Grigol Vashadze is Georgia's foreign minister and a close ally of President Mikheil Saakashvili. During a recent visit to Prague, RFE/RL correspondent Salome Asatiani asked him about the conflict over Georgia's separatist regions, its troubled relations with Russia, and the country's contribution to the war effort in Afghanistan.
RFE/RL: It's been a rocky couple of years for Georgia since the 2008 war with Russia, followed by Moscow's recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Where does Georgia stand today on this issue?
Grigol Vashadze: We are in a much better situation than, say, we were in December 2008. We are not all right, but are much better off. We will be all right when we wave goodbye to the last Russian soldier withdrawing from Georgia's occupied territories.
RFE/RL: For Western countries, declaring support for Georgia's territorial integrity has almost become a slogan, or a "mantra," as some commentators have put it. Russia, in turn, continues to reject international calls to withdraw its forces to pre-war positions and insists that Abkhazia and South Ossetia are now sovereign states. What concrete steps is Georgia taking to resolve the dispute?
Vashadze: Excuse me, but I get extremely irritated when I hear this talk about mantras and slogans. Why slogans? Western countries, their foreign ministers, official representatives, and political elite are upholding the legal perspective on the situation.
RFE/RL: But this can last forever.
Vashadze: Nothing lasts forever in history, as you well know. For 40 years, the West kept repeating that the Baltic countries were free, independent states. And how did this story end? For 45 years, it kept saying that the German Democratic Republic was an absolutely pointless entity on occupied German land. How did this story end?
RFE/RL: So what is it we are waiting for, then? That Russia breaks up like the Soviet Union?
Vashadze: Georgians have a tendency toward waving a magic stick, finding a wishing stone, or climbing a wishing tree and hoping that everything will be solved quick and fast. But only cats procreate fast.
RFE/RL: But this is exactly what I asked you. The issue will obviously not be solved overnight. So let us talk about specific, concrete efforts -- however small -- that are being undertaken at present.
Vashadze: There are several concrete things that are currently being done.
Firstly, Georgia succeeded in stopping Russia's massive political and financial pressure on other countries on the so-called "recognition" issue. And if someone does not see this as a result, then this person has serious problems with perceiving reality.
Secondly, international organizations are drawing red lines around the legal status of these occupied territories by confirming that they are integral parts of Georgia's sovereign territory. And this, too, is Georgia's achievement.
Thirdly, legislatures in many countries -- including your host, the Czech Republic -- have adopted resolutions calling on Russia to abide by the August 12, 2008, cease-fire agreement and withdraw its occupying army from Georgia. And for the fist time, many [organizations], including the European Parliament, wrote the term "occupation" on paper. It took some work to achieve these things.
RFE/RL: So now the aim is to make Russia change its ways, change its mind, undo what it has done?
Vashadze: Russia should feel that wherever it goes, whatever idea or issue it discusses, it is forced to speak about the occupied territories. This is what has been happening. Look at the [discussions] on the new European security architecture, on Russia's WTO accession, on conventional arms control in Europe. The Russian Federation is constantly forced to have very unpleasant conversations about Georgia.
As for political instruments -- beyond the "mantras" and "slogans" -- believe me, a lot of things are being done. Russia is under constant pressure. Sooner or later, but sooner rather than later, Russia will withdraw its occupying forces from Georgian territory.
RFE/RL: On February 22, the Georgian parliament approved sending an artillery unit to Afghanistan. This was also the day when the death of a sixth Georgian soldier in Afghanistan was announced. President Mikheil Saakashvili has said Georgian forces will remain in the country until the overall mission ends. What is the main purpose of Georgia's contribution to the war effort in Afghanistan? Is it trying to demonstrate its loyalty to the West, or is it gaining tangible concessions in return?
Vashadze: If you take a map and look at Afghanistan, you will see which country it is closer to: Georgia or, say, Luxembourg.
RFE/RL: So Georgia is protecting its own security.
Vashadze: This region, unfortunately, could generate an Islamist terrorist wave. As a New Yorker who spent 16 years living in his favorite city, I would like to remind you that it was not the West that went to Afghanistan. Afghanistan came to us, on September 11, 2001.
Therefore, when you look at this region, you must remember that we are part of it; we are closer. God forbid that the coalition is defeated or that Afghanistan again becomes a haven for terrorists and Al-Qaeda. Georgia would suffer the consequences much sooner than the Czech Republic, Slovakia, or Luxembourg. This is the first reason for our presence there.
