PRAGUE -- Georgian Foreign Minister Eka Tkeshelashvili has been a key player on issues ranging from Tbilisi's NATO bid to its conflict with Russia over Abkhazia and South Ossetia. In an exclusive interview with RFE/RL correspondent Brian Whitmore, Tkeshelashvili discusses her country's future after the war with Russia, and how Georgia plans to get Abkhazia and South Ossetia back.
RFE/RL: Tbilisi has long sought to internationalize the frozen conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. On the one hand this has now happened to a large extent, albeit at great cost. But on the other hand, many observers say both regions might now be lost to Georgia and Russia is digging in ever deeper. Under these conditions, how does Tbilisi plan to bring these regions back?
Eka Tkeshelashvili: We understand that it will not be an easy process. But at the same time, it is a process that we have to be very constructive and serious about. It is not just a matter of how the state of Georgia is arranged, it concerns a lot of people, hundreds of thousands of people who have been expelled from their homes. When we speak about the solution to this conflict we speak about how the lives of these people will be arranged. They do want to go to their homes to arrange their lives and have secure and dignified conditions in which to live.
That's the top priority for us while having negotiations to find a solution to the conflicts. The territorial integrity of Georgia will always be an issue that will be the foundation for us in any talks and any negotiations. But this approach to human lives and human rights will always be the guiding principle for us.
RFE/RL: Given how much Russia appears to be digging in both in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, how will you be able to accomplish these goals?
Tkeshelashvili: It needs to be a coordinated effort of the international community. We have confidence that we will be successful of that will be the case.
Russia so far does not show any intent of being constructive and bringing positive changes to the situation. Russia continues to be very dangerous in its actions on the ground. Russia has an obligation to withdraw back to the lines [of where forces were] on August 6. This means the withdrawal of forces from the whole territory of Georgia, including South Ossetia and Abkhazia. But what Russia is doing is bringing more soldiers on the ground. We don't see constructive steps on the Russian side. We see something that directly contravenes the obligations it has subscribed to while signing the cease-fire agreement.
RFE/RL: Both Russia and separatist authorities in Abkhazia and South Ossetia have been accusing Georgian police forces of "provocations" along both administrative borders. Georgia, of course, has denied this and the head of the EU observer mission, Hansjoerg Haber, says the allegations have little merit. What exactly is happening along those administrative borders? Is there a risk that armed conflict could again break out again?
Tkeshelashvili: I think that Russia has a clear intent not to allow the situation to stabilize in a proper way so that it withdraws and there are international mechanisms to insure security on the ground in the region of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and we start the return of IDPs [internally displaced persons] and refugees in a secure and dignified manner.
Russia is trying to maintain this open platform from which a small degree -- or perhaps a large degree -- of provocations can be arranged from the side of Russia. This is why Russia does everything not to allow international observers, including EU observers which have a mandate to do so, to enter into the regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia so that they bring transparency with them and better assurances of security."
RFE/RL: What do you think Russia's aims were in the conflict and do you think they achieved them?
Tkeshelashvili: When you look from an analytical standpoint, the aims Russia had while invading Georgia have not been served, at all. There is no government change in Georgia, there is no reorientation of Georgia from the West to Russia, and the doors to NATO and the EU have not been closed to Georgia. The world and Europe still speaks very strongly about the diversification of energy resources and their independence from Russian [energy supplies].
So in that sense, Russia is pretty much losing the game in that sense. All that it achieved is its disastrous and isolated recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. That's not something that Russia was seeking in this case.
'Same Pretext' In Crimea
RFE/RL: Russia is building permanent military bases in Java in South Ossetia and in Gudauta and Ochamchira in Abkhazia. There has even been speculation that Russia might move the Black Sea Fleet from Sevastopol to the deep-water port in Ochamchira. Assuming that this is something that Tbilisi doesn't want to happen, what -- if anything -- can be done to prevent this?
Tkeshelashvili: I personally don't think that Russia is willing to move this fleet from Ukraine. It is just making the appearance of doing so. The whole issue of Crimea and Ukraine is very serious for Russia. The fear is that Russia will be very active in Ukraine [attempting to] change the politics so that Ukraine becomes again dependent on Russia instead of aspiring to be part of the Western community.
In Crimea the information we have is very troubling and disturbing. The same pattern that has been used in Georgia, in a sense, distributing Russian passports to the people who reside in those regions so they have the same pretext as they used in Georgia. Russia is acting in a very dangerous way, disregarding not only the fundamental principles of international law, but very specific obligations under the cease-fire agreement.
Having bases open in South Ossetia and Abkhazia contravenes not only the fundamental principle of international law under which you have to respect a sovereign state and its territorial integrity, but also the principles laid down in the cease-fire agreement as well. If Russia does so, we alone cannot be successful in trying to make obstacles to this process. That's where the international community has to step in.
RFE/RL: Russian officials have blamed Ukraine for arming Georgia during the conflict with South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Do these accusations have any merit?
Tkeshelashvili: I don't think it has any merit at all. If you look at it, every sovereign state has an obligation to be a well-developed state in all senses. When we came to the government after the Rose Revolution [in 2003], it [Georgia] was a failed state in all respects including the military. We inherited old, outdated infrastructure, disastrous bases, disastrous munitions. We were falling far behind any criteria that a modern civilized state would aspire to. This was not a militarization of Georgia. It was a proper buildup of the features of statehood in that sense.
Russia again takes the liberty of commenting on what a sovereign state has the liberty of doing in terms of its own priorities. That is not something that it has the luxury of doing. We have always stated everything openly and transparently towards organizations that do monitor states' actions in the military field. We will continue to do so in a way that is open with the international community and with those organizations are represented. So Russia can blame us for doing this or that, but it is an internal issue of the sovereign state of Georgia and an internal issue of the sovereign state of Ukraine, rather than Russia.
RFE/RL: NATO defense ministers are meeting in December. Do you expect Georgia to be granted a Membership Action Plan (MAP) to join the alliance at that time?
Tkeshelashvili: First of all, there is an exaggeration about the issue of a MAP, as if a MAP is already membership. The sense is that if you receive a MAP, you're in the club and if you don't, you are behind the door for the continuous future.
A MAP is a road map to membership. We do think that in Bucharest it was a mistake that we didn't receive a MAP. On one hand, the alliance decided that we would become members, but there was hesitation in terms of the road map to membership. Russia undertook this challenge, this hesitation. Now in December [at the defense ministers meeting], the important thing is that NATO stated [earlier] very clearly that the door is as open as ever. That was decided in Bucharest. Russia did not achieve its primary goal of closing NATO's door to Georgia -- full stop.
But it will be a process where we will have to have a common understanding with the alliance about what will be the features of the road map and when we finally see a decision-making process on that. We would hope that the first assessment in December would be the final one so that we get the MAP. But at the same time, its not the end of the world if we don't because we do believe that ultimately Georgia will become a member of NATO and this will be something that Russia will not be able to change, however much it struggles with that.
RFE/RL: President Mikheil Saakashvili has named Grigol Mgaloblishvili, the current Georgian ambassador to Turkey, as his prime minister-designate. Can you say a few words about him? If he is confirmed by parliament, do you expect to be in the new cabinet?
Tkeshelashvili: He is a high-level professional. He has proven this in many posts as a public servant. In Turkey, his work was productive not just in terms of diplomacy but also for the economy. He did a lot to increase Turkish investment in Georgia. I have no question whatsoever that he will be a successful prime minister.
As for myself, I have served for many years in different positions according to what was in the best interests of the country. I see myself continuing to serve my country wherever it will be needed.