- 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.

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