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Georgia: Ministers Expect Strong EU Message To Russia

Russia-Georgia tensions increased after the arrest of four Russian officers (TV screen shot) WASHINGTON, October 20, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- After the arrest of four Russian intelligence officers last month, tensions in Russian-Georgian relations show no signs of letting up. Currently in Washington, Georgian lawmakers Giga Bokeria and Nika Rurua spoke to RFE/RL correspondent Heather Maher about the EU's recent criticism of Russia, Moscow's continued economic sanctions against Georgia, and the independence claims of both Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

RFE/RL: Were you satisfied with the final statement issued at the foreign ministers' meeting in Luxembourg on October 17?

Bokeria: Of course we're glad that after some delay there was a clear reaction on behalf of the European Union. We think that it shouldn't be the end of the reaction, I think it's important that there's a follow-up to that until we have feasible progress in Russia's attitude toward southern Georgia. But for the start it was a good statement.

Rurua: I think that in this situation, Georgia served as some sort of catalyst that exposed existing problems. Problems that were never mentioned before that, and that's a good beginning. The statement you are talking about was just a first step, hopefully and there will be some follow up.

RFE/RL: Do you feel that Georgia is getting as much support as it can from the West?

Bokeria: Well, certainly as I said, Georgia expects the civilized world, and the free world, to be consistent on this issue with Russia. And we have a good beginning with the European Union. And if they continue with the same spirit, which we all hope, that will be the reaction that we expect from them, which is very important for Georgia, for Russia, and indeed for the whole of Europe.

Rurua: Well I would say that the situation as it is now demonstrates clearly that the problems are not only between Georgia and Russia. Hopefully, the Western world will see and realize that it's a problem between the direction, the course, that Russia has taken and the West. Georgia is just, as I said, just one part of a bigger picture. And hopefully there will be some further actions on the part of the West. Because this is a time when real politics, when pragmatic actions, could be reconsidered again. And some principles and ideals need to be defended. This is a time when some long-lasting ideals are put to the test, and if those ideals mean something, they must mean very concrete things in Georgia.

RFE/RL: Russian President Vladmir Putin will meet with EU leaders at an informal summit in Finland on October 20. What do you hope to see happen at that meeting?

Bokeria: Certainly we expect the leaders of the free countries in Europe to be very explicit and frank with Mr. Putin, to send a strong message in personal conversation that this is something that is not tolerated by the free world, and the stakes --- at least the stakes will be very high for Mr. Putin if he continues on the same path. That is what we expect.

Rurua: Personally, I think it's a mistake to invite Mr. Putin after all that took place in recent weeks. Mr. Putin will do everything to exploit the situation and widen the disagreements between European countries. I think it's one of the top political priorities on his political agenda.

RFE/RL: The Abkhaz parliament on October 18 sent an official appeal to Russia asking for recognition as an independent state. This comes just ahead of the South Ossetian independence referendum on November 12. What is Georgia's response to such actions and is there any situation under which you would support the use of military force in the breakaway regions?

Bokeria: First of all, more than 300,000 ethnic Georgians have been forced to leave their [homes] in Abkhazia, Georgia, and people have not been able to go back. If the precedent that Abkhazia can claim independence stands, that's a very dangerous precedent for the whole world. It's not only grossly unfair towards those citizens who were forced out, but it means that in any region of the world a minority supported by outside force, with the use of force, [can] conduct ethnic cleansing and then claim self-determination. It's very dangerous.

We have been committed and we are committed to a political settlement of both conflicts. We will do our best and we've been trying to do our best in that direction. We've prepared for both conflicts a peace plan and a road map to peace. We are not impatient. We want to move slowly but steadily in the right direction. But so far from the other side there has been no reaction whatsoever. Georgia has taken unilateral steps in this direction but no reaction so far. What is important is on the other side, we don't have our Abkhaz citizens or Ossetian citizens. They are not representing the decisions delivered by their so-called parliament of Abkhazia or in the referendum in the Tskhinvali region. These de facto authorities are completely controlled by Moscow. All security and power structures are appointed from Moscow, from respective structures in the Russian Federation. From not local residents but from representatives of Russia's security structures and military. They don't even trust anymore local separatist residents because there were attempts on behalf of Georgia to start a face-to-face dialogue. There were some reactions from representatives of the civil society and indeed the political class in both regions, but they ? all of them who had these instincts were severely punished, politically and physically. And that is the main obstacle on the way to a political solution. That's why we want a genuine international political peacekeeping force.

