Estonian MP Marko Mihkelson discuses Georgia’s politics with Georgian Journal
25 February, 2020
Estonian MP Marko Mihkelson discuses Georgia’s politics with Georgian Journal
How do the current political processes in Georgia look like from the perspective of one of the main friends of this country, Estonia? Are Georgia's foreign goals relevant to its European and Western counterparts? These questions are answered by Deputy Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Estonian Parliament, Marko Mihkelson. He spoke to Georgian Journal in an exclusive interview about the developments in Georgia, about relations between Estonia and Georgia and about problems caused by the Russian Federation in

US Congressmen have sent a lot of letters to Georgian PM Giorgi Gakharia regarding the collapse of promised reforms in the Georgian parliament to move to a proportional electoral system, also, regarding the protests of Tbilisi, and some of them emphasized their concern about Georgia’s continued decline from democratic values and decay of its economic prosperity. There have been the same critics from the members of the European parliament. Do you see these kinds of signs in the development of Georgia and what does it mean when the Congressmen and MEP’s make statements like this?

Me personally, and in Estonia, the Committee of Foreign Relations, are very, very closely following how Georgia is developing in terms of integration with Euro-Atlantic space, but also, how they are doing economically. Estonia and Georgia are very close friends, and of course, it’s very important for us that you succeed on your way, on your path, which you have chosen. But to your question, yes, of course, in your country’s politics we see developments internally which raised questions among allies and friends, as you mentioned, the US congressmen and European Parliamentarians, also, in the Council of Europe there was discussion lately. The question is, the success of integration, be it with the European Union or with NATO, depends a lot on how well things are at home and how strong democratic institution are, also, how well democratic, pluralistic debate is going on in the country, open participation of every interested part in society –this is beside the Georgian parliament and Georgian politicians, electoral system, how to handle a number of difficulties you have internally. You have to take it into account, because this plays a crucial role in terms of how big is the fatigue of certain member states of European Union or NATO, if they analyze the situation in Georgia, what kind of trends are more or less, let’s say, visible in the news. This is where you have to be very careful. Georgia in general, is on a good distance from prospects to be closer to NATO and the EU.

Georgian government considered as its biggest achievement accepting the proportional electoral system, and they were making statements about that on international level. But then, proposed election bill was rejected by the ruling Georgian Dream party in the Parliament. That made people think the government “lied”, and since then, they mostly protest in the streets. How do you think the government should change their attitude for the better in this kind of situation, if that is possible, at all?

For me there’s a difficulty to see the side of what is the best for Georgia, perhaps I can tell you, but in Estonia, from the very beginning, in early nineties, we have electoral system which is purely proportional and has given very good results in terms of participation in Estonian politics. We never had debates about should we change it or not, because it fairly, really reflects the mood of society and through the elections we had coalitions of parliaments all the time, which I think, of course, sometimes is more beneficial than to have a one party rule, because then you have different views at the same time in the coalition, in government, and this perhaps can also create much wider support among the population. This is where our experience with proportional system has been very good. But again, countries decide themselves, what can be the best for them, there are differences, but of course, the question is that if the decisions are made, then to change them in order to facilitate the interest of one or another party group, perhaps, this is not the best possible practice you can choose.

The former Secretary-General of NATO, Anders Fogh Rasmussen stated few months ago 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. Some of the officials stated it would be possible, and they emphasized Cyprus’ example. But, NATO representatives state that it’s not being discussed in the alliance. Do you think the idea would work and if yes, why do you think it’s not being discussed in NATO?

First of all, of course, Estonia has been a strong supporter of Georgia being a member of NATO in the future and this has been our long-term sort of policy. Every time we have these discussions about so-called open doors and integration with countries like Georgia, Estonian support has been there. Of course, you have to consider also that this not only, purely question about security or military, but also politics. Your previous questions are definitely related to the overall sort of readiness of NATO allies to accept the possibility of membership of Georgia in the near future. I think that Georgia has done throughout last years a great job in terms of being very practical, opening up different avenues in the real cooperation, training programs with the NATO allies, and everybody recognizes your strong input to international missions in Afghanistan and in some other parts of the world. In that regard, of course, it comes down to efforts – with individual NATO member states and finding support from strong supporters like Estonia or other Baltic states, you have to focus on those who see problems with the issue of occupied territories or current state of interference of Russia. Personally, I think that in the history of NATO, we have seen different cases.

Do you think the occupation is the main problem for NATO as well as for EU? What are the different barriers to the membership of them separately?

I see several, if not obstacles, issues around further enlargement of NATO to both to Georgia and also to Ukraine. We all understand why Russia started war, provoking your government in 2008, this was a strategic goal to occupy part of Georgian territory and make sure that NATO will never expand to Southern Caucasus. Of course, Russia has tremendous interests in your region. Doing this, they made significant strategic efforts to make sure that European nations or allies will recognize this difficulty with frozen conflicts or with occupied territories, like you have in case of South Ossetia or Abkhazia, why it’s going to be kind of difficult and major obstacle. But here is also another point, one is of course, what is going on internally and how well you are prepared as a strong democracy and vibrant, open economy to join the club, but also, I see that Russian efforts among the NATO allies to make a case with frozen conflicts has been there. I’ve seen several times from politicians across Europe, that they seriously think, yes, okay, you have conflict with Russia, we can’t import the conflict within NATO. Of course, what we see is a question of fatigue, not only in case of NATO, but the recent debates about how open or not open the negotiations can be with North Macedonia and Albania in the case of enlargements of the EU. This perhaps tells you that the efforts from your side, from your diplomacy, are enormously important and not a kind of thing that, in the minds of politicians in the allied countries, will make these obstacles as a kind of final stop. So, it takes a lot of effort from your side.

