TBILISI -- In an exclusive interview with RFE/RL Executive Editor John O'Sullivan, Georgian Reintegration Minster Temur Iakobashvili discusses the state of Russia's withdrawal from Georgian territory, warns of Moscow's intentions in the region and in both "Old" and "New" Europe, and suggests some of the West's options in its relationship with the Kremlin.
RFE/RL: I gathered while we were waiting to see you that you were talking to the president. I don't suppose you could let us know what was discussed or decided?
Temur Iakobashvili: It's an ongoing conversation about the realities in Tbilisi and in Georgia. There are details that will be reflected in our future plans on how to deal will the current realities
RFE/RL: Perhaps I could discuss those current realities. What do you understand to be the present situation -- are the Russians withdrawing or not? And, if they are withdrawing, exactly where are they withdrawing to?
Iakobashvili: Russia is starting to show signs of withdrawal, but they are also showing adamant signs of manipulating the withdrawal -- manipulating and inventing so-called "buffer zones"; manipulating with geographic explanations; manipulating with linguistic interpretations of the signed agreements. So, you know, little tricks and a little cheating here and a little cheating there. And the hope from the Russian side is that the West will be blind and deaf on these issues and, hopefully, the West will not be blind and deaf.
RFE/RL: What you are saying is that the Russians are not keeping to the terms of the cease-fire they signed. But are there any practical ways that you, or anyone else, like the West, has of compelling them to keep to the terms of the cease-fire?
Iakobashvili: Let me put it in a very blatant way: I don't see that there is any military component of pressuring Russia, but there is a political component of pressuring Russia and showing them the political price of not complying with an agreement. Russians are trying to cheat not only Georgians now, but Russians are trying now to cheat the rest of the world. And I think that the rest of the world, especially the West and especially those that brokered this peace, have to be very vocal about and adamant in the position that Russia should comply with signed agreements.
You've seen Russians cheating three times, and President [Dmitry] Medvedev's word became something very stretched, and something more fictional than realistic. But nevertheless, we hope that Russia sooner or later -- and better sooner than later -- will comply with its own obligations.
RFE/RL: Obviously this means that Georgia is in a very difficult, even desperate, situation. Why then did Georgia launch an attack of the kind it did, if it was likely to lead, and has led, to such peril?
Iakobashvili: You are asking me a question that I should write a dissertation on and earn a doctorate at some fancy university. It remains to be studied by scholars around the world -- but I understand that where we are today was a great miscalculation of Georgia; a great miscalculation of Europeans; a great miscalculation of Americans.
Even when we were going around the world saying that the Russians were trying to drag us into military confrontation. The last time, when I was at a press conference in Brussels in May of this year and I said we were on the brink of war, I saw a lot of worried faces coming to me and saying: "You are using very strong connotation. War is a very, very strong connotation for the European virgin ear." I'm sorry, but that's where we are now.
RFE/RL: Would, in your view, membership of NATO have made any difference? If you had been a member would things have worked out differently on this occasion?
Iakobashvili: If we would have been a member of NATO, Russia would never, ever have dared to do what they did. If we would have had a Membership Action Plan, Russia would never, ever have dared to do what they did. But they interpreted the rift between Europeans -- between "New" Europeans and "Old" Europeans -- as a green light for their crossing a red line.
RFE/RL: Does that mean now that you think Georgia will not join NATO in the future, or do you think that it will?
Iakobashvili: We are now more adamant that we have to join NATO because that's the only protection that we can see -- the only reasonable protection we can see -- because the Georgian Army, even if it were 10 times larger, could not defeat the Russian Army because we are too small and Russia is too big. And you've seen that they've thrown [at us] almost everything they had -- more than 2,000 tanks and armed vehicles and more than 25,000 people. Georgia, with 4.5 million people, cannot afford fighting wars of this size -- that's very clear.
RFE/RL: You now have a situation in which Russia is in possession of Georgian territory. If Georgia, at that point, joins NATO -- some point in the future -- there isn't any real prospect of NATO taking action of a military kind to remove the Russians. How do you think NATO or the EU can lever the Russians out, and by what other methods?
Iakobashvili: It seems to me that largely we are talking about political and economic measures, and not military. Most of Russia's oligarchs, most of Russia's government officials -- in some cases they are the same -- have their assets in the West. So, using a very strong connotation, you are holding their balls -- just squeeze a little bit.
RFE/RL: So far, there's been extremely little pressure of that kind. Are you disappointed with the performance of NATO? Are you disappointed with the EU on this occasion?
Iakobashvili: I think it's too early to be disappointed because NATO and the EU were both on holiday, and political leaders were on holiday -- some of them were forced to come back and handle this issue. I am sorry for spoiling their holidays, [but] it is not about us, it's about Russia. But it seems to me that now, more and more, politicians and bearcats are coming back, and probably at the beginning of September -- the first two weeks of September -- there will be a decisive reaction of the EU, or the West, or NATO, or any other organizations on this crisis. That will be crucial.
Of course, we are in a sense disappointed that we were not heard when we were crying wolf, and when the wolf came people were on holidays or at the Olympics. So, the Russians calculated everything very, very well and nicely, and timely. We have to give them credit for it, but nevertheless, it seems to me that now is high time to wake up and see the world that we are facing now, after the Olympics and after the holidays, is very much different and more brutal than it used to be before.
