Former US diplomat Matthew Bryza discusses Georgia, NATO membership and Trump’s presidency with GJ
13 September, 2019
Former US diplomat Matthew Bryza discusses Georgia, NATO membership and Trump’s presidency with GJ
How can we explain the statement made by the former Secretary-General of NATO, Anders Fogh Rassmussen about the possibility for Georgia to join NATO? why is there a suspicion that new Georgian government is trying to do the “Russia’s job”? what kind of advantage can Anaklia Deep Sea Port Project bring to the country? – These are only a few topics discussed in an exclusive interview with the former United States diplomat, Matthew Bryza, who visited Tbilisi last week on occasion
of the International Conference.

First of all, let’s talk about the statement made by the former Secretary-General of NATO, Anders Fogh Rasmussen that Georgia should start a discussion on whether it would be acceptable to join NATO without Abkhazia and “South Ossetia” and the possibility of article five covering only the territory fully controlled by the Georgian government. Do you agree with the idea and what would be your advice to our government?

I think there’s no stronger supporter of Georgia becoming a member of NATO than former Secretary-General. He made a point in his remarks also that Georgia is ready, I mean it’s fulfilled all the criteria for membership. So that makes me think that what he was doing was trying to address the argument that some European countries have, which is that because Georgia is the divided country and because Russia conducted a military operation that led to the division, that it’s too risky for NATO to have Georgia inside because then there could be a military conflict between Russia and NATO. So what I think he was doing was coming up with a clever way to say “we should let Georgia in, and maybe like Cyprus, the entire island is the part of EU now, it’s just in the northern part EU law is suspended. So Article 5 could be maybe adjusted such that for example, it would not apply to the previous military actions Russia already took. In other words, NATO would not be obligated today that Georgia became a member to attack Russia because of what it did in “South Ossetia” and Abkhazia. So I think he’s trying to be creative, he’s putting some pressure on European countries making excuses for Georgia not to be a member. I don’t think the other countries are ready yet for that proposal, but what Georgia’s government should do is to run with it and look for ways to sort of upgrade or change Article 5 that still remains a cornerstone of NATO’s collective security, but would be applicable for Georgian case.

Do you think the Georgian government would be ready to take this step?

I don’t think they would be at this point, certainly not right now. Right now all focus is on the elections coming up and everybody’s expecting Russia to interfere, as they did in US elections, as they did in French elections, European parliamentary elections, as they do all the time. So I think that’s the next big worry for Georgia-Russia relations and we’ll see what the next government, next parliament looks like.

You have had the experience to work with the former government in Georgia, and you follow our government nowadays as well. Which differences and similarities can you emphasize between two governments?

I first government I worked with, after Shevardnadze, after the Rose Revolution was comprised of truly remarkable people, who had such positive energy and had a clear direction of where they wanted Georgia to go and that was unambiguously, straight to NATO And then, okay, maybe the European Union. Many had been educated in the US. In this government there are people like that, who’ve been educated in the US, the government’s policy is to move toward EU, accession through association, it’s really great that there is visa-free travel, more and more Georgians are spending time in Europe and by the way I noticed – since visa-free travel Georgian people look different, look more European, to be honest. So what I’m saying is at a certain level there is not a huge change. Many of those previous government officials in Georgia became personal friends because we just share the same values, we have the goals. I have not developed any friendships like that with this government but I’m not involved with the government on a daily basis, and perhaps I could develop them. But I think that the spirit of the Rose Revolution was unique and by the way, it didn’t last the whole time that President Saakashvili was in power, but the people around him later generally still executed the same spirit. Now there’s so much questioning about certain steps the government is taking, whether it’s the Anaklia Port possible cancellation and all kinds of concerns about Russia. There’s suspicion about this government’s intentions. I don’t have enough information to know yet whether the level of commitment to transatlantic goals I mention is any different in this government than the last one.

One part of Georgian society, especially the opposition points out that the decisions carried out by Bidzina Ivanishvili and Giorgi Gakharia is acceptable for Russia, they do the “Russian job. How do you think, why do they have this kind of impression and do you agree with the idea that Georgia’s orientation regards Russia more in the latest years?

