After violent protests in Tbilisi that Moscow blamed on "Russophobic hysteria," Russia banned flights to Georgia, Russian state-controlled media urged tourists to cancel trips to the country and called into question the quality of Georgian wine. The protests in the Georgian capital began in late June, prompted by a visit by Russian lawmakers, and continued for nearly three weeks. At least 240 people were injured. President Salome Zurabishvili was forced to cut her foreign visits short to return home.
DW spoke with Zurabishvili, Georgia's first female president, earlier this week on the sidelines of a forum in Batumi, Georgia, on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the Eastern Partnership.
DW: The Eastern Partnership involves the European Union and six Eastern European countries. It's an important program for your country. At the same time, Georgia has a long history of relations, and quite strong economic ties, to Russia. How do you find a balance between a very clear wish to be a part of the European Union — and maybe even of NATO — and Georgia's Soviet past and ties with Russia?
Salome Zurabishvili: Very easily, because there is only one perspective. There might be ties, there might be the past that we are slowly getting over, but the perspective for Georgia today is very clear. Since independence [after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991], there has been a steady movement toward the European Union.
That doesn't mean that we do not have challenges. We have had frozen conflicts, and we had a war in 2008. [Editor's note: The August 2008 war with Russia resulted in the secession of the provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, both of which were backed by Russia.] We have 20% of the territory occupied, and we have the occupation line — which is a constant problem — and we have had the recent tensions with Russia. But in a way we are used to that, and that has never proved to be a deterrent for Georgia to continue moving toward the European Union. That is very inherent to Georgian nature, culture and history. Georgia feels itself [to be] European.
Read more: Opinion: Georgia caught up in Russia's geopolitical power struggle
For almost three weeks there were street protests in Tbilisi, where Russia seemed to be a huge topic. What does the relationship with Russia look like right now?
The natural, very spontaneous protest is the reason why we should be together with our European partners, concerned about the open wound of these conflicts and occupied territories. Anything that is not solved is never something the population can accept for a long time. Georgia has completely and officially renounced any use of force. Georgia doesn't have the diplomatic means at this stage to resolve this issue, because we do not have diplomatic relations with Russia. I think that was the main message of the protests — that we have to do something about it. All of us. That means our European partners and everybody who is in the Geneva format, which should be heightened at a political level. [Editor's note: The Geneva International Discussions were launched in Switzerland in October 2008 to address the consequences of the war in Georgia.] So it becomes really relevant to solve the issue and not only to maintain it at a technical level. And that is the message that has been sent from the streets in Georgia.
Do you communicate with the Kremlin? Do you speak to President Putin on a regular basis?
It's not the case. We [have not had] diplomatic relations, since Russia [occupied] our territories [after the 2008 war]. That's why we count on our partners to be, if not mediators, then at least advocates for Georgia, so that Russia understands that it has to have a relationship with its neighbors based on mutual respect, on respect of principles of the international law. That is a way to build more stability in the region.
Read more: Putin rejects sanctions on Georgia
How long does Georgia need to become fit for membership in the European Union?
Of course nobody knows the number of years. This number does not depend on Georgia being fit, because we are doing everything we can. It depends also on the readiness of the European Union to decide about its own future. What is very important for us is to get into policies and programs where Georgia is already ready to do so [but not yet participating]. And through this piecemeal approach, we [will] be a member one day. We should be supported in this process, because we are getting onto the path of reforms that is the most difficult, the most challenging process. And it needs financial and all kinds of political support.
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