Georgia will tame Ajaria, wants strong Ukraine, security chief says

Georgia will tame Ajaria, wants strong Ukraine, security chief says

Den, Kiev
17 Mar 04

Georgia will force Ajaria to respect Georgian laws, Vano Merabishvili,
the Georgian security chief, has said, speaking in an interview. There
is a perception in Georgia that the situation in the country would
improve if Ukrainian peacekeepers replaced the Russian soldiers in
Abkhazia, Merabishvili said, adding that Georgia did not think that
Russia supported the Ajarian separatists, although there is a Russian
military base in the area. Agreement had, he said, been reached with
Russia on joint patrolling of the Chechen section of their common
border. Merabishvili also spelt out the Georgian position on NATO and
the Single Economic Space. The following is the text of the interview
by Serhiy Solodkyy, entitled “Vano Merabishvili: It is in Georgia’s
interests for Ukraine’s role to be enhanced” and published in the
Ukrainian newspaper Den on 17 March; subheadings have been inserted

One of the electoral promises that Georgian President Mikheil
Saakashvili made was to reintegrate the state by resolving the
Abkhazian and South Ossetian conflicts. The issue involves the
interests of Russia and the USA. But Tbilisi the Georgian capital is
also looking to Ukraine’s participation as a mediator. The first
serious crisis in Georgia following the “pink revolution” occurred
last weekend, when the president’s motorcade was not allowed into the
Ajarian autonomous area. Saakashvili responded by issuing an
ultimatum, which led many experts to talk about the risk of a new
civil war. At the moment, the country’s central leadership is
promising to confine itself to an economic blockade of the
recalcitrant area.

The secretary of Georgia’s National Security Council, Vano
Merabishvili, has been visiting Ukraine. In an exclusive interview
with Den, he said that it was probably no coincidence that his first
foreign visit as secretary of the Georgian Security Council was to
Kiev. “Your country is Georgia’s biggest partner in terms of military
cooperation – both in training new personnel and in repairing military
hardware. We should like to expand and improve our cooperation, while
retaining all the achievements gained previously. We think that
Ukraine is a very influential state,” Mr Merabishvili emphasized.

“Ajarian question will be resolved shortly”

Solodkyy Your visit has occurred at a difficult time for Tbilisi
because of the Ajaria situation. There are different views on what is
happening in that autonomous area. Some maintain that Tbilisi intends
to transfer its power change scenario to Batumi the Ajarian capital ,
while others say that, in this way, the new leadership is carrying out
its plans to reintegrate the country. Which version do you incline

Merabishvili First of all, I should like to stress that Ajaria is just
as much a part of Georgia as any other Georgian district or town,
whether it be Kutaisi in central Georgia or Tbilisi. The regime of
Ajarian leader Aslan Abashidze has now been in existence for 13
years. The forces that have no interest in reform or in unifying the
state will, naturally, try by any means to hinder the central
authorities’ efforts to see that the Georgian constitution operates
throughout the country. A state cannot be regarded as successful
unless everyone in that state is following its constitutional
guidelines. Accordingly, the central authorities of Georgia will do
everything they can to see that the constitution is in force
throughout the country. The fact that the leader of the autonomous
area has presented claims regarding freedom of movement to the
president speaks for itself. But I think that the Ajarian question
will be resolved shortly. Legality will reign throughout Georgia,
especially since parliamentary elections will be taking place soon, on
28 March. Free elections cannot be expected in Ajaria if even the
country’s president, let alone opposition representatives, is unable
to meet the public. It is probably no secret to you that several dozen
members of the opposition have been arrested or expelled from
Ajaria. Such things must not and cannot happen in Europe in 2004.

Solodkyy To what extreme measures may Tbilisi resort in order to
resolve the Ajarian question?

Merabishvili I don’t think that any very serious measures are needed
to see that the constitution is in force throughout Georgia, including
Ajaria. We have every opportunity to do that.

Solodkyy Do you mean talking to Aslan Abashidze or removing him?