RFE/RL: You've differentiated between the performance of some NATO countries and others, when you've made the difference between New Europe and Old Europe. Why do you think New Europe has been so consistently stronger in its defense of Georgia, and why do you think Western Europe , in a sense, has been more lackadaisical, apart from the holiday question?
Iakobashvili: The very primitive explanation would be historic memory, because East Europe still remembers Russian subjugation and Old Europe is starting to forget about it. And Eastern Europe is next on the list, and then Old Europe.
So if the Russians are going to do something else, the next obvious target is Crimea in Ukraine, and it seems to me it's already started. They already distributed about 60,000 or 70,000 passports there, Russian passports, and as the old Polish saying says, "Russia never invades, it goes after defending the rights of minorities."
RFE/RL: On that question, would one form of pressure that Georgia and NATO countries could put on Russia be to deny the use of Russian passports in the hands of South Ossetian residents as valid travel documents?
Iakobashvili: I think that first of all the West has to reconsider the visa-facilitation regime that they are signing with the Russian Federation. Because we can give you evidence of instances when Russian passports given in Abkhazia, for example, ended up in the hands of terrorists. So if you want terrorists with Russian passports, that's your decision.
RFE/RL: You mentioned that there had been miscalculations on all sides, including Georgia, that led to this crisis. This is a very grave national crisis for Georgia. You're the minister for reintegration; it's your job to try to get Abkhazia and South Ossetia back into a de facto membership of Georgia, as opposed to a de jure one. Are you going to be able to do anything like that in the foreseeable future?
Iakobashvili: Yes, even in my lifetime, and even the early days of my lifetime, because now the world is facing reality. Now everybody, I think, already understands that we are not fighting separatism and secessionists. The fight that we have is all about Russian subjugation and Russian occupation, when small nationals are just tokens for exchange in a political game.
I have to underline that we found a common language with Ossetian separatists, and they were on our side. They were building villages -- they were building schools and hospitals and theaters and sports facilities -- with our help. But the other side -- the so-called separatist side -- had 80 percent of its government formed by Russians from Russia, with KGB backgrounds. The minister of defense, minister of police, minister of security, minister of this, prime minister, etc, etc.
What are we talking about? It's a very strange form of separatism. So we should separate, let's say, Basque separatists, or Irish separatists, or Quebecois separatists. In our case, we have Russians using the small national minorities as a manipulative tool against the state of Georgia. This is occupation with a very sophisticated mechanism. And now we are working on deoccupation, and not on conflict resolution, and it's very clear that the war criminals who now claim they are the leaders of the secessionists should be persecuted in The Hague together with [former Yugoslav President Slobodan] Milosevic and others, and not be called president.
RFE/RL: During this crisis, Russian forces put themselves within a stone's throw of the Nabucco pipeline. Do you think Nabucco is still a plausible pipeline that is independent of Russian influence at this point?
Iakobashvili: I think that Nabucco is more relevant than ever, because if you see what Russians were targeting in Georgia besides our military installments, they were targeting railway bridges, they were targeting pipelines, they were targeting port facilities. It's a very clear indication that Russians are unhappy with their broken monopoly on being Europe's solo supplier from the Caspian Basin. That's why I think it's high time for Europe to wake up and understand that the bear may decide to cut supplies for no reason.
One component of energy security is diversified supplies. The more diversified supplies are, the more secure the energy sector will be. And Nabucco is one of the options for diversification. It's not a substitution for Russian gas, but it's diversification, and reduces the risk. And now that everybody knows how Russia behaves, people should be more alert and more willing to implement Nabucco than ever.
RFE/RL: A lot of people say it would be better for Georgia to pursue its policies through the EU rather than through NATO. Does that ideal have any appeal for you?
Iakobashvili: I think we have to differentiate these two questions from each other. The immediate problem, for Georgia, is a security matter. And that's NATO. The EU is not a security organization; it's largely a trade and economic and political union. That's why I think it's very important that we not mix these two together. If you don't have security, then you don't have an economy. That's why it should not be seen as a different priority.
Let me just cite the words of Joseph Nye, the person who invented the term "soft power." He said security is like oxygen -- when it's there, you don't feel it, but when it's not there, you're suffocated and you immediately feel the lack of it. So security is this oxygen whose lack we feel. And our economy was badly damaged because of the security problems we were facing because of the occupation. So that's why NATO is giving security, and when you're secure you have more time to think about economic development.
RFE/RL: Do you suppose there are going to be major changes in Georgian politics as a result of the crisis and the miscalculation that led to it? And if so, what?
Iakobashvili: First of all, let me tell you what the miscalculation was. We were sort of trapped in our humanistic approach. We knew the Russians were preparing a provocation against Georgia, and there were three vulnerable points -- Gali district with its Georgian population, Upper Kodori in Abkhazia, and Tskhinvali. And we miscalculated on Tskhinvali because we were thinking: "Come on, how could they do that? There are a lot of people there."
So our mistake was to think in humanistic terms. Our miscalculation was to treat Russia according to humanistic terms. But unfortunately we were wrong. They are more brutal than we expected. So that is our miscalculation.
As for political developments, we are building a democratic country, and people have the right to ask any question of their government. And the government is obliged to answer these questions. And it's a normal process. I don't see any difficulty in that. We will offer our explanation to our people, and then it's up to people to decide if they are satisfied with this explanation or not.
But I think it's a legitimate process to ask the government questions, especially after a crisis period, and it's the right of the people to ask these kinds of questions. And then we'll see. If they'll be satisfied with the answers, we'll stay in power; if not, then we'll be gone. It's very simple.