Georgia President Salome Zourabichvili is on a mission in Washington to build support for her country as a key bulwark in case Russia seeks to expand its aggression beyond Ukraine.
Georgia, which like Ukraine was a part of the Soviet Union before its collapse and has battled with Moscow over breakaway regions, is worried about Russia’s war breaking out of Ukraine.
Mysterious explosions in the Russian-backed breakaway region of Transnistria, Moldova, this week underscored the tensions for other countries in the region.
In an interview with The Hill, Zourabichvili said that she believes Moscow doesn’t have the capacity to move its military to launch another operation, but that “it still can play on the nerves, and that’s what it’s doing in Transnistria, trying to raise the fears, destabilize the population.”
“That’s the way that Russia is showing that even if it’s concentrated on Ukraine, it does not forget Moldova, and [Georgia]. So again, our Western partners should, on their side, not be forgetting Georgia,” she said.
Two territories of Georgia have been occupied by Russian forces since 2008 in one of the early signs that Russian President Vladimir Putin was shifting his international strategy. Battles in Transnistria and the Crimean region of Ukraine, which is now occupied by Russia, followed in subsequent years.
Last week, a top separatist official in the Russian-backed territory of South Ossetia in northern Georgia called for a referendum. Zourabichvili described this as coming from the playbook of Putin’s 2014 annexation of Crimea.
The US has signaled it is wary of Moscow moving beyond Ukraine and Secretary of State Antony Blinken told lawmakers on Thursday that the US is watching developments in Transnistria this week “like a hawk.”
Zourabichvili said she hopes to see Georgia included in more talking points issued by the Biden administration, saying this would represent an “important signal” to Moscow.
“We’re not talking about increasing military assistance or that form today, but more in showing political support for Georgia, and for Moldova,” Zourabichvili said.
Moscow’s actions have galvanized the European Union to give Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova an opportunity to move on an “accelerated” path for membership.
Georgia also aspires to join NATO, which Putin views as an existential threat. Georgia holds a “close” relationship with the alliance and participated in joint NATO exercises in March.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said earlier this month that the alliance would step up its support for Tbilisi under a joint NATO-Georgia package to include strengthening the country’s situational awareness, secure communications and cyber operations.
It’s unclear whether the US and other NATO members would move any time soon to admit Georgia as a NATO member, something that would be seen as an escalation by Moscow amid bitter relations with the US
But Zourabichvili said Georgia has no intention to pull back from its aspirations.
“We are not the decisionmakers in that sense, what I can say is that we are looking for the security guarantees, and as a small country, living side by side with Russia, which occupies two of our territories, we cannot say no to security guarantees,” she said.
Georgia also faces the challenge of meeting political requirements for being a member of NATO or the EU.
Freedom House, which monitors the state of civil freedoms and democracy worldwide, rated Georgia in its 2022 report as “partly free” — saying that democratic freedoms have backslid in recent years, civil liberties are “inconsistently protected” and political opposition is often stifled through intimidation and harassment.
“We have to be ready to prepare ourselves and to do some of the things that maybe we have not been rapid enough and effective enough in doing,” Zourabichvili said in an interview with The Washington Post earlier this week. “And I’m talking about the reform of the judicial system, all of these profound reforms that will consolidate democracy, and that means it’s a new impetus for doing that, which I think is a very great chance for my country.”
Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), chair of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that finances US operations abroad, recently expressed support for Georgia but also said reforms were necessary.
“As in Ukraine, the world must demand respect for Georgia’s independence and territorial integrity and condemn Putin’s blatant disregard for the international rules-based order,” Coons said in a statement following a visit to the country in mid-April. “I urge Georgia’s political leaders to seize this window of opportunity by demonstrating the ability to reach political compromise and advance important reforms of democratic institutions, including the judiciary. These steps will also facilitate deeper security cooperation and closer economic ties with the United States.”
Zourabichvili this week met with the ranking member of the Senate Commerce Committee, Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.).
“I was glad to meet President of Georgia [Salome Zourabichvili]. Her country’s resistance to Russian tyranny should inspire us all,” Wicker tweeted. “I proudly stand with Georgia.”
She also met with Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) who tweeted that “Congress proudly stands with the people of Georgia, and we remain unwavering in support of their sovereignty in the face of Russian aggression.”
And the Biden administration has earmarked $88 million in support for Georgia as part of the 2023 State Department proposed budget, to address Georgia’s democratic and economic development, Euro-Atlantic integration and “resilience to counter Kremlin malign influence.”
Zourabichvili said her citizens want closer ties with the US, and that US-government funded media like Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty have a reputation in Georgia for truthful news stretching back to when the country was behind the Iron Curtain.
“There was always this admiration for the United States, and that remains,” she said. “I don’t think that the Soviet – the Russian, sorry, disinformation campaign is really taking hold of the majority of the public opinion.”