Irakli Alasania served as Georgia's UN ambassador before resigning in late 2008 and joining the opposition to President Mikheil Saakashvili. He is now defense minister in Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili's coalition government. RFE/RL correspondent Brian Whitmore caught up with Alasania in Tbilisi to discuss the new government's approach to Russia.
RFE/RL: Since the new government came to power after the October elections, President Mikheil Saakashvili and members of his party, the United National Movement (ENM), have been critical of the approach to Russia. This was evident in many of the speeches at an ENM rally on April 19. What is your response to this criticism?
Irakli Alasania: Georgia made a choice in October and the choice they made was not in line with what was being said at the rally. They lost the election because during their tenure in government Georgia lost territory. They lost a war against Russia. Russia attacked us. But we spent 8 billion lari ($4.8 billion) in defense spending and our army was not ready. So people are curious about what happened. Why we can't defend our country? Where did this 8 billion [lari] go? So they have a lot of questions to answer themselves before criticizing a government that has been in power for just six months.
The previous government was [actually] very close to the Russians. The main infrastructure, very critical infrastructure, was sold to the Russians by Saakashvili. I'm not saying that Saakashvili was intentionally working with Russia at the expense of Georgia's national security. But at the end of his nine years in power, 20 percent of our territory is occupied and there are 10,000 troops on our territory -- while before we were withdrawing Russian troops.
RFE/RL: For Georgia, and for most of Russia's former Soviet neighbors, dealing with Moscow presents a tricky dilemma. Like it or not, Russia views the former Soviet space as its sphere of influence. Taking a more provocative posture like Saakashvili invites a fierce backlash from Russia. But being too accommodating often invites constant meddling in your country's internal affairs. How does the government intend to navigate this?
Alasania: The reality is that the nuclear-armed country of 140 million people to our north is not going to disappear. We have to deal with them. What is the best way to start dealing with them? Of course, it is trade. Of course, it is the humanitarian relationship. We have more than 1 million Georgians living in Russia.
What I am betting on in the next 10 years, what is good for my country's economy, is to have reasonable trade relations with Russia. Saakashvili gave them entrance to the [World Trade Organization]. Now I want our business people to have the same opportunities in Russia as they had during Saakashvili's tenure in Georgia. This is very logical. This is why our approach is to have a relationship with them on trade.
RFE/RL: But beyond these things, how will you deal with the harder, more intractable, issues in the relationship, like Georgia's drive to join NATO or the presence of Russian troops in the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia?
Alasania: We don't have any illusion that Russia will change its policy toward Georgia on its territorial integrity or our aspirations to join NATO. But we want to get breathing space by calming the rhetoric so we can develop ourselves. We want to tone down the rhetoric so we can have a workable relationship on trade, so we can develop our institutions and our economy and give ourselves more space to deal with the Abkhaz and the Ossetians. This is the idea. We call it a realistic approach to Russia.
I don't think anything fundamental will change in Russian foreign and security policy in the next 10 years. We have to be very patient. We have to outsmart them. We need the space and time to develop ourselves. Then we will have the historic opportunity in the future to get into NATO and the European Union, as the Baltics did. But we have to be ready -- reformwise, institutionwise, economywise. We have to be ready, and when the opportunity turns up, we're going to get in.
RFE/RL: We're approaching the five-year anniversary of the war with Russia this summer. I understand that you are conducting a review of the military's performance during the war. Can you say anything about this?
Alasania: We've never done an analysis about what went wrong -- why we were successful and unsuccessful. This is why I commissioned a lessons-learned study. We will know, for our future soldiers, what went wrong and how to fix the problems in command and control so Georgia's future defense doctrine will be viable.
RFE/RL: Will it extend to the political decisionmaking process and the origins of the war?
Alasania: No. This is strictly lessons learned. This is something that every military in the world periodically does. This is not an investigation.
RFE/RL: Do you think society and the political class is ready for a full-fledged investigation into the war's origins?
Alasania: This is up to the politicians. My view is that what the [Defense] Ministry has to do is specifically related to our military, our future defense doctrine, and our soldiers -- what was learned from past mistakes. Also, I think there is a very legitimate debate, it is among experts and politicians, whether it was avoidable. And I am one of those who think it was avoidable. Not in the final stage, but in the years 2005, 2006, 2007. If we had put more faith in bilateral talks with the Abkhaz and the Ossetians, in confidence-building measures, I think this war would have been avoidable. The Russians wouldn't have had such abilities to suck us into this provocation.
RFE/RL: There has been a noticeable decrease in confrontational rhetoric between Georgia and Russia and between Georgia and the breakaway regions.
Alasania: We want to put Russia in a corner where they will not have any pretext to attack us aggressively politically or on an international scale. We want to put them in a corner where there will be positive signals toward them but also to get breathing space for ourselves to develop. This is our policy toward Russia.