Giorgi Margvelashvili discusses tensions with Russia as well as Georgia’s relationship with NATO, the European Union, and the United States.
GRAHAM: My name is Tom Graham. And I want to welcome you to the Council on Foreign Relations meeting today with President Giorgi Margvelashvili, right? Did I get that right?
GRAHAM: (Laughs.) Close. I also want to welcome the CFR members around the nation and the world who’ll be participating by teleconference today. We’ll be hearing more from them during the question and answer period. I also want to remind people that we’re on the record today.
I think you already have the president’s bio, so I don’t want to go through the details, but let me just stress that he has had a distinguished career as both an educator and as a political leader. He’s been president of Georgia since November of 2013. As we all know, the past two years have been ones of tremendous challenges and tremendous opportunity for the people of Georgia, for the leaders and people in that region. And what we know about what’s coming down the road suggests that the interesting times are not going to end very, very soon.
So this is what we want to discuss in the next hour. Now, I think it’s fair to say that Georgia really has disappeared from the pages of much of the American press over the past several years. It’s not a country that we pay nearly enough attention to. It’s a country in an extremely important part of the world and its future is going to have tremendous implications for the Caucasus and for the surrounding region. And so one of the things that we want to do today is to better understand what’s going on in Georgia, we want to understand better what the challenges and opportunities facing that country are, and of course we want to understand what your concerns are, what your plans are, and what your ambitions are.
I think a good way to start our conversation today is to ask you Mr. Minister—or, Mr. President, what are the three key messages that you want to bring to the American people today, to the members of the Council? What is that we need to understand about Georgia and its place in the world?
MARGVELASHVILI: Thank you for this great introduction. And I want to welcome the distinguished audience and tell you how happy I am to for this opportunity to share with you some of the main concerns for the future and development of my country, as well as for the region in large. I want to continue from the positions which were—from the point we just heard, that Georgia has more or less disappeared from the active radar screen in New York, in D.C., and that is basically why—what concerns us, and why we are—we want to be, and discuss, and to bring back very actively Georgia’s issues on the discussion tables of the political processes happening in U.S.
And there are several reasons why I think that this is relevant, not only to my country, but it is very much relevant to the region and it is very much relevant to the United States at large, and to—and it is connected to the world and global politics. The first reason, I think, that we should be talking about Georgia and we should be discussing Georgia is the unique role that my country is playing in the development of the Eurasian continent at large. If you look at the map, and you look at the small country of Georgia, which has been there as a country, as a state, for the last 3,000 years, you see that it’s a very specific area. It’s an area located between the Caspian and the Black Seas. And an area which is located between these two seas, and with a very interesting countries bordering to it on its north and on its south.
Now, what is specific in our role and in our geopolitical location? We do really connect the Caspian area, the Asian area, with the Black Sea area, with the European area. And we have been doing so for centuries. But even more importantly, since our independence after the collapse of Soviet Union, we have very clearly envisioned that, yes, we are a country of transit, we are a country where political systems, civilizations, continents meet each other. And we starting serving this goal by developing a country as a country, as a connector between these two global areas. And it is concerning the pipelines that have been developed, the highways, the railway systems, as well as the whole attitude to the concept of Georgia as a transit country.
Now, that is even more important and relevant in context of broadening of the partnerships between Asia and Europe, and increase of the commodity markets in both of these areas, as well—as with very active role that China is playing, while investing into the historical Silk Road, and viewing Georgia as one of a very decisive routes for the global Silk Road concept. So that’s why when I’m talking about my country, and of course and naturally my interests are for strengthening and broadening opportunities for my—for my country and my society, at the same time I am bringing to table lots of very interesting solutions for countries in the east and for countries in the west. And I am bringing readiness of Georgia to be engaged into this process.
