Russia's ambassador to Georgia said on February 6 that Moscow wants Georgia to be a neutral state – a condition that collides with Tbilisi’s NATO aspirations.
Speaking at a news conference in Tbilisi about two weeks after his return to the country, Ambassador Vyacheslav Kovalenko emphasized that Moscow has never questioned Georgia’s territorial integrity or sovereignty.
“Russia wants to see Georgia be an independent, sovereign and neutral state with neighborly relations with Russia,” Ambassador Kovalenko said at the news conference held in the Russian news agency RIA Novosti’s Tbilisi office, which was packed with journalists.
The Russian ambassador's statement recalled another statement reportedly made by Georgian Foreign Minister Gela Bezhuashvili in an interview with the Italian weekly magazine Panorama about the possibility of allowing the U.S. to establish military bases on Georgian territory.
“It is not possible for statements – even if they have been made in a general way – about the possible deployment of military bases in Georgia not to concern us. Although certain explanations have been made for this statement through diplomatic channels, we know that there is no smoke without fire,” the Russian Ambassador said.
The Georgian Foreign Ministry said on February 5 that Bezhuashvili's remarks about military bases were distorted by Panorama magazine.
Meanwhile, Georgia’s NATO integration aspirations are described by the authorities in Tbilisi as “an irreversible process.” In several statements President Saakashvili has made it clear that his ruling party is ready to hold a dialogue with any political force in Georgia that agrees on several fundamental principles. Georgia’s NATO-membership and issues related to territorial integrity are always listed among these “fundamental principles.”
Toning-Down ‘Anti-Russian Rhetoric’
Ivan Volinkin, a Russian diplomat who was among those few officials left in Tbilisi after Russia recalled its ambassador last September, said that the Embassy decided to convene a news conference following numerous appeals from journalists requesting interviews with the Ambassador.
Volinkin said that the most frequently asked question recently concerns the steps Moscow wants Tbilisi to undertake in order to demonstrate its readiness to move towards the normalization of ties between the two states.
Russian Ambassador Vyacheslav Kovalenko started answering this question by making remarks about Georgia’s neutrality, although he did not elaborate further on this issue. He put more focus on the necessity for the Georgian authorities to tone-down their “anti-Russian rhetoric.”
He said that Moscow “has a desire to build neighborly relations with Georgia, and it is time for reciprocal steps” by Tbilisi.
“What do we mean by these reciprocal steps? First of all, the anti-Russian rhetoric that we hear almost every day in Georgia should be stopped,” the Russian Ambassador said.
He said that though he returned to Georgia less than two weeks ago the anti-Russian rhetoric continues.
“We continue to hear statements that Russia is not a friend of Georgia, that Russia has occupied Georgia, etc. The day after my arrival in Tbilisi a so-called story about uranium emerged, and the facts about this story have been deliberately distorted and statements were made that Russia was not willing to cooperate with Georgia over this issue. This is not true. Moscow has been calling on Tbilisi to create conditions to jointly investigate this case. The Russian General Prosecutor’s Office requested additional materials, which were not sent by Tbilisi,” Vyacheslav Kovalenko said.
He said that Georgia now has “a unique chance” to build normal ties with Russia.
“Georgia has no neighbors that are hostile towards it and no one is threatening Georgia. Russia has no egotistical interests towards Georgia, Abkhazia or South Ossetia. Russia is only aspiring to develop relations based on mutually beneficial and mutually respectful principles,” the Russian diplomat added.
The Russian Ambassador was apparently answering to terms such as “Georgia’s ill-wishers in one of our neighboring countries,” which is frequently used by Georgian officials in their public statements.
He also noted that officials in Tbilisi always try “to see Russia’s hand” in all kinds of developments in Georgia.
“To tell the truth, we have stopped paying attention to it; but anytime this kind of approach emerges it of course adds a negative [aspect] to bilateral ties,” Kovalenko said.
Russia’s WTO-Membership Talks
Russian Ambassador Kovalenko said that Georgia’s attempt to link the Abkhaz and South Ossetian conflicts with Russia’s WTO accession talks is not legitimate.
Tbilisi wants Russia to legalize trade at the two border crossing points with Georgia located in the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as a precondition for Georgia’s go-ahead to Russia’s WTO accession.
“I do not think that it is right to link these two issues… Georgia’s internal disputes should not be part of negotiations over Russia’s WTO accession,” the Russian Ambassador said.
“This issue is not only up to Russia, isn’t it? Abkhazia and South Ossetia are also involved in it. We should not link commitments related with the Georgian-Abkhaz and Georgian-Ossetian conflict to the relations with Russia,” Kovalenko added.
The Russian diplomat said that Moscow supports bilateral talks between Tbilisi and its secessionist regions, but he also made it clear that the negotiating mechanisms that are currently in place have not yet been exhausted.
He said that Russia supports Georgia’s territorial integrity, “but of course, with the protection of the interests of all peoples living there.”
“We support all initiatives that will lead to bilateral negotiations… But a session of the [Russian-dominated quadripartite] Joint Control Commission [over South Ossetia] has not been held for a long time already; it is also possible to discuss issues in this format,” Kovalenko said.
“You negotiate with each other [with the Abkhaz and South Ossetian sides] and Russia will accept everything you will agree on. And if necessary [Russia] will act as mediator and peacekeeper. We support this kind of approach, because only these talks can lead to peace and stability; this is the most important thing for Russia,” he said.
Officials in Tbilisi say that Moscow hold the key to settling the secessionist conflicts and that Russia should play “a constructive role.” Instead, Tbilisi accuses Moscow of encouraging the authorities in the breakaway regions to adhere to a hard-line stance towards Tbilisi, which makes confidence-building and conflict resolution difficult.
The Russian ambassador said that Russia has undertaken “humanitarian measures” and started issuing passports to the residents of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in order to enable them travel abroad. But the move is seen by Tbilisi as an attempt by Russia to justify its meddling in developments in breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia under the pretext of “protecting its citizens.”
The Russian diplomat also spoke about the Russian Embassy’s plans to boost its activity towards the revitalization of humanitarian and cultural ties between the two countries.
He expressed regret that the Russian language is loosing its status as the major foreign language among Georgia’s new generation, and said that the Embassy has a plan to establish a Russian institute and school in Tbilisi with branches in Georgia’s regions.
“I have talked about this with the Georgian President, who expressed interests in the project… Georgian youth understand less and less Russian, which is not good,” he said.
The Russian diplomat also said that the Embassy is working on the resumption of issuing visas for Georgian citizens, but did not elaborate a timeframe in which this, as he put it, “technical problem” will be solved.