Last January, Tedo Japaridze joined Georgian Dream, the Georgian coalition of opposition forces led by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili. When the seasoned 66-year-old diplomat made one of his many visits to Washington before this month’s parliamentary elections, he was often asked the same question.
“How are you going to react when you lose?”, a top State Department official asked him. “Will you accept defeat? Will you take to the streets?”
Tired of the same question and the same assumptions, Japaridze, who served for a short time as foreign minister under Mikheil Saakashvili, asked his interlocutors, “How will you react if we win…?
There was, he recalled, no answer, just a kind of pitying look, as if to say, “let them dream on”.
Well, Georgian Dream—what a fitting name, given that anecdote—won the election against all the odds, thus ending both Saakashvili’s control of the parliament and his very particular foreign and security policy.
Ever since been catapulted into power in 2004, as leader of the Rose Revolution, Saakashvili had focused his foreign and security policy almost entirely on integrating Georgia into the Euro-Atlantic organizations of NATO, and the European Union.
But what Saakashvili will probably be most remembered for is the hash he made of trying to defend Abkhazia and South Ossetia. He lost those territories, at least for the moment, to Russia during a short war in August 2008.
Relations between Tbilisi and Moscow have since been frozen, to the detriment of Georgia which needs all the trade and economic ties possible with its neighbors to boost growth.
In a conversation this past weekend, Tedo Japaridze, who is poised to become chairman of the Georgian parliament’s influential foreign affairs committee, outlined his party’s plans for a more modest, regionally-oriented foreign policy strategy for Georgia.
What are Georgian Dream’s foreign policy priorities?
Our top foreign and security policy is to settle things internally. This means institutionalizing democracy. Following on from that, Georgia has to find its place in the region and become a player in this part of the world.
How will that change the previous government’s policies towards NATO and the EU?
Any Georgian will tell you about the importance of Euro-Atlantic integration. I would love for Georgia to become a member of NATO. NATO membership would solidify our security, but I understand it will not happen tomorrow. We have to prepare ourselves. We know full well that if one day NATO’s members agree that Georgia should join the alliance, the next day some of the member states will send different signals when they go to Russia to discuss economic and energy issues.
What does that mean in practice?
The big difference between us and Saakashvili is that our approach has to be pragmatic and realistic.
We have to have an understanding of realpolitik. We have to understand where Georgia is in terms of the neighborhood. It’s not just the global context that we have to consider. It’s the regional context. We must make Georgia relevant.
Saakashvili referred to Georgia as being a kind of new Berlin Wall. What is your view?
It’s all very well to say that to attract attention. But our approach is different. We do not want to be the new Berlin Wall. That brings nothing good to Georgia. Georgia cannot change its geography, which is why we have to consider the region. We have to settle our relations with our neighbors.
This means dealing with Russia. How are you going to approach the Kremlin?
Look, Russia is a big country. But actually, whether you are small or big, you have to co-exist.
In 2008, we lost territories. We lost a war. I do not say that the Georgians were angels. We are not angels. We jumped into the trap. Georgia was dismembered. Saakashvili’s biggest mistake was that he dragged Russia back to the Caucasus.
But that is the past. You now have to deal with the facts on the ground.
I will be chairman of the foreign affairs committee. I would advise policy makers to adopt small steps that would lead to positive results. We should pursue a step-by-step policy. That is the difference between Saakashvili and us.
Saakashvili would not talk to Russia as long as the occupation continued.
We say, let’s talk first and through small steps maybe we can start dealing with very sensitive issues. What we don’t want is an open confrontation with Russia. As it is, we have a very long laundry list to deal with. It will not be easy. It is a very long process and we have to accept that, but I do want to say that we will not surrender one iota of our strategic interests.
Could you be more specific?
We are not going to jump and start talks just like that with Russia. I think that we need to take a strategic pause; to think over our immediate, mid-term and long-term strategy. Our position in general is well known to the Russian side, and we are also well aware of the position they had before the elections: no talks with Georgia while Saakashvili is in power.
Well, now Saakashvili is out and it’s Russia's turn to offer to a new vision. Again, I do not expect any easy dialogue with Russia but the discourse should be based on pragmatism and realism. I said that to one Russian newspaper. The reaction the next day from Moscow was negative: Georgia wants to dictate to Russia. It sounds funny but that's how Moscow interprets "pragmatism".
It brings up the question about how you are going to deal with Abkhazia and south Ossetia?
We should actually begin talking to the Abkhazians and the Ossetians. Too much talk has focused on territory and not about the Abkhazians and Ossetians as peoples.
This is where our foreign and security priorities come in. It’s what I said in the beginning, which is to make Georgia a normal functioning democracy. That means making it attractive to Abkhazians and Ossetians, so they can say, “Georgia works.” And of course, as I said before, it’s about talking to people.
You seem very focused on Georgia’s neighborhood in contrast to Saakashvili’s bigger, global foreign policy outlook.
We want good relations with our neighbors. Our policies are based on realism, pragmatism, and realpolitik. It’s about coexisting. Look at the map: we have Russia and Ukraine, Armenia and Azerbaijan, and Turkey in our neighborhood. In short, it is about rebalancing our own country.