A Conversation With President Salome Zourabichvili of Georgia

Friday, September 27, 2019
Lucas Jackson/Reuters
Salome Zourabichvili

President, Georgia

Alexander R. Vershbow

Distinguished Fellow, Atlantic Council; Former U.S. Ambassador to Russia

VERSHBOW: Good morning, everyone. Welcome to today’s meeting of the Council on Foreign Relations with President Salome Zourabichvili of the Republic of Georgia. I’m Alexander Vershbow. I’m Alexander Vershbow. I’m the distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council, retired diplomat, and will be presiding over today’s discussion.

It’s a great honor for me to be here with President Zourabichvili who, as you know, was elected president last December and, of course, was earlier, perhaps in simpler times, minister of foreign affairs of Georgia. And this was all after a thirty-year career in the French diplomatic service. Madam President, we first met in the early 1980s, when you were a French embassy officer. I was at the State Department and you were reporting on arms control and east-west relations. I’ve been dying to ask you since that time what inspired you to make the switch to return to the country of your ancestors to become foreign minister, and how difficult was the transition? Did you have this idea for a long time, or is it something that came to you when you were serving as ambassador?

ZOURABICHVILI: No. (Laughs.) Neither. I always wanted to do something for the country, and especially after it became independent. What is it that you can do to help support and use your experience? But in fact, it happened without me. And it happened with two persons, one was president Saakashvili, who was a new elected president of Georgia in 2004, and the second one was the President Chirac, who died yesterday. And they met for the official visit of the President Saakashvili in Paris, and they decided it would be a good idea for me to become the foreign minister.

VERSHBOW: You were the last to know about this idea? (Laughs.)

ZOURABICHVILI: I was the last to know. I was three months French ambassador to Georgia when that was decided. So—and there are things that you do not refused probably in life. So that was one of them.

VERSHBOW: Were they shocked at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs when you turned up one day as their boss?

ZOURABICHVILI: They were surprised. (Laughter.)

VERSHBOW: Good. Well, congratulations on an unusual and extraordinary career.

But let’s get down to policy issues. Perhaps we can start with the domestic situation in Georgia. As we all know, Russia is doing everything it can to block Georgia’s path to the West and to prevent you from becoming a stable, thriving democracy. Of course, despite all of this Russian pressure, Georgia has made extraordinary strides in becoming a thriving democracy with a dynamic civil society. And of course, seven years ago there was a peaceful transfer of power from President Saakashvili to the Georgia Dream coalition. But earlier this year, there were renewed doubts about Georgia’s democracy when political unrest erupted in June, following the visit of a Russian parliamentary delegation. What do these protest say about the maturity of Georgian politics and Georgian democracy? And what do you see as the implications going forward?

ZOURABICHVILI: Well, first of all, I think that demonstrations anywhere are a sign of democracy. And we have had a lot of signs of democracy in Georgia. And I think that’s good, that’s normal, and it’s part of the Georgian character to be very eloquent in these things. And I think that the Georgian civil society is very active, is very politicized, is very much active in the social network. The media are very active and very critical. And I think that all of that is very good, except for the tendency that is noted elsewhere too, which is polarization—and excessive polarization. But that’s another issue.

Coming back to the—to the events of June, I think they have been a bit misrepresented outside of Georgia. There are two very different things that have to be very well understood. One is the reaction of the whole population, indistinctive of any political appearance to the fact of Gavrilov being seated in the seat of the parliament. The more time goes, the more I think that this was planned somehow. How it was planned, I don’t know. But there was a form of provocation. And that is something that we should all take into account, but it’s a reflection of what is the frustration of a country, of a nation, when after how many years—eleven years after the war and twenty-six years of frozen conflicts that have been moved to occupied regions. There is a point in time when the society, the nation doesn’t see any perspective of things being solved, being overcome. And then any incident can turn to that eruption of frustration. And that’s what happened. And I think that everybody should look at that, including our northern neighbor.

Then the second phase of these events was that some opposition parties more radical than others tried to use that, as it happens also in many countries, to use that to make their aims attain, because they cannot probably win—or at least it’s their evaluation—through elections. So they try to enter forcefully the parliament. And it’s very clear when you look at the—at the pictures of how the police forces tried to resist for a number of hours were attacked very directly. And in fact, there are now inquests on these facts. And I think that any democratic country would resist the forced entry into the parliament, and especially a country that has at about thirty kilometers from the capital city Russian occupation forces and military forces that could, at any time, come to save someone of something.

