INTERVIEW: Irakli Alasania

The following is an extract from a podcast interview by Lincoln Mitchell, transcribed by Natia Liparteliani and edited by Katie Ruth Davies. The interview was taken as part of Lincoln Mitchell’s Painting the Corners series titled ‘Episode 11- Joe Maddon and Terry Francona in the World Series, Georgia’s future with Trump’s America and the 26th Man.’

Former Georgian Defense Minister Irakli Alasania discusses how he sees the Georgia-US relationship evolving during a Trump administration.

What are the challenges Georgia is facing in this rapidly changing world particularly given the changes inside Europe and with the unexpected win of Donald Trump in the US elections?

We are focused on how the new administration will continue or change the policies they have towards the region, a region that is aspiring to be part of NATO. We are sitting in a kind of ‘grey area’ where NATO can’t protect us so we’re putting a lot of emphasis on bilateral relations with the US. It has been a wonderful relationship for decades through party support from both Republicans and Democrats. Of course, Trump winning was unexpected, but we are now thinking about how the policies will develop. In general, from my 20 year experience working with the US, I think when the dust settles the policies will be the same, because it is in the best interests of the US to have strong democracy in a developing country like Georgia; it is in best interests of the US to have countries not threatened by Russian interests, as we have seen over the past 10 years, with more aggression and the occupation of territories. I understand that nobody will go to war with Russia for Georgia, but I want to make sure that the relationship and policies that we have will make us stronger militarily and economically.

If Hillary Clinton had been elected, I think the Georgians would be feeling more comfortable; feeling that “we know where she stands,” which you can’t say about Trump. Plus John McCain and Lindsey Graham are heading to Georgia to show their support for the country

I spoke to Mccain a few days ago at a security conference. He always aims to reassure Eastern European countries and countries fighting for freedom and democracy. He said while trump is in power, he doesn’t think the policies will change dramatically and pointed out Trump also knows Georgia. He was here 6-7 years ago, invited to build a Trump tower in Batumi. So he knows Georgia and he knows what we are worrying about and I hope that his national security team and he himself will pay attention now. We know that every new president wants to have a fresh start with Russia. It’s logical and we understand that. But in trying to do so they should be aware that the people of Russia’s neighboring countries are very concerned about the continued Russian oppression.

I find it interesting that, coming from Georgia, you have less concern and feel so comfortable

We are more security conscious and are looking at the elections from that prism, and I know some of the nominees in the new administration; I have talked to them numerous times about Georgia and what we are facing there. I think there’s going to be a tremendous shift for Democrats, Republicans and even from Trump himself, but this is good.

If I was sitting in Tbilisi, I would elect Mitt Romney- he’s smart, rational and supports a mainstream American foreign policy which involves support of Georgia. You can live with him, but can you live with Mike Flynn?

I know Flynn well. We had very good discussions a couple of years ago about security and threats from Russia and he came across as a very rational and solid guy on such issues. At the end of day the institution and institutional memory are so strong in the US that it will stand any kind of deviation from policies. I’m optimistic. We see that it’s different, don’t get me wrong, but this is the rule of the American people and we have to respect that and also to find ways to make sure that the leadership here gets the information that is needed to make sound judgments about the things that concern us.

There are some Americans who want the government to invest less in Eastern Europe and more in protecting Detroit or Cleveland. How does this all look to someone who needs the American Umbrella in a diplomatic and military way? What is the future of Georgia if the USA is absent?

Of course, this is the last thing we want to see because we’ve been very close to the US, security-wise and military-wise, throughout the last 20 years. We’ve been in Afghanistan, we’ve been Iraq, we’re the closest non-member ally to NATO and I know how much the USA invested in the Georgian military. Without US support, such progress militarily would not be possible. And if this changes, it will also change our thinking on how we should protect our country. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not anti-Russian, but I am defending my country; my country’s interests are first, and so I see the threat. I’m a believer in the future of Russia-Georgian relationships and Russia-US relations, but I think it will only come if Russia sees Georgia and other neighbors as they wish to be, with the West strongly protecting them and their interests. I think US interests rolling back would have a tremendously damaging effect on prosperity and democracy in my region. The support of the US is also exemplary for Europeans. We understand there are domestic issues that need to be dealt with internally in the USA, like social depression, etc., but those things can be dealt with in parallel. This is why the US is a global power. I don’t like to call them ‘the policy of the world’ but then again they are the most powerful democratic country.

What’s next for Georgia?

My thinking is that we need to prepare ourselves for a post-Putin period. It will come. Georgia can’t solve this problem like Ukraine- militarily. There is no military solution to this. We need to get stronger economically, institution-wise; to get as close as we can to the standards of Europe- to develop ourselves and wait for the window of opportunity to open. We need to start people-to people relations with Abkhazians and South Ossetians. I think if Trump sees that the Russian side is not sincere in negotiating, he’ll end the fruitless talks and use different tactics in diplomacy. I doubt he’ll sacrifice trade- I think every president tries to improve relationships. If it improves it will be good for Georgia as well, but it won’t happen based on sacrificing US interests. That said, this won’t be happening any time soon. We see that nationalistic sentiments are growing even in Central Europe and what is happening in the Middle East. I think in this context, education is key. And Georgia should also focus on that. The education system is outdated- in some regions there’s not even access to the internet.

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