Georgia has accused Russia of having occupied 20 percent of its territory. In an interview with DW's Zhanna Nemtsova, Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili talked about relations between the two countries.
DW: What is Georgia's strategy to reintegrate the territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia?
Giorgi Margvelashvili: The occupation [of South Ossetia and Abkhazia – DW] was a historic injustice and kind of punishment for what my nation has done serving the ideals of freedom and independence. The real occupation of these territories did not happen only in 2008 when Russian regular military forces have entered the Georgian territory. It really happened at the beginning of the 90s, from the very start of the breakdown of the Soviet Union, when Georgia determined its independent path. Since the beginning of the 90s, we have experienced what we are now calling hybrid warfare. It is now is very familiar to Europeans as it is something that is happening in eastern Ukraine where you have the presence of Russian interests, military interests not with regular forces. South Ossetia and Abkhazia have been occupied since the beginning of the 90s. In 2008, this occupation led to a regular Russian military force entering and occupying the region and in two weeks declaring the independence of the so-called states.
But what exactly you are doing to restore territorial integrity and to reintegrate these territories?
First of all, we have to be very cautious and patient. We are dealing with Russia and Russia has its aggressive periods and probably sometimes more constructive periods. What any country that deals with Russia — and especially in this problematic neighborhood — should do is to be very cautious maintain peace and not fall for any kind of provocation with our northern neighbor, which has huge military power as a nuclear state. You have to wait for a historic moment when you can reintegrate your statehood and sovereignty.
What do you mean by "historic moment?"
Historical moment means the fall of the Berlin Wall. A moment when there is a possibility to destroy artificial walls built in Europe. Those barbed wires on our soil are the analogy to what the Berlin Wall was in the middle of the city. Until that moment comes, you have to keep up morale; you have to develop the state. You have to build personal connections with your citizens in the occupied territories. You have to integrate them as much as you can into your social network and you have to build stability which will be spread as soon as the historic moment comes.
When you refer to the fall of the Berlin Wall you refer to history. In modern terms does this mean the fall of the current Russian political regime?
I would say that for me it means the moment when the Russian political elite is ready to talk not in slogans and rhetoric or aggressive declarations, but when it is ready to talk about Russian citizens and their interests. How do they see their future in Russia, and in the Russian-Georgian ties.
Some Georgian politicians have said what happened in South Ossetia and Abkhazia is very different from what happened with Crimea, which was annexed by Russia in 2014. Do you share this opinion?
When you look at 2008 and the response to Russia, at how the international community responded to this issue, I think we were all not very active. If we had replied with a very firm "no" in 2008 to something that was clearly defined as the policy of the privileged interest of Russia in its neighborhood, then we would not have Crimea, we would not have eastern Ukraine.
But do the cases of South Ossetia and Abkhazia differ from that of Crimea?
There are lots of similarities. I mean the difference is that they [leaders in Moscow - DW] have directly identified Crimea as part of Russian territory. This is, of course, unprecedented because since the World War II there has been no case when one state has used the military to change its borders. There are differences, but the concept, the general concept is the same. It is not a secret. It's an issue that has been clearly and bluntly discussed by Russian politicians since 2010.
It's a policy of privileged interests in its [Russia's – DW] neighborhood. That means that any time there is any complication in the Russian neighborhood, Russia declares the right to act in these areas with harsh military force. This is the policy that has been declared by the Kremlin. In this respect, the cases are the same. We cannot be sure that this will not be replicated in other places of Russian influence. Russia has the biggest border in the world, so you can imagine the number of potential problems that we're talking about.
As a country, what is Georgia's strategic choice: Move closer to the European Union and the NATO or improve relations with Russia?
We are waiting for the moment when we will have the opportunity to sit down with Russian politicians and talk about the future, to talk about how Georgian and Russian citizens can benefit from cooperation between the two countries. But I do not agree that being cooperative with the EU or being cooperative with NATO means attacking Russian foreign policy interests. This is the paradigm that has been very effectively billed by the Russian political leadership.
About seven years ago, Russia and NATO had a very intensive Russian-NATO format. Russia, as a country, has huge investments and cooperation with Europe. Russia is an important factor for European energy policy. A confrontation with Europe damages Russia economically, if not politically.
But what is the Georgian strategy? Cooperate with Russia or cooperate with the European Union?
The same goes for Georgia. We cooperate with all our neighbors. Georgia's foreign policy, Georgia's geopolitical role is in active cooperation projects. We see our geopolitical identity and role in connecting the eastern and western markets, in creating communication. The same applies to Russia. We would be happy to cooperate. But there is one very important principle: Russia has to accept the reality that Georgia is an independent state and that we will be building its future.
Many see Georgia as having choose between closer ties to Europe or Russia
Has the strategy towards Russia changed since your predecessor, Mikhail Saakashvili, was in office? You are taking a softer stance with Russia right now.
I will not go into details of comparing the policies but we are very tentative when it comes to our approach to Russia. It is the right policy to be very careful when you are dealing with your aggressive nuclear neighbor. But we have never retreated from our main principles: Georgia is a free and independent state, it has a European and Euro-Atlantic choice. Georgia is developing its statehood, and Georgia is an independent and sovereign country. This has never varied.
Many people say that the real power in Georgia is concentrated in the hands of billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili. Is this true?
I think that you have to discuss that with the people who are alleged to be under his influence.
Who is under his influence?
You have to research that as a journalist. You are talking with a person who has had zero contact with Ivanishvili since becoming president. We have not communicated since January 2014, and I make my decision based on my political values.
Are you going to run in the 2018 presidential election?
When I have a decision I'll have a special event to announce it.
Giorgi Margvelashvili was elected president of Georgia in 2013 as a candidate from billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili's Georgian Dream coalition. He also served as Georgia's education minister and as an adviser to Ivanishvili during the parliamentary election campaign in 2012.