We want to give a chance to Georgians and Abkhaz Georgians and Ossetians to start a real dialogue where we can think about ways of living in a united country where the rights of all minorities, all citizens, regardless of their ethnic origin will be respected and that's what Georgia is committed to, that's what Georgia is doing in the territory which we do control and we are more than willing to take on board genuine interests of both minorities, but as I said, so far we have an outside player who controls the situation in those regions who is not interested in solving these problems which is using both conflicts against [Georgia]. There is no intrinsic value of Tskhinvali or Abkhazia for the Kremlin. It's just a deterrent against Georgia, it's a way to stop Georgia's progress and Georgia's integration into Euro-Atlantic structures because unfortunately so far, Russia views Georgia's success as a failure of its foreign policy. Moscow views Georgia as the last frontier to maintain, in some form, the Soviet empire."

RFE/RL: Relations between Russia and Georgia have been very tense for some time. Presumably spy scandals are nothing new. So why did Tbilisi choose to arrest the four Russian military officers now? And were you surprised by the vehemence of the Russian response?

Bokeria: I think you're right, the conflict began much earlier. The core reason for this conflict is the profound unacceptance by Moscow of the very fact that Georgia is an independent and sovereign state. That's the core reason. All other things are the result of this unacceptance. As for the concrete spiral, it's important to view that in context. A few months ago Georgian special services arrested a Russian officer, Mr. [Roman] Boika, with strong evidence that he was involved in organizing the terrorist attack in Gori which killed three police officers. But, in a very controversial decision, the Georgian government -- having discussed it with our friends -- decided to transfer the officer, Mr. Boika, to the Russians, with no noise at all. Not to make it public. But to transfer him together with the message that Georgia is no longer just a territory where anybody can do whatever they want without risk of being caught or punished. But unfortunately, this move, this gesture, as we now understand was accepted by Moscow as a sign of weakness, and they have even intensified their subversive espionage activities.

And when the [Georgian] minister of the interior had strong evidence that a new spy ring was preparing some kind of serious provocation, and this is well documented, of course we had to act. And in this case I think there was a right decision made to make it public. Of course we have transferred all four officers to the Russian Federation swiftly through the OSCE, and their rights were protected. There was no violation of their rights. But Georgian authorities decided that the world must know how deep is the trouble Georgia is in with regard to Russia, and there must be some political price paid by Moscow.

As for the reaction, unfortunately, of course we expected that Russia would have an [inappropriate] reaction, as we have seen before. But I think with regard to the persecution and pogroms of ethnic Georgians, even Russian citizens, this has exceeded even our expectation."

Rurua: The arrest and exposure of those agents was dictated by clear and present danger by their activities. There is well-documented evidence that they were involved in gathering information about Georgia's defense capabilities, our NATO plans, the maneuvers of our armed forces, and military exercises. Plus there is serious evidence that some of those officers were involved in planning terrorist acts against Georgian public officials as well as political leadership. So they needed to be arrested at the first opportunity and [the] world had to know about Russia's real intentions toward Georgia. So it wasn't meant to offend Russia, it was just meant to inform our friends and allies, and the world in general, about the existing situation on the ground. So it was necessary.

However, nobody expected the overreaction we got from Russia. It was and is outrageous, these pogroms in Moscow and in other cities against ethnic Georgians and harassment based on ethnic origin. Everybody thought it was a thing of the past, but we [have seen] it in recent days, and this is a shame that will last for many, many years. It will not deteriorate, it will not spoil relations between people but it will seriously taint relations between the Georgian government and the current government residing in the Kremlin.

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MORE: Coverage of the situation in Georgian from RFE/RL's Georgian Service and in Russian from RFE/RL's Russian Service.


RFE/RL's English-language coverage of Georgia and Russia.