Interview with the President of Georgia Micheil Saakashvili of the Russian radio

To see the integral Russian version of the transcript, please, click here. 

The 27 January edition of Radio Ekho Moskvy's regular studio discussion programme "Hearing Test", presented by Vitaliy Dymarskiy and Sofiko Shevardnadze, was recorded in Tbilisi. Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili received the two presenters and answered their questions on various aspects of Georgian-Russian relations. Saakashvili's tone was good-humoured throughout the interview. 

Historical ties should not be lost 

At the start of the interview, Saakashvili noted that it had been a long time since a Russian journalist had interviewed him. "But this is not our fault," he said. Replying to Dymarskiy's remark about being interviewed in the Russian language, Saakashvili said that the next generation of Georgian leaders might be "simply unable to express their thoughts in Russian". "I would not want that to happen," he said, noting that the generation currently in power in Georgia had been raised on Georgian as well as Russian culture. "But this is not being appreciated. This generation still cares about maintaining our relations and historical ties with Russia. However, if the current negative trend continues, then, of course, due to absolutely pragmatic reasons, there will appear people who will not have the same interest in or connection to our common history and culture," he said. 

He went on to say: "We [Russian President Vladimir Putin and I] bear responsibility. It would be tragic - although, of course, we are talking about at least collective leadership here - if this historical tradition ceases to exist in our time. It would be very sad and regrettable. Regardless of whose fault it is, I think that all of us will share responsibility. Relations between countries are not just relations between individual leaders. I think the current trend should be reversed. I think everyone should realize that this is a road to nowhere. We realized this a long time ago. Now we should get out of this nowhere, the faster the better. The farther we go in there, the scarier. We should get out of this forest". 

Saakashvili noted that on several occasions his 11-year-old son asked him and his wife why he should learn Russian at all. "Other children in his school do not study Russian. I think that there are simple reasons for that. Does it make any difference if you speak Russian [in Georgia]? Russian visas are not issued; trade with Russia is declining; we now have our own television and our people mostly watch it. Therefore, simply because of pragmatic reasons, if one wants to advance his career, it is not necessary to learn Russian. It is necessary to learn English, Turkish. In the past, everyone travelled to Russia, but last year, for example, a million Georgians crossed the Georgian-Turkish border. This is five or six times more than those who crossed the Russian-Georgian border. This shows the trend. I would want to see a million crossing the Turkish border and two-three million the Russian border," Saakashvili said. "This trend is still reversible, but we are at a dangerous crossroads," he added. 

Asked whether he personally regretted any mistakes made in dealing with Russia, Saakashvili said: "Of course there were mistakes on both sides. The Georgian side probably made mistakes too. However, I think that on the whole our policy has been right. We should strengthen our independence. We should strengthen our independence while not alienating our neighbours, but our neighbours should also understand that we are independent. They should understand it, accept it and help us. Naturally, maybe sometimes it was not necessary to say something. Maybe I could say it differently or just keep silent. But, you know, the world of modern politics is like a marathon race. There are many aspects that you cannot always control. People always expect your reaction. You should always tell the truth to your people. Sometimes when you are telling the truth it is not always comfortable for all neighbouring nations or their governments. This is a compromise in real politics - to be or not to be yourself. If I have to choose, I'd rather be myself and make some political mistakes than play a game from which there will be no way out," Saakashvili said. 

Economic blockade, Russian ambassador's return 

Saakashvili declined to comment on a controversial comment by former Georgian Defence Minister Irakli Okruashvili and said that the Russian ban on Georgian exports had in fact helped the Georgian economy. "We have thanked Russian politicians who introduced this ban. Of course, it was not some citizen Onishchenko who made this decision. It was made by serious people. We thanked them, publicly as well," Saakashvili said. He dismissed Russia's chief public health officer Gennadiy Onishchenko's recent statement that Georgia should hold talks in Moscow on lifting the ban. "Hold talks with whom? We are not small children to play games. If you want to allow it [Georgian produce into Russia], do it. If you don't want to allow it, then don't," Saakashvili said, seemingly amused. 