And that’s why Georgia, as a country of—becomes a country of choice, a country where—just one small fact. You know, out of the 14 developing countries in the region, eight of them find their shore—find their coasts in Georgia and through Georgia. And that makes my country tremendously important for a free economic or even political choice for the countries of the Caspian Sea basin. It is a—so that’s probably one of the most important reasons why we contribute to the global picture, to the global European picture, because we view and we see ourselves as part of the Europe. And we not only develop as a European country, but we believe we are bringing very specific and concrete solutions for European stability, security, as well as for the global European picture at large.
Another reason to bring Georgia to the table of discussion, is Georgia-Russian relationship that I believe should not be shut down and viewed only in Georgian-Russian context. We had a very tense collapse of Soviet Union and the afterwards consequences that we had in the newly created independent states. And Georgia had a tense relationships with Russia, starting with the first hybrid wars, something that we are witnessing right now in Ukraine, which happened in Georgia in ’90s—in beginning of ’90s. Later, in 2008, we had the Iraq-Russian military occupation with regular Russian Army marching on Georgian soil, occupying the territory and declaring them as independent countries.
But we would be wrong to consider that those are Georgian-Russian relationships, that those are relationships that are relationships that are happening only between two neighbors. It proved to be wrong because something that happened in 2008 was repeated in 2014 in Ukraine. It has proved to be wrong because it’s part of the Russian foreign policy. When Russian foreign policy is very clearly declaring basically all of its neighbors as sphere of its privileged interests. And that means that if anything happens in any of the neighboring countries—be it Georgia, Ukraine, Moldova, or any other countries—Russia has the right to solve the issue through a direct military force.
Now, these are not only cases. This is a policy. And if we look at this policy which has been used in Georgia, which has been used in Ukraine, which has been used in Moldova, then we will see the reality that we are basically refusing to put international relationships—the law, international law, into action on a huge territory around the world, because Russia is the biggest country, territorially, around the world. And it has so many neighbors that if we sum up all of these—all of these countries around the world, then basically we are saying no to normal international formats at a huge part of Eurasian continent. And that has its own consequences.
Tolerating Russia’s policy in Georgia, explaining it with some kind of reasonings, doing the same in respect of Ukraine, this kind of policy, and putting Georgia away from the global discussions and not considering this case unless it is solved, is going to bring its consequence for international relationships all around the world, and specifically also in—for the freedom of choice, for the freedom of development, for a very huge neighboring countries around Russia. So that’s why I think that the Georgian case, vis-à-vis Russia and discussing and being principled and not forgetting about these issues is not only an issue of fairness, which my country naturally demands, but it’s also an issue of keeping stable international relationships and being firm on some of the policies that are most dangerous for the region.
GRAHAM: Mr. President, can we focus a little bit on that, because I think this is an important point. I mean—
MARGVELASHVILI: I had a great third point too. (Laughter.)
GRAHAM: You have a great—OK, I will let you make the third point then.
MARGVELASHVILI: I’ll make it short. Georgia is a democracy. And it’s a developing democracy. And I believe that democracies around the world should be supported. And they should be supported, developed. And developing and strengthening democracies is something that is making the world more stable and more secure. I made it short, so. (Laughter.) Please.
GRAHAM: An excellent third point. So I’m glad that you made it. But let’s focus a little bit on the Russian relationship and sort of the international context. There’s been a lot of focus on Russia recently, concerns about what they’re really up to along their borders, elsewhere in the world. But let’s take this sort of to a practical level. You want us more than simply to put Georgia as an issue back on the radar scope. You’re expecting us to do things as well.
So if you look at the relationship with NATO, Georgia, over the past decade, has played an active role in trying to draw closer to NATO. You’ve participated in many of the operations. You have soldiers on the ground in Afghanistan. I think—remember one of your soldiers just died recently. And yet, you’ve been held in many ways at arm’s length from NATO, certainly since 2008 and your very short war with Georgia (sic). What type of relationship—what would you like to see NATO to do at this point in order to demonstrate its support for Georgia at this difficult moment?