So I think that we are in that sense just reacting the way any democracy should react. So I’m not really concerned about that aspect. I’m concerned about the first aspect. And that was one of my main messages here when meeting with my diverse counterparts and the secretary-general of the General Assembly. And it was also my message in my speech, that we have to do something. We need movement. We cannot just sit—I was very criticized during this summer for not having gone on the occupation line when there was a new episode of Russians trying to move the fences and provoking us. Well, it’s very clear that the Georgian president cannot go on the occupation line and just look at what the Russians are doing, and how many more kilometers they are moving it forward, without being able to do anything but look. So I think that it’s not the proper attitude.

But we have to do something outside. We cannot do anything there, because Georgia has unilaterally declined the use of force for any time to come. We do not have, because we’re respecting the 2008 ceasefire agreements, we do not have any military forces close to the occupation line. So we are trying to resist the different forms of provocations that vary from day to day and are almost every other day they’re closing the crossing points. People are under humanitarian, very difficult situations. And we are to balance between resisting the provocation but at the same time reacting in some ways, because otherwise you appear to be completely accepting the status quo.

So we have to move outside. We cannot move on the occupation line. We have to move outside. And that means that our partners have to take upon them the issue. It is not acceptable that because they’re dealing with Ukraine they forget about Georgia. That was my very strong message. Because otherwise it sends to Russia the wrong signal, that it’s enough to go now to a third place and then we will forget about Ukraine. So it’s not logical and it’s not the right positive signal.

So, one, we should have Georgia on all the agendas. And each time one talks either publicly or to the Russians in private or in multilateral formats one has to, at the same time Ukraine is mentioned, mention Georgia. And there has to be more activity in terms of trying to push for solutions, for formats to be reactivated. And I’ve been talking a lot about the Geneva format, that is a completely technical and un-useful format this stage, unless it goes back to what it was designed to do which was to be a format for real political substantial discussions.

And those discussions at the first stage should be to push, and to ask, and to demand from Russia that it behaves in accordance with the cease-fire agreement of 2008. That is the first step. That’s not simply the solution to the occupied territories, per se, but for instance allowing the EU monitoring mission to accomplish its mandate, which was accepted by Russia, which is to oversee the whole of the territory, and not just the occupation line, first, would prevent a number of incidents, per se. And that would deescalate. And secondly, to give an additional sense of security to both populations living there, to the Georgian authorities. And so it would be stabilize also the region.

And so there are many steps like that that can be done, if there is a real engagement of our partners. Where I think that the idea that our partners can be self-satisfied with just declaring once in a while that they recognize Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and they think that they are doing by that a very big thing, I think is not enough. It’s, of course, very important, and it should continue, and it’s something that has brought us until then. But it’s not enough. And we have to say that it’s not enough.

VERSHBOW: Well, I can see why you don’t want Ukraine to get all the attention, although right now in terms of lots of publicity I think you’re probably lucky not to be in the same boat as Ukraine right now. (Laughter.)

ZOURABICHVILI: I certainly do not want. And that was something I’ve been saying on and off, that I do not want Georgia to be known only for its conflict. And certainly we have many other reasons to be known and to be on the agenda. But on the conflict’s agenda, it is not possible that Georgia is not at least mentioned. Of course, the Ukraine conflict is much more open. It’s in an active phase. And it’s closer and bigger than the Georgian conflict. But that’s not a way to look at conflicts. They are whole and they are to be treated as a whole.

VERSHBOW: Coming back to this issue of the Russians, beyond the games that they’re playing along the border—the so-called borderization—how seriously are the Russians meddling in your domestic politics, using disinformation, corruption, measures of all kinds? And is this something you feel the West is not helping you enough?

ZOURABICHVILI: It would be very surprising that the Russians, knowing us the way they know us from the very old Soviet times, and having had all their instruments to understand the Georgian psychology and the Georgian history. It would be impossible to think that they would not use their knowledge to do the same thing that they are doing in countries which they know much less and have studied much less. So, yes, of course. They’re using fake news, for instance. They have been pushing a lot on the—just one example—on the Lugar Laboratory that is Georgia, and that is a very effective place for research and fighting the different viruses and making research. And they have started rumors that, in fact, they are trying to invent or use some biological weapons, and that the flu epidemic of this winter was generated by the Lugar Laboratory. And they’ve used that then to close all the crossing points with the Abkhazian region and Tskhinvali region during most part of the winter.

