2010.04.29: Georgia RPCV Michael Hikari Cecire writes: An Interview with Giorgi Kvelashvili

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Georgia RPCV Michael Hikari Cecire writes: An Interview with Giorgi Kvelashvili

Georgia RPCV Michael Hikari Cecire writes: An Interview with Giorgi Kvelashvili

"I'd like to take a little turn from this question. On one hand, I think you're making a really good point about Russia seeking suzerainty over Georgia in the medium to long term. However, a lot of thoughtful observers have said that Turkey would never agree to such an arrangement, as Georgia is seen in Ankara as a useful buffer against Russian expansion. Russia's ‘re-imperialization' has been the focus of many articles and discussions, as has the concept of Turkish ‘neo-Ottomanism,' to put it crudely. However, there's a lot less treatment on how both of these forces affect the future of Georgia. I'd contest that Georgia's strategic geography is once again at work here. Turkey could never fulfill (or even Iran, some might say) its larger strategic ambitions if Georgia becomes a Russian satellite, connected to Armenia to the south. What do you think? Though Ankara and Moscow are cooperating now, do you think Georgia can use its role as a buffer by leveraging Turkey to some extent against Russia?"

Georgia RPCV Michael Hikari Cecire writes: An Interview with Giorgi Kvelashvili

Interview: Giorgi Kvelashvili, Georgia's 'Unprecedented' Opportunity

April 29, 2010

Interview by Michael Cecire

Giorgi Kvelashvili, an analyst and regular contributor with the Jamestown Foundation, speaks to Evolutsia.Net about Georgia's development, foreign policy, and politics.

Evolutisa.Net: Giorgi, thanks for agreeing to the interview.

To start, you've been very active writing about Georgia's geopolitical position at the Jamestown Foundation. With the recent US-Russia nuclear arms limitations agreement and the fitful start-stop ‘reset,' do you think that the US and Russia are any closer to seeing eye to eye on things like Iran and, closer to home, Russia's neighborhood policy?

Giorgi Kvelashvili:

Unlike his predecessor, the incumbent US President, Barack Obama, at least in his rhetoric, focuses more on issues of global security and peace than freedom, democracy and human rights when prioritizing America's foreign policy agenda. Pretty accurately, this stance seems quite logical given Obama's domestic priorities, which puts justice above liberty.

To be sure, President Obama's rhetoric is not very good news for small nations like Georgia or the Baltic states since we would be better off, and the world would be safer, if the United States exerted more pressure on Moscow so that the latter move toward a freer and more open society. Cooperation with Russia or China, for that matter, on security, energy and technology issues, should be conditional and closely linked to those countries' domestic behavior. This means that the human dimension of security should not be decoupled from the international security; otherwise we will be heading toward a very fragile world where peace would be a temporary good.

Having said that, I do not think that any bargaining is going between the current U.S. administration and the Kremlin at the expense of Georgia or other countries in Russia's neighborhood. America's ‘no' to Moscow's proposal on a new European security treaty – whose ill-hidden aims are to undermine NATO and carve for Russia a sphere of influence by limiting the small nations' freedom of choice – is proof of the assumption I have just made.

On the other hand, the United Staes have never openly demanded that Russia withdraw its troops from the occupied Georgian territories. Those troops and the very fact of occupation are a direct threat to Georgia's sovereignty. This is a very volatile status quo. It cannot be maintained long given the fact that Russia has achieved very little by having those territories under its control. There are two outcomes from this situation: either Russia will be forced to leave or it will expand its rule all over Georgia. There is no third outcome. I am pretty sure of it.

As far as Iran is concerned, Russia would only benefit from the deepening crisis over Tehran's nuclear and missile programs. I do not think that the American government would offer Russia a freedom of action in Georgia for its cooperation over Iran. Not at all. Moscow's hope lies in other calculations. Namely, if the Iran crisis descends into open military hostilities, then Russia would feel it is time to act in Georgia and in other parts of the former Soviet Union. Simply, no one would care about Georgia then and Russia as an opportunistic power will capitalize on an "attention vacuum" as well as on high energy prices.

Evo: Based on these developments, and President Obama's outsourcing of the US Georgia policy to Vice President Joe Biden, do you think that the US-Georgia relationship is headed in the right direction?