MARGVELASHVILI: Well, first of all, let’s look at our Georgia-NATO agenda, which is—which is basically positive, because we had a—we got a great package at the Wales summit, where we have been given a specific package for our future developing and broadening the relationships with NATO. We have—just a month ago we have inaugurated a new training and evaluation center for NATO in the military base in Georgia, which will bring more boots on the ground of not only—and training—not only for Georgians, which actually are one of the most compatible non-NATO members in—for NATO. And we have a standing and ongoing dialogue with NATO, with a very clear vision from our country that we went to become members.
And of course, we do take into consideration, and we actually applaud, to the fact that NATO is such a complicated organization to get in, because it’s a democratic process and you have to bring everyone around the table and agree for this decision. But—and we—and we develop this dialogue and we develop this dialogue very intensively. And of course, we deserve that level of engagement based on the commitments that a small nation like mine is taking for the world’s global security and stability.
But what could be done? It’s not only NATO. It’s our bilaterals that could be intensified. And in this format, it’s not only military and defense cooperation, but it is enhancing the issues and putting it up on the discussion—on the discussion levels that we are—we are having with each and every NATO members. Now, U.S. is one of the main leading voices in NATO format. And we have experienced and enjoyed United States support on those issues, but that does not exclude intensifying and improving and enhancing Georgian-American relationships, which has to happen. And this could be in many areas, in many fields, not only the areas that are linked with security or building the defensibility of our country.
It is in partnering in trade, it is intensifying relationship on a business-to-business level. It is intensifying cultural formats. It is intensifying society’s connections with each other. All those opportunities are there. And diluting—not—I wouldn’t say the word there—but sort of seeing Georgia only in format of Georgia-NATO relationships is not something that we want. We want to see more intensified bilaterals with the countries like United States and other NATO members. And not only that, all of those countries have bilaterals. And it’s not only the NATO that has relationships with Russia or EU has the relationships with Russia. All of those countries have bilaterals with Russia. I believe that Georgian case should be an issue for those bilateral relationships.
I am looking for hearing Georgian case when we are discussing Russia’s policy and Russia’s future. And that’s what we are working for. It’s—now I’m hearing Ukraine. I hear that they are talking—in discussions about Russia we are talking about Ukraine. And we applaud to this and we always talk about that. But Georgia should not be forgotten, because forgetting about Georgia, believe me, it means that we’ll forget about Ukraine when the situation calms down in Ukraine and when there is a ceasefire in Ukraine. And the situation will be staying—the status quo will be remaining there as it is.
And there we see the policy of Russia. OK, how do—how do—how does the international community react when there is bloodshed and ceasefire? Everyone talks about the issue—sorry, not the ceasefire, but when there is the battle going on, everyone talking about the issue. When the issue is—when there is a ceasefire and when the situation has calmed down, OK, everyone tries to forget about it. And the status quo stays there. The status quo of occupied Georgian territories, the status quo of occupied Crimea, which suddenly changed its statehood overnight just by troops marching from one state into another. And that’s a disaster, not only for Ukraine.
That’s a disaster for the world policy and world order because after the Second World War, I don’t know the case when this—I know the cases like Georgia, that something was—but when the status of the territory was completely changed through a military action, this is a disaster. It’s a—it was 2014. It’s the 20th anniversary after Ukraine has made nuclear disarmament. Who was brokering and who was the guarantor of this agreement? It was U.S., U.K. and Russia. And the deal was that Ukraine disarms and, as a result of that, Ukraine’s sovereignty will be guaranteed by these—by these countries. And on the 20th anniversary, you get Ukraine occupied.
And what are you telling other countries around the world should they desire militarily? I mean, all those consequences, these are not Georgia and Ukraine. This is a consequence for international relationships.
GRAHAM: If we bring this right back to Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and if you give us your sense of what the prospects are for a resolution of that problem that restores Georgia’s territorial integrity, its sovereignty over those territories, and what is happening on the ground at this point in terms of economic cultural relations, what’s the state of interchange between these various entities right now?
MARGVELASHVILI: So first of all, there is going—not going to be any kind of military solution. And that is our belief. That is not because we are not militarily superior, but that’s because we do believe that fighting back these territories is going to be a bigger problem than a solution. And that’s not the right way to approach this issue. So there is not going to be a military solution for this—for these regions of Georgia.