And the preoccupation there is not only that it had this effect, and that was a very grave humanitarian situation, but other preoccupation is that a number of people that you wouldn’t have thought were believing that this Lugar Laboratory might be something else. That one is very transparent and, in fact, a very high level of laboratory and of protection. So that is a concern, because you have—they are reaching out to a certain category of the society that normally should be educated enough not to believe those things.

VERSHBOW: The Russians are taking some new steps, just in recent days, to consolidate their control over Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the occupied territories.

ZOURABICHVILI: That’s every day.

VERSHBOW: But now they’re talking about modernizing the armed forces, establishing regular armed forces.

ZOURABICHVILI: Well, there have been—in fact, commanding the armed forces in those places for now a couple of years, they have multiplied the military bases. They have military exercises of different dimensions. I think that we counted 100 in South Ossetia for the past year. Of course, what they call military exercise might vary very much in terms of numbers. So it’s just this cat and mouse game that they’re continuing, which is made of many different things. It’s made of passportization, of depriving the last part of the ethnic Georgians living in Abkhazia from their passports and trying to force them to take either Abkhazian documents or Russian passports. It’s a mixture of those. So there is something at each time that varies. And the common objective of all that is to drag it into reacting in some form to the provocations, because they know that if we’re dragged into that, that’s where we cannot win. So it’s really a test of the nerves, which is not easy. But we have to know that it’s a test of the nerves.

VERSHBOW: Indeed. Let’s turn to your relations with the EU and NATO. So let’s start with the EU. You’ve, of course, had your association agreement and free trade agreement with the EU, which have been quite successful for about three years now. At the same time, there are new leaders coming into positions of power within the European Union, starting in November. Do you see a more pro-Georgian attitude amongst these new people, or is it too soon to tell? And what are you saying to them as far as what should be the next stage of Georgia’s integration in the European Union? It seems like a membership perspective is a non-starter for many EU member states. But what besides a path to membership would you see as the next step that could support your reforms and also make more irreversible your path to the West?

ZOURABICHVILI: Well, first of all, I think it’s irreversible anyway. The second thing that I don’t think that the European new leaders should be pro-Georgian. I think they should be pro-European—really, pro-European. The third thing is that when you were remembering that when I was appointed foreign minister and I toured the different capitals I was told that there was no way that Georgia was going to be integrated in the neighborhood policy. And just a few months later we were becoming part of the neighborhood policy. And since then, our path has been one of constant progress. First, the partnership—oriental partnership. Then the association agreement. Then free and deep trade, and visa liberalization.

So almost every two, three, five years there is a very substantial step forward that has been taken, which is very clearly seen by the population. And as a result, we have today 78 percent of popular support, in the latest opinion polls. And that has been constant. It varies from one point—

VERSHBOW: People aren’t losing hope.

ZOURABICHVILI: They’re not losing hope. They’re not losing direction. Hope is a different thing. And I don’t think that we base anything on hope these days. Just on the realities. So reality-based, it means that we are very clear about the fact that looking at the European Union, there is no appetite today for making a political decision about candidature or membership. So that’s the reality that we have to take into account.

On our side, the answer to that is we can understand that you have Brexit, populism, lack of enthusiasm for new enlargement. But on our side, we need to be seeing what is the next movement forward, the next rapprochement with the European Union, the concrete steps, again, that we can have in order to continue showing the population that this road is one of movement and not of standing still.

VERSHBOW: And do you have specific asks of them? Customs union, energy union?

ZOURABICHVILI: Exactly. The idea is to ask. And there has been very positive answers from different European leaders, Macron being one of them, and the new president of the council, Michel, another. When we say that we want sectoral integration and to become full members of different programs of the European Union, be it in culture, be it in energy, oil and transport, where we are almost already part of the new TNT program. So that’s the direction. So it’s a very concrete, I would say almost a physical direction to say we are ready for so many programs. We want to become a full member of those programs. And let’s forget for some time the question of the status and the political decision.

But maybe in a couple of years when you will ready for political decision, you will realize that in fact a de facto Georgia is part of 60 percent, 65 percent of what the European Union is. We are already, for instance, in the peace mission in South Africa. We’re very interest in closer security and defense relationship with the EU. To which extent, that is something to be decided. We are full members of the education—the programs on education. Georgian studies are one of the first users of Erasmus. They are voting with their feet, and so on.