Do you know why there are suspicions that Mr. Ivanishvili has special relations with Russia? Well, it’s because he earned his significant amount of wealth in Russian business. That alone should not mean though that somebody is not going to fight for Georgia. I mean Kakha Bendukidze was “Russian Oligarch” and he made a great thing for Georgia, look at his Free University, even though I didn’t always agree with him, on the sale of Georgia’s pipelines for example. So that alone should not be disqualifying but there is that suspicion that he has those ties and he’s exercising them, I know. But you know, he has to prove himself and the way he’s going to be tested is through these elections. We hear the right messages from him and his government. If Anaklia port goes ahead if there are new investors, and then the government is highly supportive of taking advantage of that port for all the ways that can help Georgia to strengthen its independence – okay. If not, then that’s a different story.

Yesterday “Deutsche Welle” published the article where Gakharia is said to be “Russia’s man”. Their phrase is in a quotation, but there are question marks if “Deutsche Welle” has the same position. How do you think, can we identify Russian impact in this kind of assessment?

I think that the article is directed to weight people up and make them think they need to be watching for Russia’s influence throughout Georgia. I have no way to assess, I have never met the Prime Minister, so I have no idea what his views actually are. But I think that everybody’s so interested in that article because of the previous question you raised, that there’s so much suspicion that he and Mr. Ivanishvili are doing Russia’s bidding here. I have no way to assess that but if there’s an election coming up, and if it’s free and fair, any individual politician’s desires don’t matter as long as the election is free and fair. So the Prime Minister is going to be tested now, at the bullet box and everyone’s eyes will be on him, and when there are problems with one media outlet, maybe it reopens in another form and in another place. So I guess what I’m saying is that Georgian democracy is resilient and you, citizens of Georgia care deeply about it, you want to be the part of NATO, there’s still huge percentage, majority of Georgians want to be part of our community. So I don’t worry so much about that sort of suspicions because I know Georgia is strong enough to keep moving.

There are some statements regarding Giorgi Gakharia that he is the person who can have direct dialogue with Moscow. You pointed out that this doesn’t mean Putin has good intentions. If there is any direct dialogue, how can Russia provoke destabilization through it?

Generally I think it’s bad for the political health of a politician, here in Georgia to have Russia say he or she will be a good person to conduct direct dialogue with, because that raises so many suspicions about that political leader and then makes it impossible for them to be credible or difficult for them to be credible. So that sort of a statement could be a Kiss of Death. Maybe, that is what Russia’s intentions are precise, which is to stir up the Georgian political path. It’s not that they like the Prime Minister or they like Mr. Ivanishvili, they want us all to be asking ourselves these questions and focusing on something else rather than what’s underlying all of this. I mean, rather than see the pattern, which is, as in the US, that Russia is trying to destabilize the political system, encourage extremism, encourage people to fight against each other so that they are not strengthening themselves in democracy, and then Russia can manipulate that country.

Almost 3 months passed after 20th June. How would you assess actions taken by the government in this period as a whole and do you feel the government is taking care of its citizens which were injured that night? Does their attitude with the Georgian citizens go in accordance with the Western standards and values?

Obviously, if people are protesting peacefully to exercise their democratic rights and the government stops that, that’s contrary to international norms and even human rights laws, depending on whether the violence was used. It seems that the things got out of hand, one person lost their eye, so it means there was a lot of significant force involved. I don’t have any information on what was the atmosphere that led to that, and all I can call is to recall history. I remember November of 2007, how intense the demonstrations got and I remember how harshly the government then reacted with some deaths. We in the US government reacted very strongly against that, I was even sent here by the US Secretary of State, told, “Go see the people in the Georgian government responsible, do not be their friends, tell them that the state of emergency must be lifted. If they don’t do that, then we are not going to be able to work together as we have, if they do, Okay, we can carry on”. Same message we delivered to President Eduard Shevardnadze by the way, back in 2003 we had former Secretary of State, James Baker, deliver the same message – “If you continue with your promises and have a free and fair election, we are with you and we will continue our support to the end, if you don’t allow free and fair election, we can’t support you”. We stopped supporting and the Rose Revolution happened. So I think the government today will be smart to learn from those lessons of how the US reacts.

After 20 of June, for sure, that would be the right thing to do, to visit people in hospital, investigate whether the force was used disproportionately and if so, implement whatever compensation should come from that. I don’t know if it is happening, but the fact you asked the question makes me think it’s not.

