Former Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili says the South Caucasus nation "must absolutely" join NATO and the European Union, but cautioned that it will first have to overcome Russia's disapproval.
"We must patiently strengthen our democratic institutions, we must make our economy flourish and wait for the right time, when Russia realizes, and when our allies see that it's time for Georgia to become a member of NATO and the EU," Ivanishvili said in a televised interview for RFE/RL and the Georgian Public Broadcaster on June 2. "We must patiently wait for all of this."
He said that Georgia's Western ambitions "do not contradict Russia's interests, although Russia's current leadership considers that this is dangerous for their state."
Ivanishvili, Georgia's richest man, is seen as wielding vast political influence in Georgia despite stepping down as prime minister in November 2013. He is the founder and figurehead of Georgian Dream, the leading party in the former Soviet republic's ruling coalition, and is widely believed to exert control over current Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili.
His $5.5 billion fortune is equal to half of the country's gross domestic product.
His remarks about Georgia's NATO and EU aspirations were striking because they seem to suggest Russia has a veto on its small southern neighbor's entry into the transatlantic institutions – something Western officials say is not and must never be the case.
Russia strongly opposes NATO membership for Georgia. Analysts say one of Moscow's main motives in its five-day war with Tbilisi in 2008 was to keep the nation out of the Western military alliance.
Unlike former President Mikheil Saakashvili, a staunchly pro-Western figure whose party was ousted from control of parliament by Georgian Dream in 2012, Ivanishvili has maintained a conciliatory tone toward Russia over the years.
The interview came weeks ahead of the next NATO summit, which will be held in Warsaw on July 8-9, and months before Georgian parliamentary elections in October.
Georgian Defense Minister Tinatin Khidasheli has voiced hope that the Warsaw summit will put Georgia on a firm path to joining the alliance and that Georgia's bid will be "judged on its own merits" -- meaning that Russia's views on the matter should not be a factor.
At its 2008 summit in Bucharest, NATO said that Georgia would eventually become a member, but that appears unlikely to happen any time soon.
In December 2015, NATO dealt a blow to Georgia's membership aspirations by requiring that the country complete a Membership Action Plan (MAP) -- a stage of accession that Tbilisi had actively lobbied to skip.
The alliance, however, has yet to offer Georgia a MAP.
One stumbling block on the path to Georgian accession to NATO is the Russian troop presence in its breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Russia recognized both of them as independent countries after the war in 2008.
In his interview with InterVIEW, a weekly talk show run jointly by RFE/RL's Georgian Service and the Georgian Public Broadcaster, Ivanishvili said that Moscow's actions in South Ossetia and Abkhazia "run against the strategic interests" of Georgia.
While noting what he described as "positive steps" in bilateral relations, he said the conflict prevented both countries from restoring ties.
Diplomatic relations between Russia and Georgia were severed shortly after the 2008 war.
Written by Claire Bigg, based on reporting by RFE/RL Georgian Service correspondent Salome Asatiani.