The second is that what we are—what we are suggesting, our compatriots who are living in the occupied territories, we are saying we are developing as a European country. We have stable dynamics of developing as a European country. And that means that the issue on those occupied regions would be decided, negotiated, and resolved in a European format, whatever that means. That is not any concrete solution because European has all the differences on dealing with the territorial entities. But whatever is going to happen, it is going to be in that standards. That means you are guaranteed on your political, cultural, ethnic rights, and we are going to discuss what the solution should be.
Now, we believe we had a great argument in saying that because what is an option—what is the other option? The other option is to continue and deepen and go into Russian direction. And can anyone tell me a great example, a championing example of a small ethnic group flourishing in Russia and having great prospects? No one can indicate it. So, yes, this is a painful dialogue, but a dialogue that has its rational background that will eventually bring us to success.
So what is happening there in Abkhazia region, in Ossetia, in cities, basically deteriorated. Russians are building the barbed wires with no whatever military or any kind of reasoning behind this, just to stop people from communicating, because our societies are trying to build bridges. The people in the occupied territory, they are interested to come into mainland. They are finding some solutions on economic issues. They are finding some health care treatment. They want to transfer this artificial borderline, but Russians are trying to create obstacles, building those barbed wires.
Those barbed wires are complicating nothing but personal reconciliation, emotions among the people. They are complicating life of ordinary citizens there because suddenly a group of militants will appear in your village and put barbed wire in the middle of the village and you find yourself located on the other part of whatever it is. It’s part of Georgia but at the same time on the occupied territories.
So what we are trying to do, we are trying to send messages to societies there talking about future, trying to overcome the bloodshed that—or to overcome something that we made to each other, this terrible harm that we made to each other, and to talk about—to talk about reconciliation. Of course this process is blocked by—blocked by the Russian side.
We have no diplomatic relations with the Russian Federation but we have two standing formats with Russians, which is the Geneva format, where we discuss those political issues. And we have opened a new format—after the new government has opened a new format, which is in Prague, where we are basically talking about economic cooperation and cultural cooperation, which eventually is targeted for decreasing down the tension and creating better ground for political negotiations.
Of course this is happening on the process of the—simultaneously with the Ukraine tragedy, and this is definitely reflecting on the Georgian-Russian relationships as well because we support Ukraine, and that’s natural.
GRAHAM: Mr. President, before we broaden this discussion, just one final question, maybe two final questions.
Turning south—a lot of attention focused on what’s happening to the region south of Georgia at this point. I’d like to get your sense of how the situation in Syria, the rise of ISIS, may be impacting on Georgia, the broader Caucasus region, and then also your thoughts on what this recent deal with Iran on the nuclear program, the potential for the easing of sanctions down the road, might mean for Georgia’s relationship with Iran and opening not only sort of this east-west transit corridor that you’ve talked about but something that might move north-south.
MARGVELASHVILI: Well, naturally, I mean, based on something that I described Georgia as a country which is very much targeted to broadening its transit functions—and really we look at broadening of our transit functions also as a measure of security, because the more countries are interested in stability and transfer capacities of Georgia, the more real supporters we have on the table—(inaudible)—Georgia’s security and stability. So we are for broadening these areas, and that’s what we do east and west of our country.
Iran is a very interesting opportunity in that respect. Of course it should be explored. It should be—it should be understood. But when we are looking at the deal, and we have been supportive of this—of this deal, we are looking and we are discussing opportunities, exactly the opportunities of increasing the Georgia transportation and communication and transit capacities. And of course it is of special interest for us.
ISIS and ISIL, for sure this is a serious problem for security in the region, and especially when we see that it—that the process is spreading around. We don’t see, frankly, any clear, workable solutions on the ground. We have seen a couple of Georgia’s citizens going and engaging in these activities, and this has been really personal tragedies for our citizens because normally these are very young people. And this is not a big—this is not a big number, but still it is very problematic.