Giorgi Kvelashvili:

The "outsourcing," even if it were really happening, is a mere technical issue. It would be better to look at the situation from a different perspective. This administration seems to be as committed to Georgia's nation-building efforts and democratic transformation as the previous administration was. I do not see any deviation from the pattern. Americans are helping us as ever before and this is not only financial and technical support – it is also moral support. Without an exaggeration, Georgia is governed by US-educated people from the president and high-ranking government ministers to mid-level and low-level public officials. And most of them have been educated at top US schools on American taxpayers' money. I wish we had as many US-trained medical doctors though. America is an inspiration for the Georgian youth and I do not think any nation in the world can best the Georgians in their admiration for the United States and its values.

On its part, Georgia, which is not even a NATO member yet, has made tremendous contributions to the US-led international efforts in Afghanistan by deploying nearly 1,000 troops under French and American command. This move has created a new dynamic in Georgian-American relations. We have attached no national caveats to our deployment and nor have we tied this issue to the NATO membership process. Of course, we seek several important benefits from our friendly move and this is exactly what goes against the current Russian leadership's Georgia policy. Tbilisi's international isolation is the Kremlin's number one objective and our international involvement can successfully foil that plan. Closely linked to the ‘isolation policy' is Moscow's desire to leave Georgia as a member of the international community void of function. Our cooperation with the West on transit, energy and military issue thwarts the Kremlin's plan as well.

But this is just a very small part what Georgia is doing for what the United States stands for in the contemporary international system. Georgia is building a modern nation which is an alternative to what Russia epitomizes itself and advances in its neighborhood. Our sovereignty aside, Russia fears our way of life and institutions. Modernity is the single most important issue that distinguishes Georgia from Russia. We are the first and unfortunately so far the only country in the region that created a Western-styled functional police, a public register, armed forces and other nation-state attributes which are absolutely different from the Soviet-era analogues present in all other post-Soviet states, except the Baltic nations.

Evo: Of course, I agree with everything you're saying, but you can't deny that many see US support as fairly half-hearted (the EU question aside!) and something of an afterthought. I'd agree that the Georgian contribution to Helmand is definitely worth mentioning and worthwhile, but it's still a pretty small amount compared to the overall number of forces in Afghanistan. It's hard not to understand the point some Western analysts make when they say that a foreign policy orientation should not depend on 1,000 additional troops in Helmand.

How do you think Georgia can cultivate a relationship with the US where it becomes an American value, agreed upon by most of the population, that Georgia is worth helping and worth defending, as Israel has done?

Giorgi Kvelashvili:

Georgia under President Saakashvili has been acting as a de facto American ally. I would agree that a nearly 1,000 Georgian troops is of course a pretty small amount compared to the total number of forces currently deployed in Afghanistan. But nonetheless, it means that we are assisting our strategic partner as much as we can and, besides, we are projecting ourselves as someone who has a role in the international system. It is not only via our already materialized function as an energy transit country in the East-West corridor but also through our military involvement in the West's peace efforts that we are proving being useful to the world.

By the way, our very existence as a sovereign nation is already a contribution to the international security and peace. Why do you think the Russians covet Georgia so much? Is not it because having Georgia in their fold would allow them to control the energy corridor, enjoy higher stakes in the bargaining with the United States over Iran and other issue, and overall, increase their relative power vis-à-vis the West. I do not think the world would be a safer place to live should Moscow's strategy materialize. Sovereignty of the former Soviet states is crucial if we do not want to have Cold War 2.

Talking with officials in Washington is important and I think we have been quite successful at advancing our case, but I have a feeling that we could do better in relation to our reaching out to the American public. I mean not only think tanks, academia and pressure groups – and keeping good contacts with all of them is indeed very important – but also to the American people in general. Administrations come and go but the American men and women are always there. We have to talk to them. I know they will listen. They bear the Torch of Freedom and they are the ones who elect America's leaders. We share so many values with them and there are so many unexplored avenues in this regard. In short, I am talking about the indispensability of human-to-human contacts.

Evo: Vano Merabishvili is on record saying that he doesn't believe another war is looming. I'd agree, but Jamestown has generally been less upbeat about this kind of thing. What are your impressions?

Giorgi Kvelashvili:

I am not positioned to make a point on the Jamestown Foundation's behalf. What I will say is my own observation.

I am extremely happy with the level of cooperation I have developed with the president of the Jamestown Foundation Glen Howard, his extraordinary staff and the highly insightful and talented analysts who work with this organization. I am also very glad that the Jamestown focuses on the Caucasus more emphatically and more deeply than any other research institutions in the US or elsewhere in the West. It is day-to-day work and almost all Jamestown writers base their research on non-English sources which are not accessible for those who do not speak Russian, Georgian, Ukrainian, Chechen or other languages across the Caucasus and wider Eurasia.