Georgian government considers as its biggest achievement accepting the proportional electoral system. Do you agree with the idea that it will considerably move democracy forward in Georgia?

That all depends on the culture of democracy in Georgia and how the various competing forces choose to use this new system. I remember when there was not the proportional system, during the Saakashvili period, there was a lot of complaining that there ought to be the proportional system because that’s fairer and it’s less likely that you can use the local influence or money to convince people to vote for your single man. So I think neither system is a priori more democratic, it all depends on the culture of democracy and whether people abuse or respect democratic system.

There are a lot of questions about Anaklia Deep Sea Port Project after “TBC bank” owners, Mamuka Khaazaradze and Badri Japaridze were involved in the investigation against them, which regards transaction made 11 years ago. Do you have any question marks about it and how can the government put an end to these questions?

I have known Mamuka and Badri for twenty-some years, I know them to be tremendously creative and successful businessmen who have built a bank that is listed in London. I mean that’s an unbelievable achievement. You can’t get to that level if you are a money launderer, because nobody’s going to invest in you, and nobody’s going to put their money in your bank. And because they are so smart, why would they ever risk everything for [I’m sorry to say but] this relatively small money? For me it’s huge money, but for the size of the bank and the investment, the types for people around the world that are investors, you would never risk it for that. So I’m highly suspicious of that charge. But the legal system has to play out, I totally believe in due process. Georgian judicial system has always needed work, that goes back as far as we can see into the past, it has not been the most efficient and fair system. So my advice for the government is to really follow the law and all the procedures, as carefully as you can, because we are all watching now, I mean, everybody’s watching this case, the world is watching. Precisely because if you know their gentlemen, you know that it’s sort of a joke to accuse them of money laundering. But the court has conducted the process.

And then why is it happening now? I mean the timing is quite suspicious and US Embassy made a statement, Secretary Pompeo, we are talking about Anaklia Port of course. Secretary Pompeo stressed how important the port is after this started coming. So that suggests that the US government has some suspicions about timing.

There are also talks about Poti Deep Sea Port Project. As you declared, it will have an enormous impact on Georgia’s NATO perspective. On the other hand, what would you say about Poti port project through these lenses and does Georgia need two ports?

Georgia does not necessarily need to have two ports. It needs to have one international, deep sea-level port. Georgia is the only country in the world that has a free trade agreement with China and with the European Union. It’s only Georgia, so right in that central point of gigantic global trade could be Anaklia Port. I know one of the problems blocking it from going forward had been that the investors want guarantees, that there will be return, cargo, to make the investment pay off, that’s legitimate. But that problem is going to be solved by itself over time precisely because of the location of Anaklia Deep Sea Port. But you need a port that’s that capable, that’s designed from scratch if you will, to handle large volumes of deep-sea cargo, to take advantage of Georgia’s location. Poti port has been around forever, the US government had a plan back in 1990’s to help privatize it, the expansion over here and over there. But Anaklia will be designed with strategic intentions in mind for the economy. So Georgia does need that. Whether “if we still need Poti”, that’s a different question. And if not Anaklia, of course the Georgian economy with survive and function fine with Poti, but think of the opportunity cost that will be imposed, not taking full advantage of Georgia’s location.

Some time ago we had a very dangerous situation across the border, but the sides could deescalate the situation. How do you think, what should the government do in order to avoid this kind or more dangerous escalation in the future?

I actually think the Georgian government is doing pretty well on this, on exposing illegal actions Russia is taking, provocative actions. I think the Georgian government needs to keep exposing this, but it also needs to keep this issue on Georgia’s agenda with other countries like the US, but the problem is that won’t be enough. It won’t be enough because there’s not enough caring anymore about this problem.

When I was in government and involved in all these negotiations, I was always disappointed by many of US allies in how little they actually cared. They were doing their jobs, they are professionals, but I didn’t sense that they had a passion, strategic passion that we had. Because we knew that successful, democratic prospects of Georgia are the best way to deter Russia from doing even worse things. So our failure to deter Russia or impose sufficient costs for its invasion of Georgia and for what it’s doing now led to Crimea and Donbass. So you have to stop Russia and impose the costs at the moment it’s doing something illegal or else you’re just inviting future such actions. So what we need is Georgia somehow to get itself back on the agenda of the US and European allies so finally, the way to do that is to have a good election, free and fair election – whoever wins, wins. I think that one of the great things for Georgia over the last decade and half was the 2012 election, not because of who won or lost, but because the ones who lost, left.

