Interview with Paata Gaprindashvili, vice-director of the Georgia’s Reforms Associates

July 14th, 2014

photoInterview with Paata Gaprindashvili, vice-director of the Georgia’s Reforms Associates (GRASS) think tank. Interviewer: Bartosz Marcinkowski

BARTOSZ MARCINKOWSKI: After signing the association agreement with the European Union, Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko, said that “it was the most important day for Ukraine since gaining independence in 1991.” Would you say the same about Georgia?

PAATA GAPRINDASHVILI: Yes, absolutely. We say in Georgia that we are now back in the family to which we have always belonged. For sure, the signing of the association agreement is a very important step on the way to achieve our strategic goal which is membership in the EU. It is surely a great day, but even greater days will follow.

Sergi Kapanadze, the director of GRASS, your organization, recently wrote that Russia is prepared and determined to block countries like Georgia from moving closer to the EU. Therefore, Georgia needs to warn its EU and NATO allies of the threat. What kind of a threat does he mean and what should these warnings look like?

You do not need to go really deep in analysis to figure out what kind of actions can be undertaken by the Kremlin after signing the agreement between the EU and Georgia. All you need to do is to take a look at the most recent history of Russia’s relations, not only with Georgia but also with Moldova, Armenia or Ukraine. If you take Georgian history, there was a tragic war in 2008 and it is no secret that it was punishment for Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations.

We all remember that it was during the 2008 Bucharest NATO summit that Ukraine and Georgia were denied the opportunity to become members of NATO. Georgia’s goal at that time was to get a detailed membership plan. It didn’t happen. But there was a clear message to the Russian political establishment. Both Dmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin publicly said that they would stop the NATO expansion at the Georgian borders. The more recent history of Ukraine has showed how Russians twisted the hands of Ukraine’s political elite. Despite being weak and corrupt, the Ukrainian government under Mykola Azarov, had planned to sign the association agreement with the EU. To put it simply – Russia did not allow Ukraine to go this way.

Another powerful weapon that Russia is eager to use is gas. Again, we can observe it recently during the gas pricing dispute with Ukraine. Even though this conflict is not at a critical stage yet, we will see its negative consequences as the winter approaches. There are plenty of examples of what Russia can do to harm its neighbours if it wishes. The Ukraine example shows again the power of Russia’s economic leverage. Hopefully it will not be as harmful for the Georgian economy as we import gas primarily from Azerbaijan. But it still may have a significant social impact.

What do you mean by social impact? Do you mean that people in Georgia will simply want the Russian market to be opened so they could vote for anti-European parties?

Well, I cannot exclude that more people will vote for these anti-European parties, but this is not exactly what I mean. When I am saying that an economic conflict with Russia might have a negative social impact in Georgia I mean that, for example, the wine producing region of Kakheti could be affected. When Russia decided to open its market to Georgian wines, many people from Kakheti benefited; they were able to sell all the products they produced. When such a large market as Russia is closed, they simply get poorer. Russia can play this game and find fuel for generating pro-Russian sentiments. This is a kind of soft leverage, but there are also hard leverages the Russian political establishment can use which include masterminding terrorist acts, kidnappings and fatal accidents across the border in the two breakaway territories – Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

I am not saying that all these actions can be activated immediately but for sure they do exist. Moscow does not need to be innovative in order to punish Georgia for its European choice; these means are well-known to all of us. Having that in mind, people in Georgia need to be aware that the association agreement with the EU will not bring fruits to our country immediately. What’s more, at the beginning it may be even harder than it was before.

The current Georgian government and the ruling coalition under the Georgian Dream are predominantly described by the western media as being pro-western in their views and policies. But the largest opposition party, the United National Movement, also sympathises with the West. What are the main differences in the approach to foreign policy between these two forces?

Indeed, the current government is pro-western in general and so are our major political players. They are for the integration with the EU and NATO. When it comes to the differences – the most significant one is what I call a lack of assertiveness of the current ruling party. It refers mostly to relations with Russia. Clearly, Georgian Dream is less assertive towards the Kremlin than the UNM and it is also more ambiguous in its actions. Also, now, unfortunately it cannot be taken for granted anymore that the Georgian issue is constantly kept on a high agenda in western capitals: Washington, Brussels, Berlin, Paris or Warsaw. The Georgian government strongly declares its pro-western aspirations, but in my view there is not much activity behind these words. Even if a NATO membership action plan for Georgia is not provided during this year’s summit in Wales, the government’s task is to keep trying to put the Georgian case back to the agenda.

The truth is, however, that some governmental officials do not pay enough attention to it. The difference is also about giving messages to our western partners that are not always clear. For instance, if the Georgian prime minister said that “he had found an ideal formula for the relationship with Russia”, this could mislead the West to a conclusion that Georgia does not need its assistance in solving disputes with the Kremlin. We all know that the western powers have often been reluctant to interfere in the developments that take place in the post-Soviet territories. Ukraine is a perfect example. Hence, such messages coming from Tbilisi can also be treated as a release from an obligation to help. We should understand that the world does not revolve around Georgia and that is why our politicians should be hyperactive in the field of European integration and the integration with NATO.

You are successfully running a policy watchdog and a think tank which promotes democracy and Euro-Atlantic integration. What would you say are the major challenges that independent think tanks are facing in Georgia?

Let me start with the positive things and the advantageous context in which Georgian think tanks and other NGOs operate. I would say that they, including GRASS which is one of the most prominent Georgian think tanks, operate in a free society and rather friendly environment. Of course, we have a long way to go before our democracy is fully operational, but when you compare Georgia with its neighbours – Armenia and Azerbaijan – you can see that we are in a much better position. The majority of Georgian NGOs rely on international donors. Why? Because in Georgia there is no practice, unlike in Poland, that the government (no matter who is in power) gives support and financial assistance to local NGOs as a part of public diplomacy. Another big challenge for Georgian think tanks is the lack of international partnerships. However, this will probably be changing slowly as the process of integration with the EU develops.

Paata Gaprindashvili is a vice-director of the Georgia’s Reforms Associates (GRASS) think tank. He was previously a diplomat and former Georgian ambassador to Austria and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

Bartosz Marcinkowski is an Assistant Editor with New Eastern Europe.