And of course we are concerned about that and we are—we have expressed our willingness to support the policies against and for stabilizing this issue, but to tell you frankly, we don’t see any of the workable solution yet.
GRAHAM: OK, at this time I would like to invite members to join the conversation. So I think we have microphones. I’d ask you to state your name, your affiliation, and a very concise question, if possible. I know there’s a lot of interest here. We’d like to include as many people as possible. So I’m going to start right down here. Do we have microphone down here in the front? And then we’ll go back there.
Q: Thank you. Bill Courtney with RAND Corporation. Good to see you, sir.
Georgia wants to go into the European Union, but the per-capita income in Georgia is about half that of the poorest member of the European Union, Bulgaria. What priorities do you see for economic reform in Georgia to help close that gap? Under President Saakashvili, a lot of economic reforms were made, but there’s a sense that the Georgian Dream government is not moving as quickly on economic reform.
MARGVELASHVILI: Well, first of all, we—let me briefly tell you that at this point we have a slowdown of economic growth. And the reason for the slowdown of the economic growth is the security environment and overall the environment in the region because Russia—Russian-Ukrainian war, the economical situation in Russia that has affected—that has affected our neighbors and our trading partners, as well as strengthening of dollar has affected our national currencies exchange rate, and as a consequence also affected the growth of our economy, which was estimated up to 5 percent, but it is—now it will be up to 2.5 percent strong.
But we have great opportunities. We are a country, first of all, that has its very intensive international transit country mission, which could and should be broadened by intensifying Georgia’s role as a transit country, and not only for energy supplies but for other commodities from Caspian to Black Sea. By intensifying our infrastructure, developing our infrastructure, we are creating opportunities for Georgia to become a hub and a place where the value-added chain will be happening for lots of those goods that will and should be moving between the—between—through this route. That is very important.
The second thing is our standing new economic agreements, and the most important, our deep and comprehensive free trade agreement with Europe, which was signed a year ago. Now, these agreements plus a great investment climate, which—because we are really high on the investment ratings and on doing business ratings. Low corruption rate, low crime, create Georgia as an interesting place to invest in. And that’s why we are looking for an economic boost.
So global projects, favorable investment environment, and the capacities that we have in energy sector, hydro energy, tourism, agriculture, this is all there to be accomplished. Simply now it’s a bad time because of the global complications in the region.
One thing that I consider one of the most important issues to be overcome by our economic development is improvement of the wealth distribution system in my country, which is really poor. I mean, it’s not only the GDP that worries me, for instance, but it’s also the Gini Index, which is up to 40s, which is not that good because—and the small and medium business component, which is 20 percent of our economy, and that is bad.
But I see lots of opportunities. And I believe that one of the issues that I’m trying to push and to discuss and to intensify on our bilateral with you, United States, is the free trade agreement with Georgia, which has been on the table of discussion before. And I believe it has to reappear on our bilateral agenda.
GRAHAM: I want to remind people that we are on the record. And for national members you can email your questions in at firstname.lastname@example.org. So I’m going to take a question way in the back here—way back, yep, right there standing. Yes.
Q: My name is David Phillips with Columbia University. My question concerns the occupied territories and the Geneva process.
These meetings have been going on regularly for some years. By all accounts they are painful and not productive. Why does Georgia persist in the process? What lessons have we learned about conflict management that can be applied to other situations, and how can we improve the Geneva process so that we can contribute towards the restoration of your territorial integrity?
MARGVELASHVILI: Painful and not productive, that’s what you said. Well, I believe that’s the quote for our Russian neighbor. That’s how our relations are with Russia. (Laughter.) So it’s not only Geneva process. It’s much more than that. Yes, that’s how it is. It should be kept—it should be maintained because it’s the floor for discussion. We have to talk with Russia. We have to discuss with Russia and we have to bring Russia to a discussion table.