Merabishvili The actual question of removing Abashidze is not on the
agenda. But by various means we shall force the authorities in Ajaria
to carry out the laws of Georgia.

Ukraine as a mediator; relations with Russia

Solodkyy Do the new authorities in Georgia see Ukraine as a mediator
in resolving conflicts with the authorities in its autonomous areas?

Merabishvili In Georgian society there is a perception that, if the
Russian peacekeepers who are now in Abkhazia were to be replaced by
Ukrainian soldiers, no problems would arise at all. It is hard for me
to comment on that view at the moment, but it does exist. It is a
question of neutral peacekeeping forces that will not violate the
obligations they have assumed, and guarantee a resolution of the
Abkhazian and South Ossetian problems. Ukraine’s participation could
change a great deal both in Abkhazia and in South Ossetia. As for
Ajaria, the problem there is quite different. I think that Ukraine
will make its political view known on that issue too.

Solodkyy At the moment, though, Russia’s view carries more
weight… ellipsis as published .

Merabishvili We are trying to make the peacekeeping mandate in Georgia
as internationalist as possible. Let us honestly admit that Moscow
alone is not responsible for the conflicts and problems between
Georgia and Russia. Georgia’s former leadership did not have a clear,
precise policy on the development of relations with Russia. That
policy changed very frequently. Sometimes Russia was considered to be
Georgia’s sworn enemy. At other times, it was the most important
partner. These “lines” might change three times a month. The Georgian
leadership would violate some accords, but the same can be said of
Russian policy too. During the two months in which President
Saakashvili has been in power, the Russian and Georgian leaderships
have proved to one another that points of contact can be found, and we
have found them.

Solodkyy Can Tbilisi’s current policy towards Russia be called clear
and precise?

Merabishvili We shall honour all the commitments we have
undertaken. For example, several understandings were reached during
the Georgian president’s visit to Moscow – particularly on the
question of the joint patrolling of the Georgian-Russian border in the
Chechen sector. The Georgian leadership rejected joint patrolling for
many years. What was more, Tbilisi used to declare that there were no
Chechen fighters in the Pankisi Gorge, but time has proved that,
unfortunately, the Georgian leadership paid insufficient attention to
the question and that terrorists could move about freely. The question
has now been virtually solved. Russia’s trust in Georgia will grow
when there is joint patrolling of the border between Georgia and
Chechnya. It will then be impossible to accuse Tbilisi of helping
foreign citizens to infiltrate into Chechnya.

Another point of cooperation concerns Russia’s entry to the WTO World
Trade Organization . Previously the Georgian parliament decided to
link Georgia’s consent to Russia’s entry to the WTO to other political
issues. Three weeks ago, at the request of President Mikheil
Saakashvili, the Georgian parliament altered that decision and
consented to assist Russian entry to the WTO, since it was in
Tbilisi’s interests. If Russia joins the WTO, new markets will open up
for Georgian goods, and Russia will not introduce any artificial
restrictions. I have quoted just two instances for you, but there are
far more. The main thing is to prove to each other that we shall
honour all the commitments undertaken.

Russian bases not seen as threat

Solodkyy But why doesn’t Russia honour its commitments to remove its
bases from Georgian territory?

Merabishvili We appreciate that it is virtually impossible to resolve
these matters quickly. But, in many of the actions undertaken by the
Russian president, we have seen that not only this problem, but others
too can be resolved very simply. The main thing is that there is no
longer a threat to Georgia from these military bases. There is a
Russian base in Ajaria too, and, during the last conflict, there was
no serious reaction from the Russian military. That is highly
indicative. Previously the slightest panicking by Aslan Abashidze
would lead to tanks emerging from the Russian base and taking up
position on Ajaria’s administrative border.

Solodkyy Are you sure that the Russian leadership will not support
Aslan Abashidze?

