Rebecca Weisser November 20, 2010
THE country is determined to keep powerful neighbour Russia at bay.
TWO years after its war with Russia in August 2008, Georgia is still defying the odds and the Russians.
At the NATO summit in Lisbon yesterday and today Georgia will be close to the top of the agenda, after Afghanistan.
Alexander Nalbandov, Deputy Foreign Minister of Georgia, told The Weekend Australian in an exclusive interview, that Georgia was hoping for a recommitment by NATO to its decision at the Bucharest summit in 2008 to eventual Georgian membership.
"It was a very important political declaration made by the alliance concerning possible membership of Georgia and the Ukraine in NATO, so we believe it's very important to reiterate this commitment and to reiterate NATO support for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Georgia within its internationally recognised borders."
Yet some see the NATO commitment in 2008 as having spurred Russia into a rapid military build-up in the Georgian territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which led to the shooting war in August.
Former US deputy assistant secretary of state Ronald Asmus wrote in A Little War that Shook the World that "the Bucharest outcome might have not only failed to deter Moscow; it might have emboldened it. If Moscow was determined to stop Georgian membership, it had to act quickly."
But Georgia is determined both to join NATO and the EU. Nalbandov told The Weekend Australian, "Our Euro-Atlantic and European aspirations are widely supported by the Georgian population. According to the most recent survey, 75 per cent of our people strongly support NATO membership."
Georgians say of themselves that they have short tempers and long memories. The memory of the Soviet occupation explains why the war with Russia, a country of 142 million whose military expenditure is surpassed only by the US, was widely supported by a nation of only five million.
"This is the third occupation by Russia," the guide at the Museum of the Occupation in Tbilisi, Georgia's capital said, referring to the Russian occupation of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
The first was by tsarist Russia in the 19th century. The second was by the Soviet Union throughout most of the 20th century. "It took 70 years to get rid of the Russians that time", she says.
The museum documents the brutality of the Soviet persecution of Georgians. One example is emblematic. The chief conductor of the Georgian National Opera, Evgeni Mikeladze, was tortured for 48 days by Lavrentiy Beria (himself, like Stalin, a Georgian). Beria first blinded the gifted musician, then deafened him by puncturing his eardrums with needles, before finally having him executed.
Georgian victims of the Soviet era from 1921 to 1991 are estimated at 880,000.
Asked whether he fears further Russian aggression, Nalbandov replies, "The security of the area not just in Georgia but around Georgia is quite unstable. When you have an extensive military build-up next door to your capital, when you have no international monitoring forces in this territory, when you know about huge amounts of heavy armaments delivered to our neighbours, Armenia and Azerbaijan, taking into account the Nagorno-Karabahk conflict, of course we cannot be calm."
As for South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Nalbandov believes the only thing that will deter Russia is a unified message from the international community that it will pay a high price for violating the sovereignty of Georgia.
Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili had very close relations with former US president George W. Bush. Nalbandov says both countries continue to work closely together.Saakashvili and Barack Obama will hold their first one-on-one meeting in Lisbon.
There is no doubt that Georgia has paid a high price for its refusal to buckle to the will of Russia. The scars of the war of August 2008 are all over the country.
Rows of hundreds of newly fabricated, simple dwellings house thousands of internally displaced Georgians who were driven from their homes by South Ossetians militia with the complicity of so-called Russian peacekeepers.
The peacekeepers stood by while South Ossetians shelled their Georgian neighbours and while Russian soldiers engaged with the Georgian army.
Of course, this is not the story the Russians tell. They claim that on the night of August 7, 2008, Georgian civilians were engaged in genocide and killed 2000 South Ossetians. In fact, at the end of the conflict it was established that only 162 South Ossetians lost their lives in the entire war. Nalbandov says up to 500,000 people or 10 per cent of the population were displaced by the wars in South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
He says that in trying to restore sovereignty over South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Georgia is using the concept of "strategic patience". In the short term, Georgia wants international monitoring and peacekeeping forces from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe and the UN in the occupied territories, but Russia continues to reject this.
Second, it wants Russia to adhere to the six-point ceasefire agreement signed at the conclusion of the 2008 war, including full military withdrawal to the positions held before the outbreak of hostilities. Russia has also refused to do this.
Some things are running in Georgia's favour. Russia is relatively weaker, economically, after the GFC, and it has reduced its defence budget from a record $50 billion to $39bn. Also, the Winter Olympics in Sochi in 2014 will force Russia to promote a peaceful image in the region.
Finally, Georgia is playing the economic card. It is positioning itself as a crucial link in the energy corridor between oil-rich Azerbaijan on the Caspian and Turkey and Europe. This will not only boost its income but could help to increase its importance to Europe as an alternative supply that can't be held hostage by Russia.
As far as Australia goes, Nalbandov says that he is delighted with our support for Georgian resolutions at the UN defending the rights of Georgia's IDPs and is keen to build relations.
Georgia is keen to build tourism but this year only 713 Australians visited the country which it claims to the cradle of European culture, particularly winemaking. Nalbandov says Georgia will open an embassy in Australia in 2012.
When you have an enemy as large as Russia not just on your doorstep but inside your house, then you need all the friends you can get, however far-flung.