Prof. Dr. Nikoloz Samkharadze is the Chairperson of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Parliament of Georgia. On 21 November 2022, during his visit to The Hague, Prof. Dr. Samkharadze spoke to commonspace.eu about Georgia's Euro-Atlantic trajectory, the Armenia-Azerbaijan peace process, Georgia's relations with Russia and Ukraine, and recent successes in Georgian rugby.
CS: How do you assess Georgia’s current trajectory towards NATO membership? Why, in your opinion, has NATO not yet granted Georgia membership of the bloc?
NS: It is a very good question, and the answer lies in allies’ lack of unity in terms of NATO enlargement towards the east. Unfortunately, we are still taken hostage by the Russian policy of occupation and annexation of territories of sovereign nations like Georgia and Ukraine. The NATO problem is that what happened 14 years ago is unresolved, I believe because of the Russian factor. Most of the allies are afraid of the Russian response to eventual Georgian and Ukrainian memberships, and I think that Russia effectively holds us all hostage on this.
I always tell our NATO partners that we have to be smarter than the Russians, because we have to break this vicious circle that Russia created. We have to outsmart Russians, because if we continue acting like this, Russia will not stop. Recent history has shown that Russia always attacks its neighbours who are not members of any security alliance, and Georgia and Ukraine are the most vivid examples.
As for Georgia’s trajectory towards NATO, I think there are no question marks about Georgia’s compatibility and interoperability with NATO when it comes to military and security areas. More than 80% of the Georgian armed forces have served under different NATO command missions, that’s a fact. Our request to NATO is always to give us a clear path to membership, and we always ask that if there is anything that needs to be done from the Georgian side in order to become a NATO member, please let us know. After 14 years, our public and our society needs reassurance, and this reassurance should not come only from statements. It should be backed up with actions that show that NATO’s door is open for Georgia.
CS: It is fair to say that EU-Georgia relations are somewhat strained at the moment, in part due to the EU, at least for the time being, denying Georgia EU candidate status. What more, in your opinion, can the EU do to support Georgia?
NS: First of all, I think the June decision to grant Georgia a European perspective is a historic one, although we were a bit disappointed that we did not get the same status as Ukraine and Moldova. If you take a closer look, we are basically half a step behind Ukraine and Moldova because they got their candidate status with conditions, and we got conditions for a fully-fledged status, and those conditions are mostly the same as the others’ conditions.
So we are working very hard now to deliver on those recommendations, and according to our timeline we will be ready by the beginning of the new year with the fulfilment of those recommendations. And then we very much hope for a positive assessment from the European Commission and then from the European Council. The recent statements by the German Chancellor, Olaf Scholz, by other European leaders, and also during the recent visit of the European Commissioner for Enlargement, basically assured us that with the implementation of those 12 recommendations, Georgia would definitely get candidate status next autumn.
CS: Negotiations between Armenia and Azerbaijan on a peace treaty are ongoing, but geopolitical rivalries are playing out over the mediation process. What role can Georgia play in mediating between the two countries, despite potentially being overshadowed by Brussels, Washington, and Moscow?
NS: Georgia has a very big asset in its hands, and this is trust and credibility in both the Azeri and Armenian capitals. Georgia is equally respected in Yerevan and in Baku, and equally trusted by Yerevan and Baku. And no other player around us, no big regional power, has the same trust and credibility. This is very important in the South Caucasus. As you know, we came up with the Peaceful Caucasus initiative, and this initiative is supported by both Armenia and Azerbaijan. Recently we have had very productive visits of high-level Armenian and Azerbaijani delegations in Georgia, and I believe that there is room for reaching a comprehensive peace treaty between Armenia and Azerbaijan. We will do our most, we will facilitate, we will mediate, because it is in Georgia’s interests to finally have long-lasting peace and stability in the region. I believe that our partners in Yerevan and Baku also know that we don’t have any hidden agenda other than having peace and stability in the South Caucasus. So we will play a very active role despite the fact that some of our neighbours might not like our activity in that regard.
CS: Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine has upended the Eurasian order, and there are undoubtedly very many years - if not decades - before Eurasian relations with Russia can be “normalised” or indeed reach a “new normal”. What do you think the future of Russia-Georgia relations looks like?
