the people is, which in a way I represent much more closely than they do today. So I'm still very optimistic because I think that the Georgian people have not changed.
– But do you consider the sanctioning of Georgian officials to be the right step from the Ukrainian side?
– As the President of the country, I cannot possibly promote sanctions against my country and its authorities.
Whatever my views, and in some cases I oppose the decisions taken, I would certainly not do such a thing, because I think that it would be detrimental to the country. My main concern is that the country goes in the direction that it has always wanted to go, which is very much at hand. It's at hand thanks to the Ukrainians and the Ukrainian struggle to overcome Russian aggression.
We would never have been so close to the European Union if it were not for the struggle of the Ukrainian people. I think that the Georgian people understand that very well and are very grateful for that, because it's a path on which they set foot as early as independence started, and they have never varied, and my strong conviction is that they will never vary. I'm convinced that we will join the European Union together. Maybe not at exactly the same time, but together we will be on the other side. It's that conviction that I expressed just last week in the European Parliament, and it's not words: it's what I'm genuinely convinced of.
I don't think that just some political views and some members of a government can change the profound aspiration of the people. And this government which we have today in Georgia has been elected by the Georgian people on that programme, that of joining the European Union as fast as possible. And that's what we have in the constitution which I'm trying to defend – not trying to, I will defend it.
– What will the next steps to restore some ties with Russia be? There are rumors that maybe you will also restore the rail connection with Russia. And that means that Abkhazia will also be part of this route. And Abkhazia is still under Russian control.
– I think there are many rumors. I think that basically, Russia has felt that there is some room for maneuver and they are now poking – it's very typical of Russian tactics. They are losing the war with you. In my view, they've already lost on many grounds – political, psychological, international. They have not completely lost militarily yet, but that is something that is going to come. There is no other outcome of this situation.
So sensing that, they have at the same time received some ambiguous, to say the least, signals from the Georgian authorities, and now they're poking to see how far they can go. And that's what I've always said, that as soon as Russia feels that there is no determination, which is not the same thing as confrontation… I understand that Georgia is occupied and cannot pursue a policy of confrontation by itself, but it should be very determined.
Any lack of determination encourages Russia to try to test how far it can go. That's what we are seeing. So, they've poked with these flights. Now they're maybe going to try the railway. They're going to try other things. I think that what is very important is that we show our determination.
– Since we have raised the issue of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the official position of the Georgian government is "We will reclaim these territories in a peaceful way." But how is it possible in the current circumstances? For me, it's just like a statement. And is it true that representatives of the Ukrainian government are actually asking Georgia to open a kind of second front with this?
– I think that anybody that understands anything about strategic matters knows that it doesn't make sense. So, there might be some people that say some things, whether in Ukraine or here – more here, but sometimes also in Ukraine, which I will not comment on because I don't think that you should comment on people that are at war.
But, there is no sense in (opening) a second front. And that's something that our partners, the Western partners, know very well.
But I think that there is a very good outcome and prospect for the occupied territories of Georgia because I'm convinced, as I told you, that Ukraine will win the war. I'm convinced that Ukraine will win the war by recovering its sovereignty on its territory completely and that it will not leave any way to the frozen conflicts or things like that; we have known in the past what that means.
My strong position, the position I tell our European and American partners, is that these peace talks or whatever form the negotiations at the end will take, when Ukraine decides that it wants to sit at the table to finalize what a victory would be at that time, at that time, I'm sure that it's in the interest of the whole of Europe to ask Russia to abandon all occupied territory.
For one very simple reason, and I'm not talking here as a Georgian only (of course I am talking as a Georgian). Because if Russia does not recognize once and for all that it cannot occupy territories of its neighbors, smaller or bigger, then Russia will remain Russia. And after five years, ten years, 15 years, it will start over with something of the same kind, because it will keep this imperial ambition.
The only way is to force Russia to recognize these limits to its power, which are borders (that's what every other country in the world does), to accept its own borders and to live within its borders. And I think that unless our European and American partners, when they take part in these negotiations, impose that upon Russia, then in 15 years they will be saying the same thing as they are saying about the 2008 war in Georgia, about the wars earlier in 1991, 1992 or Crimea in 2014 "We should have known, we should have been more outspoken, we should have been stronger."
So that will be a very decisive moment for European history, for democracy, for the freedom of this continent, and for the way the future Russia will look.
RUSSIA, TBILISI - MAY 26, 2023: People attend a celebration of Independence Day in Shota Rustaveli Avenue
Plea for pardon
– So you don't believe in a military way of reclaiming these territories?
