Georgia’s president warns crisis could trigger Russian aggression

Georgia’s president has warned that Russia’s struggle to contain the spread of coronavirus and an economic crisis compounded by an oil price collapse risks triggering new Kremlin aggression beyond its borders.

Salome Zurabishvili, whose country lost a fifth of its territory to a 2008 invasion by Moscow, said history suggested internal problems in Russia tended to drive external belligerence rather than efforts to “revisit relations with its neighbours in a more co-operative manner”.

“The pandemic crisis and the oil crisis . . . and maybe the political situation, all of that could encourage Russia to be more aggressive to show some gains outside,” Ms Zurabishvili said in an interview with the Financial Times. “As the president of Georgia, I can express the hope that this time it will not be the case, that maybe the crisis will show the Russian leadership that they can look in a different way to solve their problems.”

Her comments highlight how the pandemic has created new dynamics and uncertainties in Georgia’s Black Sea region, where Russia has built up its military presence and vies for influence with western countries and Turkey. 

Ms Zurabishvili said she was disappointed the Kremlin had not taken the opportunity offered by the health emergency to scale back its deployment of missiles and radar in the disputed territory of Abkhazia, which has declared independence and has increasingly aligned itself with Moscow since the 2008 conflict.

She said the health emergency had also created fresh risks in Russian-occupied areas because of Moscow’s lack of openness over its Covid-19 outbreak and its “absurd” restrictions on access for Georgian authorities to aid citizens in South Ossetia, which Russia invaded in 2008.

“We have not been able to give all the support we could have given,” the president said of the situation in South Ossetia. “On the contrary, the separatist authorities were more tense in their relations and more eager to control everything. On the Russian side we have not seen any evolution either: we haven’t seen much transparency there in terms of what is happening with the pandemic.”

Ms Zurabishvili is a former French diplomat of Georgian heritage who took Georgian citizenship to become foreign minister in 2004 and was elected president in 2018.

Earlier this month she helped defuse a political crisis by brokering a compromise on electoral reform between the ruling Georgian Dream party and the opposition ahead of parliamentary elections latest this year. Resentment at Georgian Dream’s dominance of the political system prompted mass protests in Tbilisi last year. The president said it was her job to “go beyond polarisation” and keep Georgia on the democratic “path of excellence”.

Ms Zurabishvili has been pressing EU leaders for closer ties despite the pandemic crisis that now grips the bloc. She said that although it might seem as if the EU would not “have time or appetite for anybody else,” the emergency showed how “regional ensembles or blocs are going to be much more important” in the recovery.

Her proposals include setting up safe-travel corridors from EU countries to Georgia — an increasingly popular tourist destination that has suffered only 12 deaths (as of May 21) from the pandemic — as well increasing agricultural investments by the bloc and connections to European supply chains.

“For us, it is clearer than ever that the only perspective to see through the crisis is to do it together with our European partners.” Ms Zurabishvili said. “We are going to be in that phase now of being even more adamant about what we want.”

The pandemic is likely to fuel concerns in Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova that their funding under the EU’s so-called neighbourhood investment programme might be squeezed during wrangling over the bloc’s next seven-year budget.

Tbilisi has previously called for more funding from the EU — whose members Bulgaria and Romania have Black Sea coasts — in areas such as undersea electricity and fibre optic cables, and ferry boats to link to Georgian ports.

Georgia clashed this month with another fellow Black Sea country, Ukraine, after Kyiv chose exiled former Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili for a top official position co-ordinating reforms.

Map showing Russia's border with Georgia, the region of South Ossetia, the region of Abkhazia, Georgia's capital Tbilisi

Mr Saakashvili’s second political life in Kyiv — where he fled after rivals took power in Tbilisi and pursued corruption charges against him — has complicated what Ms Zurabishvili described as a “centuries-long” friendship between Georgia and Ukraine. Russia has seized territory from both countries.

“[It was] a not very well reflected upon decision, without consultation, without warning, without even a courtesy warning,” she said of Mr Saakashvili’s appointment, although she added that Tbilisi had no plans for retaliation. “There is no wish on the Georgian side to complicate the situation, owing to the very important dossiers we have in common. [We hope] that Mr Saakashvili is not going to start something.”

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