What is important about this case, and why I see perspective there, it is—the important thing is that if we really are able to discuss issues with Russia based on a rational attitude, based on Russia’s national interest, then I think that Georgia, as well as other countries, has a great opportunity for overcoming the obstacles, because where Russia has brought its relationships with Ukraine or with Georgia it’s not only violating the international law or international relationships, it’s also violating Russian national interests as well, because let’s look at Georgian case. I mean, let’s look at two occupied territories in Georgia.
Can anyone explain me why this was done? I mean, can anyone rationally legitimize why those territories were occupied or who benefited from this? It is a situation where we have Georgia losing, temporarily, parts of its territory, and those are occupied. We have the people in occupied territories really losing opportunity of development and integration and growth and living in a vague un-understandable environment, and we have Russia obtaining several supplementary square kilometers to its biggest territory in the world. And no one can tell me that Russia needs another square—10 square or 15 square kilometers. So there is no side that has benefited from this.
If we go even further and we are talking about Russia-Georgia relationships, Russian-Ukrainian relationships, what is beneficial for Russia having its neighbors in a destabilized format, having its neighbors being afraid of it and being in a tense situation with this country? I mean, there is no explanation to that. I mean, why would you want pockets of uncontrolled territories, of uncontrolled governments around your border? Why would you—why would you develop something like that? Why would you—why would you create those territories where you can have any kind of complications?
There is no rational thinking behind this when we are talking about Russian national—Russian national interest or Russian foreign policy interests. So if at some point we can discuss those issues not only from perspective of Georgia but for even from perspective of Russia and what Russia gains in all of this process—why are they alienating themselves with the rest of the world, why are they—why are they occupying new territories which doesn’t mean anything for the biggest territorial nation in the world? Couldn’t we find better solutions for neighborhood? Couldn’t we find better solutions for Russian opportunities, economic opportunities, partnering opportunities in those countries?
I mean, we have all those issues on the table. We just need a calm discussion format, taking into consideration Russia’s interests. But the whole process, whether it’s Geneva or other negotiations, is that we are not talking about Georgia’s interests; we are not talking about, really, Russian interests, but we are talking about some mythical national interests which are based on violating the rights of your small and friendly neighbors.
So eventually when we come to this discussion, I believe that there is—there are great opportunities for solving all those issues.
GRAHAM: The woman over here in the—in the white.
Q: Greetings, Mr. President. I’m Laurie Garrett of the Council. Vladimir Putin was on our top news show, “60 Minutes,” on Sunday. Twice he said, in the course of the interview, that there are 25 million ethnic Russians in a diaspora spread out across the former Soviet Union, and that he feels he has not only a right but a duty to protect the 25 million ethnic Russians.
George Kennan, six decades ago plus, said we need a policy of containment to control the expansion of the Soviet Union. Is there a notion of containment of the pursuit of the interests of ethnic Russians born and raised outside of Russia? And if so, what does that look like and who’s involved?
MARGVELASHVILI: Could you rephrase that? Is there is a notion—
Q: If I read Putin’s statement correctly, the pockets of ethnic Russians in Estonia, the pockets of ethnic Russians in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the pockets in Crimea, et cetera, all are legitimately militarily defended by Russia as per Putin’s view of this 25 million diaspora and his role. So, you know, we once spoke of containment, George Kennan’s idea of containing the Soviet Union from expansion. Is there—today do we need a modern notion of containment of Russian expansion?
MARGVELASHVILI: Well, in a way that’s something we started discussing earlier because exactly it goes in the following format: First we have a Russian foreign policy doctrine that is talking about the privileged interest areas, which are countries of ex-Soviet Union, and in some case countries of the ex-Russian Empire. OK, so we have located a big part of the world under this special interest, whatever they are.
Now, how the format works, it works based on one of the—one of the ways this concept is activated is exactly what you have described, by identifying Russian ethnic groups and trying to protect those Russian ethnic groups, whatever that means. But it’s not always like that. Sometimes it’s linked with any kind of complication in that country, any kind of tension in that country, where Russia has the right to police and to solve the problem.