So we have all this panoply, I would say, of different programs and we have to present, and that’s what we are now working on, present a very concrete list of where we want to be in the different programs.

VERSHBOW: Well, I hope they’re responsive and they don’t cite some of the recent political turbulence as an excuse, because—

ZOURABICHVILI: I don’t think so. There is no real.

VERSHBOW: Yeah. Turning to NATO. It’s been eleven years now since NATO promised both you and Ukraine that you will be members, but they’ve been conspicuously unable to name a timetable. But at the same time, I think Georgia has made the most of all the different partnership tools and mechanisms that NATO has created—the substantial NATO-Georgia package, NATO has a Joint Training and Evaluations Center on Georgian territory. Do you think the Georgian people are patient and can focus on these interim measures?

ZOURABICHVILI: There is a slightly less—for NATO I think it’s seventy-three or -two. I don’t know, I can’t remember the exact numbers. But also it has been constant. And I think that we are exactly in the same position towards—there is a parallelism between the two. With NATO we know, and that’s very clearly said, everybody tells us we are the frontrunners, that we are excellent, that we are doing everything that has to be done. But that we will not have MAP, because in fact giving MAP to Georgia today, everybody knows that in six months’ time we would fulfill the last things that have to be done in MAP. And so immediately after comes the question of membership.

So knowing that, again, the same thing. We need—we can for some time just put the status question on the side because of realism, but at the same time we need the movement. So where can we get the movement to get closer and more involved with NATO? We have had—this year we had two military exercises. We had the committee—military committee visiting Georgia, the secretary-general. And we are having the North Atlantic Council visiting Georgia in October. So you can hardly do more in terms of high-level visits. So we need more concrete programs. So what can it be? And we have identified the two directions in which we really could do much more with NATO. One is the Black Sea security. And it’s a very important subject. And in fact, there could be an idea, which I proposed to the secretary-general and which needs to be pushed further, to have a Center of Excellence on Black Sea security in Georgia. That would give the sense of something more happening.

The other issue on which we, as everybody else, needs more cooperation with NATO is the issue of cybersecurity. And there too, we have to find the new ways of having more intense cooperation, support, training, because we need—where we are located, and that concerns attacks from Russia, but not only from Russia. We’ve had also Iran and China. So we need to be consolidated in that—in that aspect. And that will give us this sense of movement that we absolutely need also on the side of NATO.

VERSHBOW: Recently former NATO Secretary-General Rasmussen made a fairly provocative proposal, saying that Georgia’s membership shouldn’t be postponed inevitable by the Russian occupation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. He suggested that allies agree that Georgia could become a member with the proviso that Article 5 guarantees would not apply to the occupied territories until they were restored to Georgia. Was this a helpful proposal? Or do you think it will only—

ZOURABICHVILI: I will not comment, because as a president I cannot comment on any particular proposal that I’ve not made. I will just say one thing on that, which is that I don’t think it’s right to say that the discussions of membership and not decision on membership is due to Russia. I think that is very dangerous to say, because first of all I think it’s not true. There are many other—it might be one of the reasons, or one of the concerns. But for someone to say that Georgia is not becoming member of NATO because of Russia, and especially from the secretary-general of NATO, that I think is a concern. The rest, I leave to him. (Laughs.)

VERSHBOW: OK. One last question, then we’ll open it up to the—open up to questions and answers from the members. Just your thoughts on President Putin’s policy towards Russia’s neighbors? Do you see any hope that he may soften his—or, modify his strategy of using the frozen conflicts as a way of blocking Georgia’s and Ukraine’s path to the West? And do you think Russia is capable of ever seeing countries like Georgia and Ukraine as partners rather than vassals? (Laughs.)

ZOURABICHVILI: Again, I would challenge the idea that Russia has managed to block the path of Georgia towards EU or NATO. It is the contrary that despite the conflict, despite the occupation, Georgia has managed to continue its path. And that, I think, should be something that should be mediated by the Russian leadership, that if that was the objective, that objective has not been reached. And if that is a measure of who has won this war of nerves, then we have won the war of nerves, and we continue. Because there is nothing that will divert Georgia from this path, which is the path that not only the population has chosen, but that is now inscribed in the constitution since last year. So that doesn’t make any doubt.