Can we say that the USA shows less interest in Georgia latest years and if it is so, why?

I think Russia’s annexation of Crimea, its occupation of Donbass and its continuation of the war against Ukraine has awakened Europeans. I think those former colleagues of mine realize it was a mistake not to see that Georgia would be the first step of many terrible actions. Problem number one for me is that the US President is [I think] completely unaware and uninterested in history, in geopolitics. His a transactional person, he believes in reaching a deal one on one. He doesn’t like NATO, or the EU, he doesn’t like collective diplomacy because the US is the strongest country on earth and so he thinks, “Okay, I select you, just you and I”. His mindset is not the strategic one that we all grew up with. He doesn’t even seem to not only appreciate but want to preserve and even wants to destroy the rules-based system, he is against the EU which helps to base behaviors on laws and rules of collaboration rather than the Jango. So that’s a big problem, the US President usually is not listening to his most senior advisers saying “Georgia, pay attention to Georgia”. The second thing is what I mentioned before, I just don’t think you ever understood strategically how important it is for Georgia to thrive, not just survive. There’s always deferring to Russia, thinking “Russia’s bigger and more important, we have to have nice relations with Moscow”. This European diplomacy has been going back to Battle of Warsaw 1944, when the Soviet troops told the Polish underground, “rise up and fight, we’re here to help you”, and they never moved their tanks. And the European allies really did not care, they did not bring supplies to the Polish fighters, so history’s repeating itself.

You emphasized that discussion about who started the war in 2008 year, is the result of war of narratives, where Russia is winning. Do you identify other areas where there is a war of narratives between our countries and do you think that Russia is winner in them again?

In Ukraine Russia did lose the war of narrative pretty quickly, but not at the beginning. I remember first days I talked to very well-known presenter of the BBC, I remember he was speaking and I asked him about this later, he was presenting and he said: “we’re getting reports that Russian troops have entered Ukraine, now there’s the Russian military exercise happening near the border, it must be that those Russian troops accidentally wandered into Ukraine”. He actually said this on the air. And when I saw him, I asked him: “Yeah?!” So Russia has positioned itself, playing off of Georgia, such that “Georgia was supposedly responsible for the war because Georgians are crazy and impulsive”. And so Russia was the “responsible adult”, “Putin is good and Medvedev is good because they agreed to a ceasefire, they could have kept going and crashed Georgia”. So, “Russia is responsible and it must be that the Ukrainians are being provocative, they are provocative because they don’t treat the ethnic or non-ethnic Russians. Russia would not have attacked because of that, though!” Russia lost that one because its own behavior, because people now realize, “Georgia was the first step, we should have acted then against Russia, we didn’t and now we get Donbass and Crimea. In American politics it’s crazy, Donald Trump talks about fake news, he has every single one of his Intelligence organizations say that the Russians are trying to interfere and did interfere in his election in 2017 and he says: “No, they’re wrong, that’s just all fake”. How could it be fake if this is Intelligence community saying these things? They are the ones who know best. So he’s always trying to create false news, every day, fills the airwaves with untruths, to be polite. And he’s winning it as much as the 90% of people of Republican Party.

How do you think, are the USA and European Union tough enough with Russia latest years and do the sanctions against Russia really function? Or there is a soft politics with them and what kind of leverage is there to make it more effective?

I think the sanctions do have an impact and better than I expected, I think they are imposing the real cost on the Russian economy, slowing it down. I think President Putin is in an extremely difficult situation, the Russian political, governmental system is rotting inside. Somebody said, if you brought the Angel Gabriel down and put him in Russian ministries now, so someone who really wanted to do the right thing, he or she could not because the system is falling apart. I think that maybe we are in a moment of great change in Russia and its neighborhood, which is scary, because we can’t predict what will happen, but it’s fantastic and it’s time to get ready for that. The government here and now should strengthen Georgia’s democratic institutions as much as it can, attract as much foreign and Western investments to do project as Anaklia as possible so that Georgia is completely connected to West for when the big storm comes in Russia.

Eka Abashidze

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