As for Minister Merabishvili's claim, I only have access to open sources and of course he has highly confidential information as well. Based on the information I am familiar with and given the reality I have described above, another Russian intervention cannot be ruled out at all. A lot will depend on how the Iran crisis develops. Karabakh is another story. What I mean is that if another war over Karabakh breaks out, Russia will be the primary beneficiary. All in all, for the Kremlin's current bosses, the Caucasus is quintessential for Russia's imperial growth. Besides, they feel that without having Tbilisi under control sometime soon, their imperial strategy will have to be abandoned altogether. In this respect, time is on our side. The longer we will survive, the greater will become the chance of Russia's own transformation into a modern, responsible and democratic nation.

Evo: I'd like to take a little turn from this question. On one hand, I think you're making a really good point about Russia seeking suzerainty over Georgia in the medium to long term. However, a lot of thoughtful observers have said that Turkey would never agree to such an arrangement, as Georgia is seen in Ankara as a useful buffer against Russian expansion. Russia's ‘re-imperialization' has been the focus of many articles and discussions, as has the concept of Turkish ‘neo-Ottomanism,' to put it crudely. However, there's a lot less treatment on how both of these forces affect the future of Georgia.

I'd contest that Georgia's strategic geography is once again at work here. Turkey could never fulfill (or even Iran, some might say) its larger strategic ambitions if Georgia becomes a Russian satellite, connected to Armenia to the south. What do you think? Though Ankara and Moscow are cooperating now, do you think Georgia can use its role as a buffer by leveraging Turkey to some extent against Russia?

Giorgi Kvelashvili:

Turkey has been our good friend since the very beginning of our revival as an independent country in 1991. We are now strategic partners and are engaged in very fruitful and mutually beneficial relationship. Turkey is our number one economic partner as well.

Ankara supports the independence and territorial integrity of all former Soviet states and this feature distinguishes it from Moscow. Besides, I do not think that the prevailing strategic thinking in Turkey is based on the premises of zero-sum game. Turkey supports our NATO membership and we support Turkey's EU membership, the normalization of the Turkish-Armenian relations and, in general, Turkey's greater role in the Caucasus. This would only increase stability and security in our region. As concerns your notion on ‘buffer' states, we do not see ourselves as a buffer between the larger neighboring powers. We are an actor who aspires a NATO membership and a full incorporation into the Trans-Atlantic system of states.

Evo: Despite Russia's requirement modification, it seems that the Mistral sale is a done deal. Many Western analysts have pooh-poohed the idea that the Mistral poses a threat to Georgia. What do you think? And, political advocacy notwithstanding, how can Georgia compensate for the increased threat level posed by a helicopter carrier sitting off of Georgia's coastline?

Giorgi Kvelashvili:

The Mistral at Russia's disposal is of course dangerous and I do not think we have to be the only one who should be ringing the alarm bell.

But even more dangerous is the very fact that a deal like this is being struck between Russia that invaded its smaller neighbor in 2008 and France, a NATO member Western nation, that mediated the ceasefire agreement between Russia and Georgia. In gross violation of that agreement, Russia is continuing its illegal occupation of Georgia's sovereign territory, and the Mistral deal is seen in the Kremlin as a reward for the occupation.

Two weeks after Stalinist Russia invaded Finland on November 30, 1939, it was kicked out of the League of Nations. Are we safer today some sixty years later when we have a functional United Nations instead of a "dysfunctional" League of Nations and a P5 member Putinist Russia getting away easily with a grabbing of someone else's property? I do not think so.

Meanwhile, Georgia, the victim of Russia's aggression, has been under effective US arms embargo since August 2008. US Senator Lugar and his supporters in Congress have called for a change in that direction. Georgia's outstanding security concerns remain while Russia's actions are only checked diplomatically. Diplomacy is a powerful deterrence but in the long run it becomes lame if real force on the ground is not coupled with it.

Evo: On that last point, I am reminded of a conversation I had with Remy Gwardamadze just the other day. Remy was speaking with someone and asked about the average Georgian male's willingness to join the military, and his friend responded that most people are trying to avoid military service. To be honest, that has been my impression as well – that most Georgians don't seem to be exactly jumping at the chance to join the Georgian military forces. To put this into context, I remember the 2008 war. When Russian troops seemed to be poised to march on Tbilisi, Georgians didn't start forming paramilitary bands or head to the hills for a protracted guerilla war, but instead had a European-style protest!

