In this interview, Viktorija Starych-Samuolienė, Co-founder and Director of Strategy at the Council on Geostrategy, talks to Sophie Katsarava MBE, Ambassador of Georgia to the United Kingdom (UK), about the 30th anniversary of the declaration of Independence of Georgia, the Russo-Georgian war, Russia’s destabilising activity in the region and strong partnership between North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and Georgia.
VSS: On the 9th April, Georgia will be marking the 30th anniversary of the declaration of independence from the Soviet Union. What has changed in Georgia since then?
SK: I am pleased to be one of the first ambassadors to be interviewed by your newly established think-tank in London. Congratulations to the team and I wish you every success with your important work.
Georgia’s road since the restoration of independence has been bumpy and full of challenges. Yet, at the same time, we have seen a tremendous achievement for a country who has only been independent for thirty years. Drive to reform the country, strengthen its democracy, build a free society, improve the economy and ensure equality are just a few of the priorities that remain the key drivers of present-day Georgia.
On 31st March 1991, Georgia held an independence referendum which saw the country gain back its sovereignty. This day was a turning point in Georgia’s history, altering the country’s future entirely. Apart from celebrating the restoration of our independence, the tragic and painful events of 9th April 1989, remains a poignant memory for every Georgian of that time. This day has become a symbol of national unity and resistance against the Soviet regime.
This year, as we mark the thirtieth anniversary since regaining independence, Georgia can be proud of its achievements, its close ties with the European Union (EU) and NATO, and its strategic partners such as the United Kingdom (UK) and the United States (US). The foreign policy trajectory of Georgia was determined thirty years ago by the Georgian public and this irreversible path will not change as we continue to strive for NATO membership.
VSS: Back in 2008, the world witnessed the Russo-Georgian War. The five-day conflict took the world by surprise and drew attention to Russia’s revisionism. Russia still illegally occupies 20% of Georgian territory. What are the most recent developments?
SK: The difficulties in terms of the occupation of our land cannot be overlooked, and is unlikely to change in the short-term. 20% of our territory remains illegally occupied by Russia – this is a difficult reality for every Georgian.
The 2008 war, together with Russia’s continued destructive actions, including hybrid warfare, the ongoing creeping annexation of Georgian territory and grave human rights violations in the occupied regions of Abkhazia and Tskhinvali/South Ossetia remain the most serious security challenges for Georgia. Unfortunately, the events of 2008 were a forecast of Russia’s actions in Ukraine and despite staunch support from the international community towards Georgia’s territorial integrity and sovereignty, Russia blatantly continues to violate the fundamental principles of international law. The recent judgment of the European Court of Human Rights in the Georgia vs Russia II case is an unprecedented legal victory for Georgia against Russia, which itself confirmed Russia’s occupation and effective control over the Georgian regions of Abkhazia and Tskhinvali/South Ossetia. This judgment has a significant importance not only for Georgia but for the region affected by Russian aggression. It sets a precedent of accountability for our allies suffering from Russian militarisation.
We continue our policy to peacefully regain our territories. The Government-introduced peace initiative ‘A Step to a Better Future’ aims to improve the humanitarian and socio-economic conditions of the people living in the occupied regions, nurture further interaction between people and work on confidence building between the divided societies. Stable progress and development, a sense of security and stability for all of our citizens, together with economic growth, are the key preconditions for the peaceful resolution of conflict. The role of the international community in supporting Georgia on this path remains vital.
VSS: In 2020, Dominic Raab, the British Foreign Secretary, called out Russia’s campaign of cyber-attacks against your country. The cyber-attacks, orchestrated by GRU – Russia’s military intelligence service – were named as a part of Russia’s continuous campaign of hostile and destabilising activity. How are you dealing with this aggressive behaviour from Russia?
SK: Similarly to the UK and other western nations, our digital infrastructure is subject to cyberattacks from hostile states. One such attack (in October 2019, Georgia was subject to the large-scale attack by Russia’s GRU), revealed with the help of British cybersecurity authorities, highlights both the threat and importance of partnership. We are on the frontline of Russia’s internet disinformation campaign.
In light of these threats and challenges, close security cooperation between the UK and Georgia is more relevant than ever before in areas such as fighting against international terrorism, organised crime, crisis management, hybrid threats and cyber security. The UK and Georgia have a good record of working together on these issues and stand firm in these difficult times.
VSS: The UK supports Georgia’s reform programme as it gets closer to Europe and both countries also cooperate through NATO. This January, your country was praised by Jens Stoltenberg, NATO’s Secretary General, as one of the largest troop contributors to NATO’s training mission in Afghanistan. What are other key areas of cooperation and how can the partnership between Georgia and NATO be strengthened further?
SK: Our cooperation with NATO is hugely important. It is no secret that Georgia has come on leaps and bounds and is ready for membership. Along with sovereignty and territorial integrity, European and Euro-Atlantic integration is the only foreign policy priority that is cemented by the Georgian Constitution. Joining NATO is the country’s ultimate goal, supported by almost three quarters of Georgia’s population. To achieve this goal, the Government of Georgia continues its comprehensive reform agenda, including enhancing and modernising the country’s defence capabilities to address current and future challenges.
Georgia, as an aspirant country, is a responsible partner, making its contribution, together with NATO, in promoting peace and stability worldwide. On a per-capita basis, Georgia remains the largest non-NATO contributor and the fourth-largest troop contributor to the Resolute Support Mission in Afghanistan. The Georgian Defence Forces also continue to participate in NATO-led exercises. In September 2020, Georgia hosted the Joint Exercise ‘Noble Partner 2020’, in which the British Armed Forces participated, also. HMS Dragon, one of the Royal Navy’s most significant destroyers, docked in Georgia’s Black Sea port city of Batumi last October to support Georgian Coast Guard officers in advancing NATO certification programme. These and other examples are a clear demonstration of enduring strong partnership between the two countries.
Although almost half of the Black Sea coastline belongs to NATO member states, the region is of utmost strategic importance for the North Atlantic area. NATO’s engagement in maintaining stability and security in the Black Sea region remains critical for the Alliance and Georgia is its main partner in this regard. Against that backdrop, Georgia and NATO should deepen and strengthen their existing partnership, primarily through the continuance of joint military exercises and enhancing cooperation in the field of cyber security.
VSS: Thank you for answering these questions!
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