– No, we don't.
– But how do you see the impact of Georgia helping Ukraine retake its territories? I know that we have a lot of military volunteers from Georgia. How else can you help Ukraine liberate territories?
– We have had our wars, as I said, three times we've had Russian aggressions, and we do not have the means. We have Russian tanks 30 kilometers from Tbilisi. So, there are constraints – that's something that the authorities sometimes use for other reasons. But that part is true, that we have these constraints. So for us, the military option does not exist, and there is no second front that can help Ukraine.
Ukraine has the depths of the territory, has its own military resources and has a completely different potential. Georgia as a country, I think, is very important to Ukraine because it is a population that has lived through that, understands that and is totally supportive of the real plight that Ukraine is going through.
– Another question that worries Ukrainians is the arrest of Mikhail Saakashvili: you know that he's a Ukrainian citizen as well. And Volodymyr Zelensky has addressed you many times and asked the Georgian authorities to return him to Ukraine, to provide him with medical supplies, etc. Why do you refuse to pardon him? Do you feel any pressure from the outside on this issue?
– Because I'm accountable, first of all, to the Georgian people. As a president I have to take into consideration what the feeling of the Georgian people is. The Georgian people lived through nine years of the Saakashvili regime, which has left many victims. It's an issue that has polarized and still polarizes the Georgian population. It's not that the Georgian population considers that he is not guilty.
They might not agree with the fact that he may not be being treated as a president should be. They are very humane. Georgians are very tolerant. So, the feeling of the population is that he has to pay for some of the crimes that were committed during his regime. But that is the feeling in general. But at the same time, there is a feeling that he should be treated decently and that a solution should be found. I note that there has been no request for extradition. All of that is the responsibility of the government.
Pardoning is a moral issue that I'm accountable for to the people, and of different kinds. But I've been working with the diplomatic community and with my contacts in Europe and trying to work with the authorities to find a solution that will be more in line with the way an ex-president should be treated.
Friendship at risk
– But do you feel that this will also help to destroy the friendship between Ukraine and Georgia?
I hope not, and I think not. I think that our relations are above that. It's a very serious issue because it involves a former president. But again, the first judge in all this issue is the Georgian population that went through those years. It's always very difficult from outside the country to judge how a regime has affected or not affected the population. So that should also probably be taken into consideration. And I'm sure that we can find it.
– And has Volodymyr Zelensky asked you personally to pardon Saakashvili?
Well, many people have been asking me personally, but I explained to those people that pardoning is not the outcome of that because of the Georgian population. But there are other ways, and if there is pressure, the pressure should be applied where the responsibility lies and where the power lies to do something to change, for instance, I mentioned an electronic tag. All of that lies with the authorities to find ways that are more in line with what is done in the outside world.
This issue is not new. There are many presidents of many countries that have been sentenced, and sometimes we hear from other countries that it's happening. But there are also ways of dealing with the issue that are accepted, and we should be more in line with that.
– I can't help but ask a question about my colleague, journalist Nika Gwaramia, who was also sentenced to three and a half years in a Georgian prison. And there are a lot of statements from different organizations and journalists' organizations as well. You don't pardon him, but it's kind of a different situation from Saakashvili.
– It's a completely different situation. The one issue that is similar [among the cases], is that the President cannot pardon under pressure, because then pressure can be exerted from within. There are, I think, 3,000 inmates at this stage. Any one of those families, friends or influence groups can start exerting pressure. So it's a decision that falls to me. I feel the responsibility and I will act upon it. I take full responsibility and I will act when I decide either to do it or not to do it.
But the less pressure from outside, the better for pardoning. Putting pressure on authorities, and asking for answers – that's a different thing. But, the pardoning – the discretionary power cannot become an issue for pressure.
– But do you think it's a real danger for Georgian democracy, to prosecute journalists?
– I think there are many dangers at this point for Georgian democracy. Of course I'm in favor of freedom of expression.
I have myself been the target of very excessive words from this journalist, who was not only a journalist: he was also a prosecutor at different times, and not a prosecutor that administered real justice. But people are not responsible for other things than what they are sentenced for, and I think that freedom of expression is probably the one right that we should all defend.
– Of course, I want to ask about the Bucharest Summit and our desire, I mean Ukraine and Georgia's desire, to become a part of NATO. Unfortunately, in 2008 we were rejected by some political leaders in Europe. It's still a big issue, a big story for Ukraine. We know that there's only one way to protect ourselves in the future – that's NATO membership. But it looks as if Georgia has given up on membership?