Whether Russia can rethink its policies with the neighbors, I think that I’ve been from the very beginning, at the time when I was negotiating the military bases and I was visiting you in Moscow, from the very time I’ve always said that what we are waiting for is for Russia to rediscover the fact that it has everything to win of treating its neighbors with respect and because none of these neighbors are de facto threatening Russia in any way. So of course, we all have the hope that one day they will understand what is the rule of the international community anywhere else, but I cannot make prognosis as to when that will happen.

VERSHBOW: Yeah. No, I’m not optimistic. I think Putin prefers to be feared than loved. Maybe he doesn’t think he can be loved, so he chooses to be feared.

But anyway, let’s now invite members of the Council to join the conversation and pose some questions to you, Madam President. Who’d like to be the first? Please. Please identify yourself and make it a real question. (Laughter.)

Q: Charles Henderson.

What specifically would you like to see from the outside to deal with the Russian occupation? And also, what role would Georgia play in that cooperative approach to dealing with the Russian occupation?

ZOURABICHVILI: I don’t know whether it’s a cooperative approach. First it has to be a demanding approach. But we’re expecting that our partners that are dealing and having an intensive dialogue with—more or less, an intensive dialogue with Russia, would be repeating every time, and at any of their meetings with Russia, that it would help in a general way to turn to the behavior that is a normal behavior instead of playing on the tension, the incidents, because it’s nobody’s interest in that region to have instability incidents.

It’s a miracle that Georgia has managed over the years, and despite, again, the frozen conflicts, then the war, then the occupation, that Georgia has managed to be really and become a very stable country that is attracting investment, that is in the investors ratings figuring quite well, and is viewed outside as a stable country. And that’s the Georgian miracle that we have to preserve. But meanwhile, our partners have to be active, proactive with the Russians. And I don’t know what you can get, but if you do not ask then it will be considered as a closed subject. And that is what is not acceptable by us.

VERSHBOW: Mmm hmm. Other questions? Please, in the back. And please stand up so we can all hear you.

Q: Negar Kongary (ph). Thank you for your comments. It’s very, very, very interesting and insightful.

Just a quick question. Is there any role that you think some of the countries in the far east can play—specifically Japan, China—in the same way that they’re playing a role in stabilizing some of your—the ex-Soviet republics in Central Asia?

ZOURABICHVILI: That they could play in the Caucasus? The Chinese are present a little bit. They’re present like they are probably in other continents, in Africa. They’re present in infrastructure investments and works. They’re not very active otherwise. In political terms, they’re not very active. Whether any of their involvement there would add in any way to the—to the stability and be something that could be helpful one way or the other, I’m not very sure.

VERSHBOW: Yes, front row.

Q: David Walker. Good morning.

May I pick up on the point about economic growth? Certain IFIs, such as the EBRD have been very active in Georgia. What is needed now to continue to transition to full market economy? And you mentioned Erasmus. Could you maybe make a few comments about demographics? A very empowered Georgian youth diaspora, but what role do they play?

ZOURABICHVILI: Not enough. That’s one of my priorities and one of my concerns, that we are not making the right use of this experimented and education youth that is flooding around the European and American universities, because we do not have the right instruments for that—neither the salaries nor the promotions. We have to review our policy of how to attract back some of those—some of these—what has become a little bit of a brain drain. So that’s one part, for the development of the economy. And the second one is that we need more foreign investment. More foreign investment in the major projects.

You have probably heard about Anaklia, the deep-sea port. That is one of the big projects. And that has become a political discussion for some reason, when it’s really an economic discussion, because this is a very important new orientation, and that fits very well with the ideas of the European Union on increasing their investments in the transport between Romania, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Georgia through the Black Sea and then Caspian Sea, and Kazakhstan. But that needs involvement and investments in the port’s construction. And for the time being, the only investment has been budgetary investment from the Georgian state. And that is not enough.

So we have in some way to mobilize more interest. One of my also work is to meet with investors and try to invite them, attract them. And maybe on our side we have also to make proposals clear—in a clearer way. What are the different segments of the economy, because—that’s one example. But we have many other examples in the economy that need today clear and forceful investments to pass the next stage. And that is the hospitality sector, these are infrastructures, again, transport, road, logistics, a cable of connectivity under the Black Sea, and everything that touches to the resorts—spa resorts, sport resorts, mountain resorts—which is a very—becoming very active. We’ve had a touristic boom the last two years. We have managed to keep these tourist attraction despite the restrictions imposed by Russia over the summer, which could have been dramatic for the touristic industry. But we have managed—

VERSHBOW: You’re talking about the flight restrictions?


