Irakli Alasania spoke to RFE/RL's Tbilisi bureau chief Marina Vashakmadze on December 25. The following is an edited transcript of that interview.RFE/RL:
One of the first things you said upon returning to Tbilisi was that the war with Russia in August was avoidable. You also said your resignation was tied to fundamental differences between you and [President] Mikheil Saakashvili. Are the two things related? Irakli Alasania:
One of the key factors in making my decision was the emergence, over the past several years, of a fundamental difference between my vision and that of the president's regarding conflict resolution and other current issues. I was involved in conflict resolution as the presidential representative and negotiator with the Abkhaz side. This perspective, I think, allows me to say that a lot of real opportunities were lost for starting direct and open negotiations with the Abkhaz side. Fits And StartsRFE/RL:
In May 2008, you flew to Sukhumi to meet with separatist leaders in your capacity as the presidential representative on Abkhaz issues. Not much was known about the meeting at the time; recently, though, you said a very promising agreement was drafted there, but never signed. Could this agreement have helped prevent the war? Alasania:
The May document reflected both Georgian and Abkhaz interests. We had asked the Abkhaz to recognize the right of return to refugees [from the 1992-93 civil war] throughout the entire territory of Abkhazia. It was essential that the Abkhaz side assumed this obligation. We also had an obligation -- which had to be shared by the Abkhaz side, of course -- to resolve the conflict solely through peaceful means. We also assumed responsibility for [the] nonresumption of military activities.
This was a very difficult process, of course. Work on the draft document had started three years earlier. Back in 2005, we were close to getting it signed, but the political leadership in both Tbilisi and Sukhumi failed to take responsibility for signing it. At the time, regrettably, the public wasn't ready to accept such a move; it wasn't ready for this new stage of rapprochement. In my view, this was a lesson for both parties. RFE/RL:
So what went wrong in May?Alasania:
By then, developments on the ground were moving very quickly -- and in the wrong direction. Russian provocations were becoming a daily occurrence. There was the attempt to launch an attack on the Kodori Gorge, for example. The Russian army had already entered Abkhaz territory.
This complicated the situation with regards to concluding the agreement, but we still managed to reach some kind of mutual understanding with the Abkhaz side. I think that if this agreement had been signed, the risk of resumed military activities would have been significantly reduced. I can't say it would have prevented it altogether, but it could have helped establish the trust that we needed to see between the two sides. It could have enabled us to have more effective relations with the Abkhaz side, so that together we could have jointly prevented further provocations.
In my view, the militaristic sentiments and rhetoric we've heard from [Saakashvili] during the past few years have been fundamentally misguided.
This, though, wasn't the only factor. In my view, the militaristic sentiments and rhetoric we've heard from [Saakashvili] during the past few years have been fundamentally misguided. They didn't help the dialogue. I also think we had no firm, principled, or -- and I want to stress this -- consistent diplomatic strategy when it came to the Russian Federation. RFE/RL:
How did you keep the president informed about the negotiations? Did you discuss them with him directly? Alasania:
Yes. I went to Sukhumi under the president's mandate. I had the president's agreement on every matter I was discussing with the Abkhaz side. When I got back, I reported to the president on the meetings. He listened to my report, and I fully expected that he would sign the agreement. But this didn't happen. To be fair, I should note that after some time passed, we held another meeting with the Abkhaz side in Sweden [in June]...RFE/RL:
That meeting [in Sweden] was kept secret. Alasania:
These were seen as very important talks. Making it public would have made it hard for us to reach certain agreements. RFE/RL:
What was discussed in Sweden? Alasania:
The Abkhaz side had new demands with regard to the document and with regard to Georgia as well. Specifically, there were discussions about the Kodori Gorge. We naturally defended our position that the gorge should remain under the control of Georgian law enforcement. But the Abkhaz side was being very insistent, and the Georgian delegation found the terms unacceptable. So reaching a realistic agreement in Sweden was seeming more difficult. Later, as you know, things began to escalate in Ossetia, and no negotiations have been held since. RFE/RL:
There have been several other peace plans for Georgia's breakaway regions. There was German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier's plan; there was a plan by the Georgian government. Which of these was the most promising? Alasania:
The German plan was supported and complemented by an initiative from the United States. We were planning a high-level meeting of the representatives of the UN secretary-general's Group of Friends [during the UN General Assembly] in September to discuss Steinmeier's plan. Unfortunately, Russia's aggressive actions in Georgia changed that plan. 'Huge Lack Of Trust'RFE/RL:
When you were given the UN post, there was a lot of speculation that it was meant as a way of removing you from the Abkhaz equation. A lot of people found this puzzling, since you were seen as the only negotiating partner the Abkhaz side trusted. Why do you think you were sent to New York? Alasania:
I can't say I'm the only man with whom the Abkhaz side doesn't avoid dialogue. I am one of those, however, who has succeeded in gaining confidence during negotiations with the Abkhaz side. When the president offered me the UN post, I accepted it. I believed then, and continue to believe now, that representing and defending a country's interests at the UN is very important.