– I think that you are getting confused between Georgia, using the word "Georgia", and some declarations by some politicians. At no time does any politician represent this country and the will of the country, especially what goes against what has been demonstrated over and over again by the population. All our opinion polls from the very day of independence, all our presidents that we had since independence, have been in favor of and working towards the Euro-Atlantic integration. So, there is no one person or a few people that can change that. So, the orientation of Georgia is, again, inscribed in the Constitution.
If some people make statements that are against the Constitution, then that's an internal domestic problem in Georgia. But it's not a signal that Georgia is changing its orientation. Now, I'm sure that Ukraine is going to progress on that path probably faster, and rightly so, than Georgia because of what it has shown in recent months. I know that there are talks about security guarantees in advance of the next Vilnius summit. I hope very much that this will happen because that will be one step further on the road towards integration in NATO.
I think that one of the main victories of Ukraine has been to change the approach and attitude of these countries, to make them understand the real nature of Russia, and to make them understand that this fear or ambivalent attitude of Europe as a whole was not a possible answer to the Russia that they have discovered is Russia today.
GEORGIA, TBILISI - MAY 26, 2023: Georgia's President Salome Zourabichvili (on screen) speaks during a celebration of Independence Day in Liberty Square.
– Ukraine has been paying a very high price to be part of the European Union for the last 16 months. At the same time, different events have been taking place in Georgia. You supported protesters who were against implementing the law on foreign agents. Thank you for that, I think it was a very important step from your side. So do you feel that Georgia has become closer to the European Union at the same time?
– I think that yes, we have preoccupying gestures from the authorities, but at the same time, I think that for the large part of the population that is definitely in favor of European integration, this European integration, thanks again to Ukraine, has become something real. Until now, in the previous year, there was this movement towards Europe and in fact we passed Association, visa liberalization.
Not even two years ago, I was receiving President Zelensky, [Moldovan] President Sandu and President Michel here, and we were this successful Association Trio that was moving towards the European Union, and there was not this feeling that Georgia was backsliding or something. So this movement was always there. But I think that with the Ukrainian struggle and what Ukraine has shown in terms of resolve, this has forced the door of the European Union. And what was a long-term prospect has suddenly become something that is at hand.
That's why there are these vivid reactions in the Georgian population that we have seen on the streets and that we might see again, because they think that it's there and we might be missing it. I don't want to miss it because some people are making the wrong decisions at the wrong time. So that's the paradox that we are living in.
Levels of victory
– You told us already, but I will repeat the question again. How do you see Ukrainian victory? And what will the victory of Ukraine mean for the Georgian people and for you as President of Georgia?
– Well, it won't only be a victory for the Georgian people. It will be fo the whole of Europe , because I think that everybody now understands what Russia is. I think maybe they don't understand very well what it would mean if this Russia were to win. We understand what it will mean; we, as Georgians. who have gone through the same battles.
– What will it mean? The occupation of Georgia?
– Well, I don't know how it will manifest. That's very difficult. I don't think that they will win. But, the victory will be that of Georgia, of all the European countries, and it will be the victory for starting a new European security architecture. What is very interesting is that again it's thanks to Ukraine.
I mean, you have already changed the world today. Europe has become Europe. I've worked as a French diplomat, as you know, and I know how difficult it is. I've worked on issues of European security, European defence. All that was moving very, very slowly, with many obstacles and not much conviction that Europe should become a real military power of its own. Now that's a fact.
– And how do you see the role of Georgia in this future security architecture?
– I think that Georgia can play an important role because we are, together with you and together with Romania, Bulgaria, and Turkey, we are the Black Sea. And again, Europe used to consider the Black Sea as some faraway frontier, and beyond that, there was some terra incognita.
Now they have recognized that the Black Sea is very much part of the security of Europe and of NATO. Both organizations are, in fact, working on Black Sea strategies, which shows how much it has become part of their own security. And so that's one very important element. And if this shore of the Black Sea is not a country that is linked to the European Union and to NATO, then that's a problem for the Black Sea's security.
The other thing is that, of course, the Black Sea is not only a security space: it's also a space for connectivity, for transit. And now it's clear that Russia is blocked away, and the new transit lines are coming through the Caucasus, through Turkey, and through the Black Sea again. And Central Asian countries are very eager to establish their links with the European Union without being dependent on Russian routes.
So, all of that is a new world that is being… not constructed yet but is in prospect. And all of that is [because of] you.
– I hope it will happen soon, very soon. We all dream about it. And thank you for everything.
– All my best wishes and my conviction.