Kenneth S. Yalowitz, former U.S. Ambassador to Georgia.

DFWatch recently had a Skype chat with Kenneth Yalowitz, former US Ambassador to Georgia, to discuss current events in Georgia, its Euro-Atlantic integration and issues in the region. Yalowitz extended his condolences to the victims of a recent flood in Tbilisi which resulted in at least 19 deaths, and commended thousands of people who united in order to help victim families and clean up the mess caused by the disaster, calling it a ‘very powerful sign’ of civil society in the country. 

DFWatch: In our interview over a year ago, you mentioned that Georgia is moving in the right direction. Now, a year later, would you say the same?

Kenneth Yalowitz: I think that the line is still positive. I am still reasonably optimistic. Georgia is taking positive steps to move forward. On the background of what is happening in the region right now, I also look at what is going on in Azerbaijan, the backwards movement on democratization, in terms of respect for human rights, and that hasn’t happened in Georgia, despite all the difficulties from the north, Russia. I think Georgia continues to move ahead.

We know that there are problems. The current government seems to have some difficulties making decisions, things might not be moving quite as quickly forward as one might have hoped, but still the commitment to a western direction in the foreign policy and the other steps domestically, there seems to be respect for the freedom of the press, the judiciary seems to be more independent, the justice minister seems to be doing some good things, there are a number of things which give us pretty good confidence that Georgia continues to move in the right direction.

DFW: The relationship between Georgia and Ukraine is quite complicated. [Ukrainian President] Petro Poroshenko appointed his former Georgian counterpart [Mikheil] Saakashvili as Odessa governor, and many of Saakashvili’s former staff are in various positions, while he himself is being prosecuted in Georgia. How should the Georgian government behave in such a situation, in its relationship with Ukraine?

I know there has been some criticism of the government for not being more supportive or being more demonstrative in visiting and rendering support. Georgian Dream is in a difficult situation. There is difficulty with Russia that has to be factored in, on a day by day basis. The previous government under Saakashvili of course had a very confrontational approach with Russia.

This government is trying to do what they can to improve areas like trade, travel, somewhat improve the relationship, even as the fundamental issues of Abkhazia and South Ossetia remain unresolved. I think that explains why the current Georgian government is supportive of Ukraine, but treating it very carefully.

Obviously, it is a sovereign decision of Ukraine if they want to ask people to come in and help in this particular time, and that’s understandable, but my own preference for Ukraine would be to have Ukrainians doing this particular job. I think it is important that Ukrainians be able to move forward with their own reforms. There was a feeling that they needed someone who would chop through the bureaucracy and the corruption, but my preference would be to see the Ukrainians doing this. One minister, [Alexander] Kvitashvili, has already resigned. I don’t know the reason, but I think it indicates, no matter what, that it is difficult to just transplant outsiders to implement what Ukrainians ought to be doing.

DFW: Recently Russian border guards pushed the fence along South Ossetia a few hundred meters inside Georgian territory. Even though the Georgian government tried to improve the relationship with Russia, there is no response from the Russian side. How do you explain those steps by Russia? Many Georgians cannot understand the motives for this.

I think it is pretty clear what is going on. As I’ve read those reports, it was about 1,600 meters that it was moved in, and some of the territory included, I believe, some of the oil pipeline. This to me is very typical, what Russians are doing right now – applying constant pressure both in Ukraine, now in Georgia and they are doing this in the Baltics – constant pressure to show how strong they are and are unwilling to accept the situation they are in. They are doing this over and over to demonstrate to neighboring countries and the outside that they have what they believe is status number one in the former Soviet space.

Those are reminders that they believe that they can act with impunity. I think that they are overextended in Ukraine and they are capable if they wished militarily to use strike forces to go further into eastern Ukraine, but militarily they are not actually capable of occupying those areas, so I think they are in a situation right now where they are uncertain what exactly they want to do in Ukraine. But at the same time, they want to keep reminding all the other neighbors that they are powerful. Georgia is in a very difficult neighborhood at a very difficult time, managing the relationship with Russia at this time is extraordinarily difficult. I think Georgia is doing the right thing trying to improve the relationship to the extent possible.

DFW: New Defense Minister Tina Khidasheli is very active pledging to pursue NATO integration for Georgia very aggressively, namely getting a MAP (membership action plan). In this new geopolitical situation, what are our chances of getting the NATO membership process facilitated?

I wish I had a positive answer, but I don’t. There were Georgian officials here in Washington recently discussing the MAP, and the sense I have after talking to a number of individuals in Washington is that MAP is not likely in a year. To do this, the alliance has to be totally unified, a consensus agreement, and there doesn’t seem to be the unanimity at this particular time. But at the same time, there is so much that is going on. As I understand, this NATO training center is going to be open very soon. Georgia is continuing to take all the steps necessary in that direction, and even if there is not a MAP in a year from now, I hope very much that Georgians are not discouraged.

There is great appreciation for what Georgia has done, its contributions, its commitment, reform of its military. For Georgia it would be right not to just simply focus on NATO and EU but to really move forward with the agreements they signed, and what I am hoping is that visa free regime with Europe will come into effect very soon.  I am very much aware that in Georgia some people are beginning to say ‘we’ve done so much and we are not getting any response from the west’, and I think that is a legitimate point. I believe that if this visa free agreement will be put forward in the near future, this will be a very important symbol to all Georgians of western commitment, to see Georgia as part of the Euro-Atlantic framework.

DFW: As a conflict studies expert, what do you think about the differences and similarities between Donbass, the occupied part of Ukraine, and Georgia’s breakaway regions Abkhazia and South Ossetia?

The major difference is of course that with Russian support Abkhazia and South Ossetia are now independent, but I’ve seen reports recently that the Abkhaz seem to be very uncomfortable in certain ways, and that’s not surprising. The Abkhaz have a strong sense of who they are, and I don’t think they want to be completely suppressed and swallowed up by Russia.

Donbass and Luhansk, those are obviously still conflict zones, and I am not sure that the Russians yet have made up their minds about what they want those to be. The question to them is, do they see this as a frozen conflict the way Abkhazia and South Ossetia were for many years, or are they going to push forward? What’s going to be the result of the Minsk agreement? Will it actually be solidified? There is a big disagreement now between the Russians and the Ukrainian government.

The Russians wanted to see the federalization and strong decentralization in Ukraine, and the Ukrainian government is now talking not federalization but just decentralization, giving those two areas more power of police, economic affairs, recognizing the Russian language and practice things of that nature. We are going to see in the next couple of months a better indication of what the Russians are up to in that area. My hope is that the Russians may be getting to realize that they have overextended themselves, that they need to actually implement the Minsk agreement. With Abkhazia and South Ossetia, I wish I had a magic wand to wave, but both of these situations I think are long term. They are not going to change as long as Mr Putin is around and doing what he is doing.

For Georgia, the best strategy would be to continue its integration with EU and to make Georgia as strong economically and politically as possible. Those are the things that would ultimately bring back the two occupied territories.