Secondly, Georgia wants to become a member of the military alliance, and we are already halfway there. We have a NATO-Georgia joint commission and an annual action plan [Annual National Program], which, in fact, is the same thing as a MAP [Membership Action Plan]. It has a different name, but the content is the same. So we have to act like a member of the alliance. The alliance is in Afghanistan; therefore, so are we. In the end, let me express my condolences and support to the family of the slain soldier. This is a big heartache for every Georgian.
RFE/RL: Islamist terrorism is, of course, not confined to Afghanistan. Tbilisi last year abolished visas for residents of the North Caucasus, citing humanitarian grounds -- a move Russia warned would open a corridor for terrorists. But Russia was not alone in criticizing this move. A recent report by U.S. experts said that, regardless of the Georgian government's initial motives, the visa exemption will inevitably be viewed as an attempt to stoke instability. This criticism was echoed by the U.S. director of national intelligence, James Clapper. What was Georgia's interest in taking a step that many would deem controversial?
Vashadze: First of all, let me tell you that I am not interested at all in what Clapper has to say. I am not interested at all. To tell you the truth, I don't know in which context he said this. I only saw these words, which were taken out of his speech.
RFE/RL: Clapper made the remark during his Worldwide Threat Assessment testimony.
Vashadze: Very well. When I see the whole document, I will decide in which context it was said. I don't like it when journalists give me quotes that have been taken out of context. So I am not going to talk about Clapper. Whatever he said, it is his own business. I am also not interested in what two American NGO members write in their report. They are watching the situation in Georgia from the Potomac, while we are watching it from Tbilisi.
RFE/RL: In April 2009, in an interview with "Newsweek," Saakashvili said he "used to idealize America under Bush, when ideas were above pragmatic politics." "Now," he continued, and this was in the early days of Obama's administration, "it is a new time, when pragmatic politics are in charge of ideas. That might spoil the America I know."
Presumably, he was referring to Obama's "reset" of relations with Russia. Do you think Georgia still has a moral right to demand idealism from the West after Saakashvili became one of the very few heads of state to congratulate Alyaksandr Lukashenka of Belarus, once branded "Europe's last dictator" by Washington, on his electoral victory in December -- an election strongly criticized by the West as rigged?
Vashadze: What exactly are you asking?
RFE/RL: Saakashvili claimed that the West was giving up its ideals by allegedly cooperating with countries that are authoritarian, that violate human rights. In the light of its recent rapprochements with Belarus, do you think Georgia is still entitled to ask that other nations' politics be based on ideals and moral values?
Vashadze: Georgia is close to all sovereign states with which we have good neighborly, bilateral relations.
RFE/RL: This is not what I am asking you, Mr. Minister.
Vashadze: As for idealism -- and now I am voicing my own position, not commenting on any statements -- I don't understand what it has to do with foreign policy, especially in the 21st century. Everything is dictated by pragmatism. National interests have to be protected. They are above everything else.
RFE/RL: To finish, I would like to ask you a more personal question. You know Russia very well, having lived there for almost 30 years and having worked for the Soviet Ministry of Foreign Affairs. How would you describe the current political atmosphere in Russia?
Vashadze: You know, despite the fact that we don't have diplomatic relations with the Russian Federation, it would be extremely untactful for Georgia's foreign minister to comment on Russia's internal political situation. I am not [Russian Foreign Minister Sergei] Lavrov.
RFE/RL: It seems you do see some positive signs, however. When it came to renouncing your Russian citizenship, for some time you refused and claimed that you were a citizen of the Russian people, not of the Russian government.
Vashadze: Yes, I agree.
RFE/RL: So why did you give up your Russian citizenship in the end?
Vashadze: On Russia's internal situation, I am absolutely certain -- and please don't ask me anything else -- that the current regime in the Kremlin has exhausted all means of governing the country in the way it has been doing so far.
On the passport issue, Russian citizenship -- and Russia in general -- is part of my life. Whether I have a Russian passport in my pocket or not makes no difference.
I am convinced that as a Georgian citizen, I will be able to visit Moscow one day. I renounced it because I could have put up with anything but not with some talking heads in the State Duma demanding that I be stripped of my passport.
RFE/RL: Would you have held on to your Russian passport if these discussions in the Duma had not taken place?
Vashadze: Yes, I would have kept it. And, to tell you the truth, I don't care about anybody's opinion on this issue. In general, when it comes to my private life, I don't care about anyone's opinion.
RFE/RL: What about when you are a public figure, and the private and public spheres overlap?
Vashadze: I'm sorry, but my private life is my private business.
with contributions from Claire Bigg