So is there a policy—do we see a sustainable policy on that issues? Unfortunately, I could not—I could not say that I see a sustainable policy on that issues, and that’s what I have been—have been discussing. I see all of us reacting to the bloodshed. And this is right, and of course when people are killed and when people are dying we should all be very firm and organized to stop the bloodshed. But when there is a ceasefire, we cannot—when you forget about those issues after the ceasefire, that means that you don’t have a sustainable policy.
When we look at how well the war and occupation of 2008 of Georgia was handled—we look at 2008, we look at 2014 Ukraine—is the homework done there? I believe it’s not. Russia was fast, active, decisive, and they knew what they were doing in Ukraine. Did they draw out some lessons from Georgian case? I believe they drew out those lessons, and they were better equipped to be active and decisive in 2014 than they were even in Georgian case. Maybe they hesitated at that point.
Now, were the Western countries ready for 2014 after 2008 of Georgia? I believe not. I believe they were even much more unprepared for this case.
So is there a policy? No, I don’t see one. But—
GRAHAM: Right down here.
Q: Thank you for your time, Mr. President. I’m Joel Mentor from Barclays.
I was wondering, when you look back on the experiences of the administration of former President Saakashvili, I was wondering, what’s the most important political or strategic lessons that you’ve taken from his time in office?
MARGVELASHVILI: Thank you.
You know, I normally don’t discuss my predecessor, and I leave this to the great audience of political analysts. But I think that one of the things that has to be discussed, it’s the relationships with Russia. And one of the important lessons that we all learned in 2008 is that we have to be very cautious and very careful when we are dealing with our northern neighbor, and not expect any kind of good solutions when we have—or good luck when we are dealing with Russia. So I think that that would be—that would be one of the—one of the main things.
GRAHAM: Right back here.
Q: Thank you. Mr. President, Earl Carr, representing Momentum Advisers.
You’ve talked about the growing strategic relationship between Georgia and China, in particular with the Silk Road. I was wondering, how do you—how does Russia perceive a growing Georgia and China relationship? Are they supportive, or is there some kind of competitive rivalry that is—that is embedded in that?
MARGVELASHVILI: Well, first of all, we are—we had—we had the visit of prime minister in China. And they have been discussing a free-trade agreement with China, which is—which is—which is very interesting and good. But even more, we have China interested and engaged in the development and strengthening of the Silk Road.
We have not heard Russian direct comments on this kind of development. But I believe this is not an issue to be competing about, because Russia definitely is the—one of the biggest parts of the Silk Road that is starting from China. There’s already-existing railways and other systems that they have developed. So we haven’t heard anything negative.
But actually, I mean, if it’s only Russia, then it is going to be complicated. And I think that the Chinese do see and acknowledge that it should be—the whole routes should be diversified, and they see the importance of Georgia’s role on this—on this direction.
GRAHAM: We have a question down here.
Q: Lester Wigler, Morgan Stanley.
You’ve mentioned several times, Mr. President, the importance of positioning your country as a connector, as the transit role, as you put it. Could you comment on the developments that Georgia has made to make themselves more energy sufficient through some of the other projects that are going on and some of the efforts that are happening in that respect?
MARGVELASHVILI: Well, there are several directions that we are developing right now.
First of all, it is our intensifying our partnerships and the energy transfer projects—transit projects that we have—I have mentioned. One of the most new developments is intensifying the TAP and TANAP projects, and the TAP project really becoming a project of European energy security because it’s going through Georgia, through Turkey, and go and finding its way into Italy.
But Georgia itself—and I’m happy you mentioned this—itself has very interesting energy security capacities, which are hydroelectric capacities, and that is really important. With the last assessment that I’ve heard of, we have—only have been able to utilize less than 20 percent of our hydroelectric capacities. And in this respect, Georgia is a—is a free market, integrated into the trade system to Russia, into the direction of Turkey as well. And so we have found in recent years interest in investing in hydropower development in our country, and I hope that that will be continuing and developing.
I mean, this is a mountainous country with one of the most wealthy hydro resources—at least in Soviet Union we were the most hydro-wealthy country. So there is this capacity, and we are—we are thinking and developing this capacity for the growing Georgian market, because still we are importers of—importers of electricity during—we are not importing only in the summertime, so the rest we are importing. So for the local Georgian market, but as well as for the exports, which is also a great area and an interest for investing into Georgia.
