- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili is determined to maintain his country’s embrace of the West by boosting economic ties with the European Union and eventually joining NATO, but he worries about pressure from Russia to bring the former Soviet republic into Moscow’s fold.

“We have a firm position on our European choice,” Mr. Garibashvili told The Washington Times in an interview.

The prime minister is clear he wants to transform Georgia into “a real democratic, Western and modern state,” and says surveys show that 85 percent of Georgia’s population supports integration into the EU.

But Mr. Garibashvili also believes that a good relationship with the West and Russia are not mutually exclusive.

His government has sought to mend ties with Moscow — ruptured after a war in 2008 — while pursuing a muscular diplomatic campaign to join the EU and NATO.

“That is the Georgian way. … We believe it doesn’t contradict,” he said Tuesday.

Washington has thrown its support behind Georgia’s Western ambitions as Russia flexes its muscles in its neighborhood.

On Monday, President Obama and Vice President Joseph R. Biden offered “unwavering support” for Mr. Garibashvili’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations in a meeting with the Georgian leader, the White House said.

On Wednesday, Secretary of State John F. Kerry expressed the Obama administration’s encouragement to Georgia to sign an association agreement this year to deepen trade and cooperation with the EU. The secretary noted, however, that U.S. support is not “some sort of zero-sum game between the East and West, or between us or any other party.”

Georgia, like Ukraine and other former Soviet republics, is caught in a tug of war between the West and Russia.

Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich’s decision to shun a trade and cooperation agreement with the EU in favor of a $15 billion bailout from Russia plunged the country into turmoil and led to his ouster last week.

“I hope that they will return to their European choice,” Mr. Garibashvili said of Ukraine.

Ukraine’s political turmoil has injected a sense of urgency into Georgia’s campaign to join the EU.

Mr. Garibashvili told the Atlantic Council on Tuesday that the dramatic events unfolding in Ukraine underscore the immediate need for the EU to give a “clear promise of membership” to countries like Georgia. Unless that happens, “this crisis similar to Ukraine will happen again and again,” he said.

“The West should realize that giving up on values in foreign policy may be very costly, not only for small countries like Georgia, but also for the entire international community,” he said.

Asked whether the ouster of a Moscow-leaning government in Ukraine may cause Russia to lash out at its neighbors, Mr. Garibashvili told The Times: “Nothing is excluded, but we will have to watch carefully.”

Mr. Garibashvili cited Russia’s activities in the breakaway Georgian provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as proof of Russian provocations as his nation looks West.

Georgia and Russia went to war in 2008, when Russian troops stepped in to support rebels in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Tbilisi and Moscow severed diplomatic ties.

Russia recognizes Abkhazia and South Ossetia as two independent countries; the U.S. and most other nations do not.

In December, weeks before the Winter Olympics in Sochi, the Russian government erected barbed wire fences in Abkhazia. Moscow explained it was a temporary measure to expand a security buffer zone around Sochi, which is near Abkhazia.

But Mr. Garibashvili said that Russia has resumed constructing 30 miles of barbed wire fence around South Ossetia even after the Games wrapped up last week.

“We are facing a number of provocations from them along the occupation line,” Mr. Garibashvili said. “Other than that, Russia does not have too many economic leverages on Georgia. We are less dependent on them, therefore I think they may increase pressure — they may use some tools — but they don’t have too many tools in our country.”

Georgia’s ties with Russia have improved gradually since the election of billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream coalition in 2012.

Mr. Ivanishvili stepped down from the post of prime minister in November and named Mr. Garibashvili as his successor.

At 31, Mr. Garibashvili is the youngest head of a democratically-elected government in the world. He was 9 when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. There was no electricity or gas in his home, and he had to study by candlelight.

“There was darkness in the country,” he said.

Mr. Garibashvili now is working to improve ties with Russia. He has appointed a personal representative for Russia relations, and Georgian exports — wine, mineral water and agricultural products — to Russia have tripled after Moscow lifted its ban.

Georgia, meanwhile, is pinning its hopes for NATO membership on an alliance meeting in Wales in September.

It has held free and fair parliamentary and presidential elections in 2012 and 2013, respectively, and is the largest non-NATO contributor of troops in Afghanistan.

Georgia has done all that is expected of it, said Mr. Garibashvili.

“I think we have already passed these tests. Now it’s their call,” he said. “Now it’s up to NATO to assess how they evaluate the progress that we have achieved, and the progress is obvious.”

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