VERSHBOW: Mmm hmm.

ZOURABICHVILI: We have managed. We had alternative tourist influx in the country. We are very resilient, in fact.

VERSHBOW: Definitely, that’s the case. (Laughter.)

There’s another question here in the front, Peter.

Q: Peter Pettibone.

I want to follow up on that question, and ask whether you have any contact with China, particularly with regard to the Road and Belt Initiative.

ZOURABICHVILI: We are in contact. Not that we are an active partner, but they are also promoting the Road and Belt Initiative in Georgia, as anywhere else, because we’re part of the direction and transport. Of course, it involves—it goes to China, because we have the particularity also of having the free trade agreement with European Union, a free trade agreement with China, and a free trade agreement that is in the process of being concluded with India. So we think that we can be and play an important role as a hub between these markets. And not only direct investment in Georgia, but just having companies that use Georgia as a hub for playing on their sides.

VERSHBOW: Any chance of a free trade agreement with the United States? And are you asking for anything to help the U.S. to be more engaged in the economy?

ZOURABICHVILI: I think they would welcome that.


ZOURABICHVILI: I can’t say more.

VERSHBOW: OK. (Laughs.)

Third row, here.

Q: Lucy Komisar. I am a journalist.

On the issue of NATO and whether Georgia should—could, should—become a member, are you concerned that bringing NATO right up to the border of Russia would be a provocation that would hurt the possibility of ultimately having better relations with the country, rather than put Georgia on a path to getting better relations?

ZOURABICHVILI: I don’t think that we have ever been directed and influenced by any form of threats. So these are threats that are recurrent in the Russian declaration, that it might—just recently they have said that they will not prevent us by war to enter NATO, but that it would degrade our relations. Well, they are quite degraded. So we’ll see. And I remember a time when I was negotiating the withdrawal of military bases with Minister Lavrov, and his position at that time that he expressed very clearly was: You can choose any of the alliances that you want. What we need to have is a clear assurance that it’s not directed against us. So I think that we can play in this. And we certainly should not be deterred in our decision and in what is in the interest of the country by what might happen.

VERSHBOW: Just a minor fact. During the Cold War the Soviet Union was on NATO’s border. Turkey and Georgia was the NATO-Soviet Union border. So it wouldn’t be an entirely new thing.

ZOURABICHVILI: That’s right. (Laughter.)

VERSHBOW: Here, the second row. Wait for the microphone, please.

Q: Thank you very much. I’m Lee Cullum. I’m a journalist also.

Madam President, thank you so much for taking time to be here this morning. It’s really heartening to hear a leader as serious and thoughtful as you are. You are interested in the EU, of course. And I wonder, you’ve been in France a long time, what do you see ahead for the EU? It’s been swimming in sea of troubles. Will it be able to regain its equilibrium and its momentum?

ZOURABICHVILI: Well, I’m looking at the EU on both sides, as an old EU—(laughs)—member, and from the Georgian perspective. So that gives me two varied perspective of the EU. From my former place where I was and I worked for a long time, in fact I was teaching also EU foreign policy to students in France. What one of the conclusions I have is that EU has never progressed without crisis. All the progressions of its policies, whether it was in the security field or in the institutional field, were always provoked by major crises, whether it was Yugoslavia conflict or other forms.

So what I think that Brexit is going to do is going to force an institution that has a very difficult time to find a new energy in itself, it’s going to force it to reform itself, and to find new directions, and a new dynamism, and new leaders, which they really need. And for us, looking from outside, I think that we’re very useful for the European Union. They cannot do without countries like us because, first of all, we are the ones carrying the last bits of enthusiasm for the European Union. So they badly need that. (Laughter.) And also, we are having ideas of more flexibility, of things that you can do outside of these very strict formats that you are a member or you are not a member, and what you get when you’re a member, and how many votes, and what type of majority.

They have to get out of this very complex, but internal—inward-looking situation, and start looking outside at the world. And when they doubt about what they are going to become, and I was presenting a speech to a wide audience of European businessmen a few weeks ago. And I was telling them that when you doubt—the day when you doubt, you just close your eyes and try to imagine what would be the world if Europe did not exist. And I think that it’s frightening. (Laughs.) So I’m optimistic, on all grounds. (Laughter.)

VERSHBOW: I recall when I was at NATO our commanders always said that Georgia was perhaps punching above its weight, far more than some of the existing allies. Indeed, and they of course bore heavy burdens by being the largest per-capita contributor to our operations in Afghanistan, something not fully appreciated.