I can't speculate on what led the president to make his decision. There are different opinions on this. But when the offer was made, I decided that I had to use the opportunity to make my humble contribution to defending the country's interests. RFE/RL:
There has been a lot of speculation about you in the media. There's been talk about you having links to the Russian intelligence services, and that you support the Kodori-based Monadire armed militia. Alasania:
Throughout my professional career, I've been involved with various structures, all directly related to serving the country's national security interests. I think speculation on my links to foreign intelligence services can't be serious. I certainly had professional relations with U.S. intelligence and almost all the Western intelligence services, as well as with the Russians. When I was first deputy security minister, we had a certain professional cooperation. In fact, we on the Georgian side made good use of these ties during the law-enforcement and counterterrorism activities in Pankisi Gorge [in 2002]; they were a success. RFE/RL:
Let's talk about your current plans -- first, with regards to conflict resolution. You have commented on a "tremendous lack of trust," and said Georgia needs to create conditions for trust. What is the "Alasania vision" for restoring trust and reconciliation?
The current lack of trust is huge. Speaking about any kind of breakthrough in the negotiation process at this point would just be wrong.
It's true, the current lack of trust is huge. Speaking about any kind of breakthrough in the negotiation process at this point would just be wrong. What Georgia can do, in my view, is use the negotiations to create security mechanisms in the conflict zones that would keep the Russian occupying forces under maximum monitoring -- international monitoring. After this is achieved, diplomatic means must be used to force Russia to fulfill its international obligations. Then, when conditions are finally set for engaging the Abkhaz and Ossetian sides in informal talks....RFE/RL:
Could you elaborate on this? How would such talks come about? Alasania:
I believe direct talks will take place in the near future with the Abkhaz and -- I hope -- Ossetian sides. Such talks will become the basis for establishing relations. Now that I have no diplomatic or government leverage to impact the process, I can give my personal view: it's essential that the relations highlight opportunities for development, cooperation, and economic opportunities with the Abkhaz side. RFE/RL:
These issues were highlighted in one of the peace plans, weren't they? Alasania:
They were. They were in our plan, but they became even more prominent in Steinmeier's plan. At first, economic cooperation would be restored with the Abkhaz side. Restoration of transport links would help political dialogue at a later stage. In my view, discussing political status questions at this stage would be premature. Such an environment will help create the preconditions for a continuing and deepening dialogue on status. And I firmly believe that upcoming developments in Georgia will go a long way toward promoting and supporting that dialogue. Having strong and democratic institutions in Georgia, and very firm peace initiatives, can create opportunities for the Abkhaz and Ossetians to peacefully coexist with Georgians. We shouldn't expect any breakthrough in negotiations in the near future, however. RFE/RL:
A lot of this sounds like wishful thinking. Is there anything specific that makes you think its possible to restore trust with the breakaway republics? Alasania:
The only specific thing I can offer is my personal experience in negotiating with the Abkhaz. I firmly believe that there are an abundance of unexplored options that could aid in rapprochement and finding ways to coexist. But they have to be accompanied by the proper conditions -- the informal links and direct dialogue, which will start with the Abkhaz side sooner or later. RFE/RL:
For now, of course, Russian forces are stationed a few kilometers away. How real is the threat of renewed military activities? Alasania:
The threat remains because there's no mechanism for monitoring and supervising the occupation forces. Unfortunately, European monitors have been kept from working in the occupied territories. It's essential to have security mechanisms. International monitors have to have access to occupied territories. This allows us to learn about the activities of the Russian military and the separatists' armed groups, their military capacities and location. This will help protect the rights of Georgian citizens still left in the occupied territories. RFE/RL:
Is such a thing possible? Alasania:
It's possible, and it's precisely what we're aiming for in the ongoing talks in Geneva. So far this process hasn't achieved any significant results, but the fact that all the sides are at the same table is already very important. Domestic PoliticsRFE/RL:
Let's talk about your political plans. There was speculation you might cooperate with the alliance of the Republicans and the New Rightists. There was also talk about you setting up a political alliance with Sozar Subari, although you've said you have no intention of creating a new political party. Alasania:
All I said was that there are more than enough political parties in Georgia already. For the time being, I'm just consulting with different people, including Mr. Subari. It was a good, positive meeting. We agreed to continue the dialogue. We appeared to have common views on a lot of issues. It was my first meeting with him.
