Why Russia's Occupation of Georgia Won't Last

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili is a troubled darling of the West, a Columbia-trained lawyer now struggling to reassert Georgia’s independence after losing the 2008 war with Russia over two disputed territories. He spoke with NEWSWEEK’s Jerry Guo. Excerpts:

The Obama administration has been delinking Georgia from the U.S.-Russia relationship. Do you feel like Georgia is being forgotten?

So far, we’ve been getting support from Washington. I think it’s most encouraging that at every high-level meeting, America has been raising the Georgia issue. Hillary Clinton just described at the last meeting Russia’s presence in Georgian regions as “illegal occupation,” which is dramatic in diplomatic terms. So I don’t agree with the assumption that there is a delinking. Georgia, in fact, has been a testing ground for further improvement between the U.S. and Russia.

Should the U.S. restart its supply of lethal military aid to Georgia?

Leaving Georgia defenseless doesn’t help the situation. Georgia can’t attack Russia, while a defenseless Georgia is a big temptation for Russia to change our government through military means. Every time [Vladimir] Putin has run for president, he has gone to war before. It looks like he will run for reelection, so of course that worries us. As part of ongoing security cooperation, we hope that the U.S. will help us with defense-weapons capabilities. But I don’t think there are clear deadlines for anything here.

How do you propose solving or handling the standoff over the two disputed territories, Abkhazia and South Ossetia?

What we should do is internationalize the withdrawal of Russia’s troops. In a democratic society, you allow people to go back to their homes, rather than try to use military force by a big neighbor on a small one. This happened in the 20th century, but they haven’t kept any of their territories. So I don’t think they’ll be able to do it in the 21st century. There are up to 500,000 predominantly ethnic Georgians, as well as Estonians, Greeks, and Jews who are not allowed back to their houses. Abkhazia right now has a population less than 100,000, and South Ossetia has 6,000, so it’s very abnormal.

Is another conflict with Russia likely?

We want to avoid it, but Russia might be planning something. Right now there is less of a threat than we had one year ago. What helps here is the improved U.S.-Russia balance. But it’s not a done deal; we should all be vigilant.

What is the relationship with Moscow now, when many of your neighbors—Poland, Ukraine, Azerbaijan—have warmed up to Russia?

Russia has occupied 20 percent of our territory. Russia keeps embassies not in Tbilisi but in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. They refuse to deal with our elected government. We are willing to talk to Russia at any moment about anything, but they haven’t been willing to get into a bilateral dialogue. Now they’ve deployed S-300 [surface-to-air] missiles to Abkhazia.

So has Washington given you any security assurances if Russia attacks again?

There is no formal security assurance. I think what we are seeing now is much more diplomacy to avoid a new conflict. Before 2008, nobody believed it was possible. Now people want to avoid it; they know it’s possible.

You said in March that security officials had intercepted smugglers with weapons-grade uranium, the eighth such bust in the last decade. Is this a problem your country is struggling to deal with?

It’s a persistent problem because of nuclear material from the former Soviet Union and the black hole that is South Ossetia. But we have very good cooperation with the U.S., and more or less we have closed down all the loopholes.

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