NS: The future of Russia-Georgia relations are very grim. The outlook is not positive, and the main reason is because Russia continues to occupy 20% of our sovereign territory. Until these territories are de-occupied, until Russian troops are withdrawn from Georgian territory, and until Russia recognises Georgia’s territorial integrity, there will be no normalisation of relations between Georgia and Russia. Unfortunately, as we see right now, Russia’s aggressive stance towards its neighbours has not changed. Therefore I don’t expect that in the near future Russia will change its behaviour, and therefore I don’t see any realistic chances for Georgia-Russia relations to be normalised.
CS: Sticking with the Russian war in Ukraine, the Black Sea power balance has dramatically shifted since February 2022. What role can Georgia - which remains outside the EU and NATO - play in bringing security to the Black Sea region?
NS: I think that with the Russian aggression against Ukraine, now everybody has realised that the Black Sea plays a very important role in European security and in global security in general. Georgia, as one of the littoral states, can contribute a lot to Black Sea security, even though it was really very strange that NATO did not have a comprehensive Black Sea security strategy up until now. And we have been telling our western partners for the last 30 years that Russian aggressive behaviour was not only confined to Georgia. They will continue to do so elsewhere. Unfortunately, no-one listened to us attentively back then, and now we have been proven right. So now, with the attention being focused on our region and on the Black Sea, with the strengthening of the NATO eastern flank, especially in Romania, I think that Georgia can also contribute to this and can also play a very important role. But for that to materialise, we need a clear path to NATO membership, because Georgia alone is vulnerable, and can be a liability to NATO rather than an asset; and Georgia within NATO will be an asset to Black Sea security rather than a liability.
CS: While Georgia has indeed provided a great deal of humanitarian assistance to Ukraine since Russia’s full-scale invasion in February this year, Georgia's response vis-a-vis Russia has been accused by Ukraine as being relatively weak. How do you think Ukraine and Ukrainians will remember the response of Georgia and Georgians in their hour of need?
NS: I think Ukrainian people will remember our assistance, not only our humanitarian assistance, but also our political and moral support. We have 30,000 Ukrainian refugees in Georgia right now, and almost on a weekly basis we receive Ukrainian children who come to Georgia to spend their holidays and to interact with Georgian youth.
As for certain circles in the Ukrainian political spectrum, well, of course we don’t agree with their assessment. Georgia’s response to Russian aggression against Ukraine was very strong. We have supported or co-sponsored all resolutions at the UN Security Council, the Council of Europe, at the OSCE, at every international forum. For a country which is partially also occupied by Russia, and today is the most vulnerable to a Russian attack after Ukraine in the world, I think it punched above its weight. And I am sure that people in the Ukrainian parliament, Ukrainian diplomats, and the people of Ukraine in general know this. I have to point out again that Georgia was the only country that did not evacuate its embassy from Kyiv during the heavy bombing, with the Vatican being the only other one, if I remember correctly.
So we believe that we have done everything that we could to support Ukraine, and we will continue supporting Ukraine because the bonds between Georgian and Ukrainian people are very strong, and solidarity is very strong. Some unfortunate statements of single politicians will not damage these relations.
CS: And finally, on a lighter note, leaving behind geopolitics, on Saturday 19 November Georgia recorded a historic win against the Welsh rugby team at the Principality Stadium in Cardiff. How do you think this result will change Georgian rugby in the future and the face of Georgian sport in general?
NS: First of all, this is a historic win because Georgia beat a tier one rugby nation in an away game for the first time. We also beat a tier one rugby nation in a home game this year, and so it makes 2022 a fantastic year for Georgian rugby because our team beat Italy and Wales. This will be a huge boost for Georgian rugby, for young players especially because the younger generation can now really dream of playing in the Six Nations, and playing regularly with the top teams of the world. So this is an extraordinary victory for Georgian rugby and for Georgian sport in general. We also see very good developments in Georgian football - we have a rising star Khvicha Kvaratskhelia - we have very good developments in Georgian basketball, and I think this goes along with the overall development in the country.