Until this [consultation] process is over, I find it difficult to give any specific response on where I will be able to find like-minded political figures.
I also had meetings with representatives from other parties, and will continue meeting with these people as well. Until this process is over, I find it difficult to give any specific response on where I will be able to find like-minded political figures. A broad national consensus is needed for the fundamental change that this country needs. So I intend to have open meetings and consultations with all political forces, as well as with those who are outside politics.
I will also meet with people in the government, because finding a way out on one's own is impossible. A single person or a small group can't overcome the crisis on their own. A strategy needs to be developed jointly, with advice from professionals from every generation. In consultation with all of them, we will be able to find the right solution to the crisis. RFE/RL:
Subari also told RFE/RL there are no negotiations for setting up a party. But at the same time, experts say that Georgia's political reality is such that a political figure will have a difficult time achieving results without a solid party base. Alasania:
Naturally, you need a political structure, an alliance. Carrying out political activities without one would be difficult. But consolidation on a national level is far more important. It's also very important that this consolidation be based on common values and ideas. This process is under way; let's wait for its completion. RFE/RL:
You talk about consolidation, but how realistic a prospect is it? Many experts say that consolidating all of Georgia's opposition forces will be very difficult. How are you going to achieve it? Alasania:
I agree that it's going to be hard to do. But at the same time, I've seen a positive trend in the talks and consultations I've had so far. A lot of political entities and leaders realize the personal ambitions and old grievances have to be put aside. They understand very well the importance of consolidation in achieving common goals. So let's wait for the consultations. RFE/RL:
You've called for early elections. Which did you mean -- parliamentary or presidential? Alasania:
I think elections will be necessary. People have to be given an opportunity to make a new choice, although conditions for this have to be right. For each of us, the paramount objective will be the full liberalization of the media, especially television, and the adoption of a new electoral code. These are the minimum conditions needed to ensure that popular opinion is accurately represented in the elected bodies, be it the president or the parliament. I'm not going to say anything further today, because this will be one of the priorities for the political alliance that will be put together, and the strategy will be elaborated on during consultations with them. RFE/RL:
But if there are early elections, will you run for president? Alasania:
Let's follow the pace of the developments. I'll just repeat that this will depend on how successful we'll be in achieving a national consensus and how successful we -- political forces and the public -- will be with a strategy for the future. RFE/RL:
You've said we should change the philosophy of governance in Georgia. What should this philosophy be? Alasania:
First of all, we need to institutionalize the decision making process. Decisions should not be unilateral -- they should be based on the advice of responsible, competent and professional people, and they should be collective. One of the main reasons the president succumbed to provocation during the crisis was because he didn't have a range of opinions and ideas to choose from. This system doesn't exist in Georgia; it's never been created. This has always been a very critical factor for the country, especially in times of crisis.
It's also very important to establish genuine parliamentary supervision over the executive. Transparency in preparing and carrying out decisions, as well as collective decision making, would reduce the chances of the commander in chief making mistakes or bad decisions. These were the issues that needed to be changed, and I discussed them with the president constantly.