Can we say that the USA, NATO, and EU show less interest in Georgia latest years and maybe Georgian people are disappointed as well, because of not having enough incentives for democracy?

I would say, the world has hell of a lot of problems today. As you understand, even at this Munich Security Conference, lately we saw that in everybody’s minds today is China, what’s going on still in the Middle East, in Libya, in many other parts of the world. The war which is still going on in Ukraine and recently we saw another major escalation in the East of Ukraine, is not, at least, every day on the agenda of the allied countries in the NATO, and let’s say, the US foreign policy ecc. So, perhaps demands and efforts from your side will bring a lot of more attention. You shouldn’t think about that: “okay, there is less attention to us”. Yes, you have to fight to have more attention and the small countries like Georgia and Estonia, we always must be sort of bigger as we physically are.

“People don’t know what Georgia is and why Georgia wants to be a part of the NATO” – these are your words. In your opinion, what is the reason people don’t seem to know about Georgia? Is it because the government doesn’t represent the country enough on an international level, or do you see some other reason there?

In case of Estonia, of course, Georgia is well-known and you know, even during our recent song contest, we are choosing the song for the next Eurovision song contest, and one of the most popular songs is about Georgia. I very much hope that this song will go as our song in Rotterdam and will win. But, definitely, as I said, there are so many other problems in the world, issues I mentioned and those we didn’t talk about, like climate change and many others. So, to fight for attention depends very much on the constant presence of your government members, but also your Parlamentarians, diplomats presenting the Georgian’s views. What I can see here in Estonia, in Tallinn, Georgia is present and the bilateral contacts are going on well, it doesn’t depend on who is in the government in Tbilisi or in Tallinn. But perhaps again, you know, sometimes we hear this mood of fatigue in the countries like Netherlands, or France, or few others. So you know what to do in a way to find allies, find friends and also, to think about the fact that at the time there is a certain fatigue for enlargement, both in the EU as well as in the NATO. Besides, you sometimes need to change the tactics on how to approach those countries, as well.

We discussed in Tallinn that western politicians and politics were too soft toward Russia when Chechen war happened, and it resulted what happened in Georgia, and then with Ukraine. You told me that it has to be stopped, otherwise it will continue somewhere else. Why, in your opinion, were Western politicians and politics too soft and why are they soft today? Is it because of some leverage Russia holds?

Definitely, Russia is a powerful country, nuclear force and many countries have the long history of relations with it, there is always existing hope that it’s much better to involve Russia with debates about security in different corners of the world, rather to be in a constant confrontation. I guess, we, in Estonia, and hopefully you, in Georgia, have the same position, that it’s always better to have a normal and predictive relations with our common big neighbor. But the problem is that the Russia is revanchist and is growingly revanchist, revisionist in terms of turning around the biggest geopolitical catastrophe of 20est century of the collapse of Soviet Empire, Soviet Union. The Caucasus was the first part where Russia started their sort of fight back, first thing for their own territory in Chechnya, but then in Georgia, now it’s still going on in Ukraine, we see that pressure to Belarus is growing enormously too and also, Russia is very active today, using hybrid sort of warfare against central European countries. So, perhaps the question is, why in 2008 Europe or West wasn’t that strong, attention was somewhere else – attention was in Afghanistan, and then it was in Middle East, toward fight against terrorism, Russia didn’t exist on the radars of, let’s say, general international security picture. What is shameful is that even during the events in Crimea 2014 many allied countries had a focus somewhere else rather than Russia. Hopefully, this has been changed, since the sanctions policy has been implemented, there is no desire of EU member states and other nations so far to lessen it until Russia is not going to change in case of Ukraine. But perhaps, what is important also is that sometimes it would also be good to see the EU and Ukraine working together, letting know that this is not only the problem with one or another country, but this is a major geopolitical issue.

According to your words, “sanctions are the least to say that their action is unacceptable”. Speaking of Georgia, we had a very dangerous situation across the border in summer, besides, there are people captured near the border, including the doctor Vazha Gaprindashvili, who was released from so-called South Ossetia after approximately 2 months. What should be done in order to stop this kind of aggression from Russia?

Currently, Estonia is a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, of course, we very closely follow the situation with so-called borderization and general security situation in your country, as well as the situation in Ukraine, and other corners of, let’s say, our common concerns. What West can more do? I think that the most important is that the Western countries have issues on the radars, that they are informed well and analysis is going in line with the understanding that these are not unique cases, this is not only what’s happening in Georgian, but unfortunately, Russian revisionist policy today affects not only neighboring countries, but interests of allies as well. Let’s say, this is where the friends of Georgia, like Estonia and other countries, bring topic to EU or NATO. So, this is constant work, you can’t expect miracles in diplomacy, but you have to have a goal in the mind and in front of you.

On May 14-15, there is a scheduled meeting of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe in Tbilisi. There is a debate whether Georgia should let Sergey Lavrov and in general, Russian delegation attend, because Lavrov has violated Georgian law on the occupied territories several times. How do you think Georgian government should act and would Estonia let Lavrov in, if he decided to attend the sitting?

- Of course, this is purely a sovereign decision of your government, but yes, the question is, nobody of us - not Georgia, not Estonia, is against dialogue, if it’s really, truly bilateral to find a solution to serious problems. But let’s say, even in case of Ukraine, where hot war is going on, we have seen agreements about de-escalation in Eastern Ukraine, but today, on the front, we see a major attack against Ukraine happening, so one is words, but deeds are not following. Unfortunately, we see more problems growing than visible solutions, and this is where you have to be very firm. And, of course, there must be a solution to problem of occupation of Georgian territories.

Eka Abashidze

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