Asked whether the Russian ambassador's return to Tbilisi signified a warming in Georgian-Russian relations, Saakashvili said: "Over the last few days, I have heard the rhetoric that Georgia should respond to it with some concrete steps. Frankly speaking, I do not quite understand what our response should be. Russia has indeed sent its ambassador back to Georgia. I think that this is Russia's internal affair, because we did not expel the ambassador from here. We of course welcome his return. We have never been against it. On our part, we have never recalled our ambassador. Therefore, we cannot reciprocate - our ambassador has been staying in Moscow all this time. As regards the economic embargo, we have not imposed any economic embargo against Russia, so we have nothing to lift. Neither have we imposed a ban on flights against Russia, so we have nothing to lift. As regards visas, Georgia has unilaterally introduced a simplified visa regime for Russians. Unlike Georgian citizens [travelling to Russia], Russian citizens can get their visas at [Georgian border] checkpoints without any problems. Well, of course we are pleased to see that the [anti-Georgian] rhetoric has been softened, we are pleased that the ambassador has returned, and we would like to develop our relations. We have no bad feelings in this respect," Saakashvili said. 

The total loss to the Georgian economy due to the Russian embargo in 2006 was about 300m dollars, Saakashvili said, noting that it "was offset merely by an increase of the number of tourists from Europe and neighbouring countries". He said that Georgia's tourism and transport infrastructure was developing well and that Georgians would "very warmly" welcome more Russian tourists. 

Returning to how Georgia could respond to the Russian ambassador's return, Saakashvili said: "We can respond by showing our warm feelings, our positive attitude and our readiness for a dialogue on all problems". "The Russian authorities will always find a very pragmatic, open and flexible partner in us," he added. 

Direct talks with separatists 

Saakashvili said that Georgia had always offered direct talks with Abkhaz and South Ossetian separatists without any preconditions. "They were telling us: First you should withdraw your police contingent from Upper Abkhazia [upper Kodori Gorge] and withdraw your [pro-Georgian Abkhaz] government from there, then solemnly swear on the Koran, the Bible or something, then do this or that. But no, I think that all these issues can be resolved without these preconditions, but only through dialogue, not ultimatums," he said. "I have heard some encouraging statements that, at last, they are kindly going to talk with us. We are pleased to hear it, because we are politicians rather than representatives of other professions. We think that results can be achieved when two people meet, look each other in the eye, and speak frankly and openly. There are many people around us who do not want this to happen, thinking that some miracle will happen. But of course there will be no miracles. There will be a healthy process that will eventually lead to an improvement in the situation. Currently we have neither peace nor war, but we need peace," Saakashvili said. 

Russian and Azeri gas, transit to Armenia 

Saakashvili said that Georgia would receive "enough gas from Azerbaijan in the next few weeks". "At the same time, we would like to retain the Russian supply channel too, because it is always bad to get attached to just one channel, even if it is a very friendly channel. There can always be technical or some other problems. However, Azerbaijan will be our main supplier," he said and praised Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev for helping Georgia with gas supplies in the beginning of 2006. "We will remember that forever," he said. 

"I think that by February or early March, 80 per cent [of Georgia's gas consumption] will be coming from Azerbaijan. We will keep the Russian channel too, but, to begin with, it is not quite predictable, and the price is unreasonable," Saakashvili said. He noted that he could see "no commercial logic" in the fact that Russian gas transported through Georgia was sold in Armenia for 110 dollars per 1,000 cu.m. while Georgia had to pay 235 dollars for it. Answering a question whether gas transit to Armenia would now become Georgia's "trump card", Saakashvili said: "I think this is not a trump card, this is a fact. We are not using it in any way. We are simply taking a part of the transported gas according to our contracts. Georgia always fulfils all of its agreements". 