GRAHAM: I think we have time for one last question. I’m going go right down here on—
Q: Jeff Laurenti.
President Margvelashvili, Georgia flickers only occasionally in the—in the American media. We’ve seen stories that shock many Americans of a supposed little Stalin cult at Gori of people nostalgic for the “good old days” and of extreme nationalist movements in Georgia. To what extent do these extreme kind of movements play a role in Georgian politics? To what extent do they alienate, perhaps, the ethnic minorities, like Abkhaz or Ossetians, and make them catnip for Russian meddling? And how does the political system find its center when you have—if you have these kinds of fringes at the extreme that may be agitating?
MARGVELASHVILI: Well, let me start with Stalin and—(laughter)—and just tell you that, when Stalin was alive, there were no good old days in Georgia. (Laughter.) I would—(laughter)—I mean, those are tragic days for Georgia. Especially, I think I have not gone much into the—into this issue, but I think that he had some kind of revenge for our country in the way—for many reasons which I don’t know, but these were tragic days because hundreds of Georgians were executed and killed and put to jail. And even in the Second World War, I mean—Georgia was not being occupied, by the way—it was a country that has contributed one of the most to the front. In a country of up to 4 millions, 700,000 people were recruited into army. I mean, this is an unbelievably big number of people going to war. And out of the 700,000, 350,000 have died in Second World War—especially in Kerch, when there was this.
So there were no good old days with Stalin, so I don’t think that Georgians have a nostalgia for Stalin. I don’t think they do. But it’s a free society. It’s a free society where you can express yourself.
And by the way, one of the achievements recently which brings lots of problems is a more free society and a bigger—and an intensifying of a democracy process in Georgia. And I find that there are—there are voices that are speaking about Stalin. There are voices that are speaking about Russia’s—positive Russia. There are voices that are speaking anti-NATO. But this is normal. I mean, this is something—this is something that has to be happening because that’s democracy. I mean, those voices have the right to speak out, and we just have—don’t have to be shocked about that, we have to live with this.
What is important in my country is that the overwhelming majority has not only vision, but has committed themselves to the same values that you share here. This is the values of freedom, the values of democracy, the values of the right to choose what you want and how you want to live. And this is how we are living, and we have committed—my compatriots have committed lives to those choices, because it’s 20 years and a little bit more that we are paying with our lifestyle, with our wealth, with our people who fight on the battlefields and who get killed, just for being—just for choosing those values. And this is something that unites society.
Now, there are always odd people and there are always strange people. Actually, that’s the good thing in a free society. I mean, that’s what makes life interesting, by the way, you know. (Laughter.) If everyone was smart and calm, then it would be—it would be a terrible life. And especially in emotional Georgia, where everyone speaks themselves out.
So, yeah, I mean, that’s what Georgia is. It is for democracy. It is for—it is for the freedom of Georgian people. It is for European integration. It has been, traditionally. We are a European culture. Now this European is put into format of EU, of NATO. Those are the names for the brand, being European and Euro-Atlantic. But by culture, that’s who we are. We are open society. We have been like that in Soviet Union. I think you had a chance to visit us in Soviet Union, you would see how different—not different, but how unregulated our society was at that point. I hope they made you drink and sort of enjoy Georgia how it is. (Laughter.)
So basically that’s it. And there will be parts of Stalinism. There will be part of this, part of that. But that’s normal.
GRAHAM: Unfortunately, our time has run out, Mr. President. But I can confirm what you said. I mean, the food is great, the wine is better, and the people are the best thing of all when you go to Georgia, so.
MARGVELASHVILI: Great. That’s a great ending for this—(laughter)—for this—for this sad story. (Laughs.) (Applause.)
GRAHAM: So please join me. (Applause.)
MARGVELASHVILI: Thank you. Thank you. (Applause.)
This is an uncorrected transcript.