Person there in the third row.

Q: David Handelman from CNN Opinion.

Madam President, welcome and thank you for your remarkable career. I’m interested in the current atmosphere in Washington and how that might affect the United States’ ability to—or, willingness to react sufficiently if the Russians do expand their provocations against Georgia. And if they take advantage of this atmosphere to do so, how do you feel about that? Are you concerned about that, the atmosphere in Washington today?

ZOURABICHVILI: First of all, you should tell me about the atmosphere in Washington. (Laughter.) I am ready to listen. The only thing I can say, is that in some ways that’s a tendency that has started a few years ago. The U.S. is becoming Georgian in the fact that it’s becoming polarized. And of course, it’s a concern when you’re a major partner. But there is one thing for us which is very positive, is that Georgia has always been outside of the party politics in the United States and has been a common project for both Democrats and Republicans. And I think that we cannot affect what’s happening in Washington. But what we have to keep and to strive for is to remain an issue and a policy that is not dependent on the internal political situation in Washington.

VERSHBOW: Back row.

Q: Thank you, Madam President. Steve Hellmann.

Do you have any advice for Ukraine?

ZOURABICHVILI: I would refrain. But I have very good relations with President Zelensky. I have an advice, in fact. And I’ve been proposing, and we are probably going to do it, is what I described as our policy toward the European Union and our program of demands. We are ready to share. And I think it will be useful for Georgia and Ukraine together to go to Brussels quite early on, when the new commission comes in, and present a common front on those issues that we want to be defended. And I think that there is a positive position towards that in Kyiv.

VERSHBOW: Question right here, second row.

Q: Matthew Hurlock. I’m a lawyer.

 I don’t want this question to be too stupid, but what is your—what is, in fact, your perception of what Putin and Russia want to do to Georgia now? I mean, I understand the constant threat so you never forget them, but reabsorbing it would be—I mean, what do you think they actually want to accomplish now, and how does that inform your interactions with them?

ZOURABICHVILI: Well, that’s the big difficulty, that really there is no clue about what they want. One thing that one can think is that it’s to prevent the integration to NATO and the European Union. But it’s not working. The idea that Russia could really occupy the whole sort of—is out of the realm of reality, because they know very well they have the experience elsewhere that this would provoke an armed fight that would end nobody knows when. That’s not something that is acceptable for the Georgian citizens and will never be. So it might be a protracted, terrible—and I don’t see that the Russians have this strategy. Thirdly, I don’t think the Russians have a strategy at all. I think that’s my personal analysis and view. I think that large countries and former empires do not have strategies because they always think that force is enough.

So they don’t have to—we need strategies. When I’m talking about EU, I need a very clear strategy, and we have to work it out, because we are a small country, we have many neighbors around, and we need to be very clear how to play. And that’s what Georgia has been doing for twenty-seven centuries. And if I’m an optimist, it’s because Georgia has managed through invasions and wars to come to this day by being—while being a small country where everybody wanted to come in and stay. So we need a strategy. But those immense, in the case of Russia, empires or former empires do not need a strategy. So I think it’s an inertia.

And for instance, if we—one looks at the 2008 war, that was very clear that Russia didn’t have a strategy. They did it. And in fact, that’s why I think that Sarkozy was very useful. Of course, he didn’t solve the issue, but he was exactly at the right time in the right place to allow Russia to stop. If it hadn’t been a kind of face-saving ceasefire agreement, there was no way that either Putin or Medvedev, and at that time they were the two heads, that either of them would have old the military stop, even if they didn’t intend to walk into Tbilisi and occupy the whole country they would have continued, because it’s like an inertia that moves forward. So it’s very difficult, looking at that in this way, to try to analyze what is it that they really want.

Q: (Off mic.)

ZOURABICHVILI: Yeah. And I’m strong, I have military might, so I can do anything I want. And if today I decide to do it, I can do it. So it’s very unpredictable at the same time.

VERSHBOW: The danger is that the status quo is probably satisfactory for Putin. He doesn’t want to solve these conflicts. He doesn’t want to escalate either. But keeping these companies sort of off-balance, under constant pressure, suits his interests. And he’s not feeling enough pressure from the West to do otherwise.

Any other questions? Yes, back here.

Q: Good morning, Madam President. Thank you for being with us. I’m Chloe Demrovsky, president and CEO of Disaster Recovery Institute International.