Talks on Russia's WTO accession 

Saakashvili said he was "surprised" by Russian Economic Development and Trade Minister German Gref's recent statement that "all misunderstandings" were resolved in Georgian-Russian WTO talks "except the problem of [border and customs] checkpoints". "Frankly speaking, this statement surprised me, because there has been no other condition from the very beginning. This has always been our only demand - legalization of the border checkpoints - a normal demand for any country. Unfortunately, there has been no serious dialogue on these issues. There were some preliminary promises, but they were not kept. Again, in the context of the promised warming in our relations, maybe this issue will be resolved too," Saakashvili said. "No country can make a compromise at the expense of its territorial integrity and its borders, but we are ready to look at various forms of satisfying this natural requirement. It is not only in Georgia's but also in Russia's interests. We are not demanding anything disadvantageous for Russia. Of course, Georgia is not going to block Russia's accession in spite of everything, deliberately and spitefully. In the long run, we are interested in Russia's membership in this organization. It is in our interests and in the interests of the whole world. But there is a specific issue and Georgia's disagreement cannot be overcome by simply ignoring it. This is a natural demand of any nation," he said. "Our small demands are much easier to meet than, for example, the conditions set by the United States. Those talks were much more difficult, the compromise they reached was much more difficult, but it was done. For some reason, they [Russians] thought that they would also get our consent in the same bargain, but I don't think so," he added. 

"This is a technical issue. We do not want to politicize or overly publicize it. Let us resolve this technical issue in a technical manner. We should not make a mountain out of a molehill, because I do not think it will help," Saakashvili said. 

Separatist conflicts and North Caucasus, Russia's role 

Saakashvili said that a war or "even a threat" of war in Abkhazia or South Ossetia would put an end to Georgia's economic progress. Therefore, Georgia wants peace and "has many things to offer" to the Abkhaz and South Ossetians, he said. "Our path to reintegration lies through the creation of a country that would be attractive and comfortable for all its citizens," Saakashvili said, stressing that the use of force would not resolve the problem. 

"Russia has far more levers of influence in this region than any other international force," Saakashvili said, noting that Georgia was not going to "ignore" Russia's role in the settlement of the conflicts. "However, this role should be positive, of course. I hope that Russia will find in itself sufficient political resource to play a positive role, because destabilization in the South Caucasus is not in Russia's interests. We should remember that Russia won the 19th-century Caucasian War in the North Caucasus thanks to Georgian generals and officers. This is a historical fact. Once I came to power in Georgia, I started helping our Russian partners implement all antiterrorist measures in the North Caucasus. We are continuing this cooperation in spite of all the negative aspects. We need each other. For Russia, a strong Georgia that is its ally is a natural guarantor of stability in this region. God forbid any small mini-states established here, because they will automatically become beachheads for all kinds of negative consequences, first of all for Russia itself. Naturally, Russian strategists understand this very well. We simply need to overcome emotions and look at this picture with common sense, also taking into account the interests of all citizens living there," he said. 

Kosovo precedent 

Answering a question on how Kosovo's future status could affect Georgia's territorial integrity, Saakashvili said: "First of all, I am encouraged that recently Russian politicians have not been talking about direct parallels between Kosovo and our regions. This is indeed so - the more facts become known, the more information there is on the situation, the more restrained [their] statements are becoming - which is very good". He noted that about three quarters of Abkhazia's pre-war population - "not only ethnic Georgians but also Ukrainians, Estonians, Jews" and others - had been driven out of Abkhazia and that the current situation there was very different from the one in Kosovo. He then recalled events from the history of Georgia showing that in the past ethnic Abkhaz and Georgians lived in harmony. 

Saakashvili dismissed referendums held in Abkhazia and South Ossetia as a "travesty of a referendum and a travesty of democracy" and said that allowing such a precedent of "democracy of cannibals" would be dangerous for the whole world. "We are not talking about some legal tricks or travesties of democracy here. We will have a democratic process when everyone entitled to take part in that process will actually get their right, under the condition of safety," Saakashvili said. 

In the very near future, an extended meeting of the Georgian Security Council will discuss new peace proposals to be offered to the Abkhaz separatist government, he added. "As regards South Ossetia, I think it simply needs a situation of safety, and people there will resolve everything themselves. It is much simpler there in this respect, there are practically no ethnic problems left there," he said.

Prepared by BBC Monitoring

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