Obviously, Georgia needs arms and assistance from abroad – but if Georgians themselves don't seem to be prepared to fight for their independence, why should anyone else? What do you think? Do you see this as a function of a feeling of hopelessness? Or just a lack of confidence that Georgia could ever win such a war? Or that Russian occupation may not be so bad? And how can Georgia reverse this inclination among its people?

I mean, on one hand, you have places like Switzerland, Singapore, and Israel (all three described as models for Georgia in various respects), but these places all have universal conscription, advanced air forces, and highly trained militaries. None are NATO members. Georgia's military, on the other hand, seems to be focused on NATO interoperability rather than territorial defense.

Giorgi Kvelashvili:

You are making very important points. It is not that I fully agree with you on your assumptions or perceptions. If I may say this, you are partly right when describing the morale of a number of Georgian men. But there are so many others whose patriotism is beyond doubt. The Russian invasion showed that we have very many good soldiers and real heroes. There were some serious shortcomings of course during the war especially in the military command and communications system but in general the morale in our armed forces was high. Unfortunately, there were reports that some of our compatriots collaborated with the enemy. This is very regrettable and I think huge work should be done to improve our human capabilities.

I am for a system that includes universal conscription, a sizeable professional component and a national reserve. We should be capable of territorial defense, which would also be our deterrence.

There are at least two dangers that I see. Some people in Georgia think that liberalism and democracy do not need teeth. On the other extreme of the spectrum there are ethnic nationalists who do not understand what nation-state really means, and for them ‘survival' means ethnic and cultural preservation in an empire (the Russian empire, of course) not a survival as a nation in Western understanding.

Georgia's education system should better focus on the modern concepts of citizenship. The army is another place where education should continue. President Saakashvili has recently unveiled a plan that will soon make patriotic and military education in Georgia's secondary schools an essential part of the academic curriculum.

Evo: Many around the world, and Evolutsia.Net has joined this chorus periodically as well, still see Georgia's political and media environment to be badly flawed. How can the Saakashvili government take steps, in the near future, to correct these problems? Will they happen? When?

Giorgi Kvelashvili:

Georgia's system is in the process of making. Building a modern nation is of course harder than building just a state. Some ten years ago we did not even have a real state. Ours was a failed one. Without modern institutions democracy and individual liberties are just a dream because you cannot have liberty in the jungle of anarchy.

I think we have made good progress both in terms of nation-building and democracy. But for the modern political culture to become stable and sustained, new elites committed to it should be formed. And this takes time. Establishing a responsible citizenry is a long process. Western-type liberal elites organized along right, centrist and left affiliations will someday fully replace the old-fashioned intelligentsia and the peculiar "political parties" of today's Georgia that have almost no ideologies and are simply formed around individuals. But this is a process whose success depends on the growth of our economy and the formation of a powerful and numerous middle class.

The political elite that governs Georgia now has a great responsibility to direct this process in a due course. I would even say that the opportunity granted to our generation is unprecedented in Georgia's history.

There is pressure on the government to expedite and deepen liberal political and economic reforms and I think this is very good. I myself want the Westernization of Georgia to proceed faster. But take into consideration the fact that there is even more pressure on the ruling elite from the old-timers who want the reforms to be abandoned altogether and the country to go back to some ‘poor Georgian state'. The pro-Western class in this country is often accused of betraying Georgianness, whatever this means, and those retrograde and revanchist forces, closely associated with Russia and criminal gangs (kurduli samkaro) now operating outside Georgia, are still powerful enough to influence our future. I believe greater transparency, pluralism and freedom of expression will only speed up our transformation.

Evo: Thanks for your time, Giorgi.

Giorgi Kvelashvili, an Edmund S. Muskie alumnus, holds a Master's in International Relations from Yale University. He currently serves as an analyst for the Jamestown Foundation and regularly publishes for Tabula magazine.

Michael Hikari Cecire is a writer and independent analyst living in Tbilisi. A former Peace Corps Volunteer in Georgia, he is a frequent commentator on economic development and South Caucasus policy issues. In addition to Evolutsia.Net, Cecire has also written for the Caspian Business Journal, the London Telegraph, World Politics Review, and TCS Daily, among others. This article first appeared at Evolutsia.Net, a news and analysis blogozine covering the political landscape of Georgia republic.

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