Merabishvili We take the view that the Russians are not at the moment
supporting the separatist movement in Ajaria. This is probably the
first time over the past 10 years. I hope that the phrase “at the
moment” does not imply that this is a short-term Russian policy. We
shall count on the Russians’ understanding. We think that it is also
in Moscow’s interests to have a stable neighbour that will take
account of Russian interests. A strong Georgia is of benefit to Russia
because a weak neighbouring state is an additional factor for

Georgia and international organizations

Solodkyy Georgia and Ukraine used to cooperate actively within the
GUUAM association a loose alliance of Georgia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan,
Azerbaijan and Moldova so as to carry out various projects. Since the
“pink revolution”, cooperation in that direction has slowed down
somewhat. Has the country’s new leadership lost interest in GUUAM?

Merabishvili The Georgian government, which was formed only two weeks
ago, needs a certain amount of time in which to carry out its policies
steadily. I consider that serious progress will be made on the GUUAM
issue, since all of the new president’s steps are proving
successful. I think that here too Tbilisi will help to enhance the
role of all the international organizations in which Georgia has
participated and will participate.

Solodkyy Ukraine and Georgia are seeking to join NATO. Was the
question of Euro-Atlantic integration discussed at your meeting with
Ukrainian Defence Minister Yevhen Marchuk?

Merabishvili Ukraine and Georgia are two twins who are knocking on the
NATO door together. I think that we must come to be a kind of tandem
facilitating the resolution of internal problems. NATO’s Istanbul
summit in June will be very important for both Ukraine and
Georgia. During the meeting with the Ukrainian defence minister, we
agreed to coordinate our actions in that field.

Solodkyy How does Georgia view Kiev’s official intention to integrate
with the SES Single Economic Space ?

Merabishvili We think that Georgia should not reject any kind of
cooperation. Economic cooperation is in the interests of any state. A
viable, free economy helps to resolve many issues, including political

Solodkyy Some experts in Ukraine are rather wary in their view of the
SES… ellipsis as published .

Merabishvili The SES accords do not pose a threat in themselves if the
leaders of the states abide by the principle of equality and honour
the commitments they have assumed. Unfortunately, in Russia there are
certain sentiments that put politics above economics and free
trade. Needless to say, that prevents Russia itself from resolving its
own problems, since such policies come with too high a “price
tag”. The economy loses out, the state loses out, people lose out and,
all in all, politics lose out too. I think that all the states –
Russia, Ukraine and Georgia – must realize that free trade will open
up fresh opportunities for businessmen and help their countries’
interests to really draw closer together, and this, in turn, will help
to solve the political problems.

Solodkyy Does this mean that Georgia is prepared to join the SES?

Merabishvili That question has yet to be discussed seriously by the
new government. We think that Russia’s entry to the WTO will remove
the need to set up economic coalitions of any kind, since all the
obligations that a WTO member country undertakes will enable
businessmen to operate effectively. If joining some new economic
formation will help Georgia, Tbilisi will not say no. But Georgia does
not currently see that as a topical matter.

Saakashvili to visit Ukraine shortly

Solodkyy Is it known when the Georgian president will visit Ukraine?

Merabishvili It has so happened that, during the two months of his
presidency, Mikhail Saakashvili was obliged, for various reasons, to
visit Russia, the USA, Azerbaijan and Armenia. I think that one of the
president’s next visits will certainly be to Kiev. Ukraine is one of
Georgia’s most important partners. The fact that Saakashvili studied
in Ukraine is highly indicative. In Georgia, people often say,
jokingly: the “Ukrainian clan” now runs Georgia, since the president,
the defence minister and many other officials were educated in Kiev.

Solodkyy Why is it that the visit hasn’t taken place yet? Is it
because the president’s schedule is overloaded, or is there something

Merabishvili He’s got a heavy schedule. I think that, when the Ajarian
“conflict”, as it were, is resolved and the elections that will take
place on 28 March are over, that will enable a visit to Kiev by our
president to be organized over the next few weeks. Ukraine is one of
the great states that is very close to Georgia. It is in Georgia’s
interests for Ukraine’s role to be enhanced. If Ukraine’s role is
boosted, there will be no more of the problems that there have been in
Georgia – the Abkhazian, South Ossetian and Ajarian conflicts.