My question is a bit different. Georgia has made significant cultural contributions, not the least of which are culinary. And of course, Georgian wine.

ZOURABICHVILI: Please come. (Laughter.)

Q: So I was curious if you have any soft power strategies for creating rapprochement with your country or to build alliances. Thank you.

ZOURABICHVILI: We didn’t have a soft power strategy, but we’ve discovered that we had won without knowing it.

VERSHBOW: Cuisine. (Laughs.)

ZOURABICHVILI: Cuisine, wine, landscapes, hospitality of the Georgians, and their immense tolerance. The one example that I like to use is that last year we had one million five hundred thousand Russian tourists in the country. And there was not a single incident happened that was recorded or anything. And I think that somewhere this restriction of flights that was imposed this year was maybe a reaction to the soft power, because all these Russians go back to the country very happy of their stay in Georgia. And in fact, when the restrictions on flights were announced by Putin this summer, there were quite a lot of negative reactions in the Russian social media and press. Saying, well, we want to go to Georgia. We have made our reservations and we want to go. So maybe we have a soft power.

We certainly have a soft power towards the other countries, because it’s something that is very—that I’m discovering when traveling, visiting on official visits and having—everybody’s ready to come to Georgia. And I’m sure that you all are, that we’re waiting for you. So that is very important to bring investors to make aware of what is really Georgia. For the Europeans, they arrive, and they discover that Georgia is really a European country, which they theoretically maybe imagine, but they imagine more than it’s more an Asian, oriental country. I’m all the time asked: Isn’t it an exception, and isn’t it difficult to be a woman president in Georgia? Well, no, because we are European, and because it has been a tradition in Georgia to have women very powerful. And so it’s not something. But you don’t know that unless you come to the country and visit it. So, yes, this is a very strong. And I think we have to strategize it more.

VERSHBOW: And if you haven’t visited Georgia, you should. But otherwise, come to Washington. We’re way ahead of New York on Georgian restaurants and availability of Georgian wine.

Yes, question.

Q: Madam President, I’m Kevin Sheehan with Multiplier Capital, and investment firm, but formerly with State and Defense.

And I wanted to ask you a question about the historical legacy of Mr. Shevardnadze. How is he viewed by Georgia today? And what was his—what is his legacy?

ZOURABICHVILI: Well, I think that he, as everything in Georgia, there are always two visions. And it’s very radically different. And that’s why I said we are a vivid Democratic society. Any subject, whatever you start, is going to be the matter for very heated discussion. But all in all, I think that it’s recognized today, with time going by, that he was the one to start Georgia on the path towards EU and NATO. He made the very strategic—he had the strategic vision that was not evident at that time. And that was probably his major input into the modern Georgia. Starting very early, having these very close contacts with German leaders, American leaders, was what really helped to move the Georgia on that direction.

And then it was confronted—I think all the Georgian presidents at different times had their very clear input, even if there is a very divisive view about them politically—internal politically. Saakashvili, undoubtably, started Georgia on the path of reforms, consolidated the EU-Atlantic, but the path of reforms, internal reforms, was extremely important.

VERSHBOW: Just a couple more minutes. Any other questions?

Can I ask one last question? What’s your evaluation of how things are changing in Armenia, one of your other neighbors?


VERSHBOW: Do you think that’s going to be irreversible in terms of genuine democratization? Or more of a nonaligned foreign policy?

ZOURABICHVILI: It’s always difficult to—I think that—at least their intention today is very clearly to move towards the EU and to take advantage of our experience and try to reproduce that. I think that they really want to take some distance with Moscow, although they have to do it in a—in a careful way. The concern is on the other side, is that their positions on the Karabakh conflict are a bit radical in certain ways, and how that can be managed together with the paths that they are taking is a question that I ask myself. I don’t know.

VERSHBOW: OK. But follow Georgia’s example as a role model.

Well, thank you very much, Madam President. Let’s give a round of applause of President Zourabichvili. (Applause.)


Top Stories on CFR

Palestinian Territories

The leading UN aid agency for Palestinian refugees is engulfed in allegations that twelve of its employees were involved in the Hamas attacks on southern Israel. The agency faces severe funding cutbacks, with huge consequences for hundreds of thousands of Palestinians. 

United States

New U.S. Census Bureau data shows the United States importing more goods from Mexico than from China. Will the shift change the global trading landscape?