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Russia is very much on Georgia's mind. And it is this that made this week's visit by Georgian Foreign Minister Gela Bezhuashvili's timely, because Russia - as was evident by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's snap visit to Moscow last Thursday for a meeting with President Vladimir Putin - is also very much on Israel's mind.
And Bezhuasvili has some tips on how to deal with Moscow. "Debate with Russia," he said over a cup of coffee this week during an interview in the Knesset's dining room. Bezhuashvili, who smiles easily and laughs readily, speaks perfect English that was picked up partly during studies at Southern Methodist University in Dallas and at Harvard.
"Do not appease Russia; that is my message," he said. "The appeasement of Russia will not bring you results. No, if they feel that you are weak, they will put you down, put you down, using your weakness. They play on weakness all the time. So, be strong, don't show your weakness, and try to engage them from a position of strength. Build alliances."
This message wasn't meant only for Israel, which - like the US - is trying to figure out what will push Putin to fall into line regarding sanctions against Teheran. It is also a message Bezhuasvili, whose country has its own considerable problems with Moscow, felt needed to be internalized by the international community.
"The best recipe I would recommend to the Europeans is to stick together and speak to Russia with one voice," he said. "Russia should not be hearing Berlin and Paris separately. Russia should be seeing and hearing Brussels, the EU, a consolidated voice."
Asked whether Israel should believe Putin when he told Olmert last week that Russia would not "put Israel in a place where it could be threatened" by Iran, Bezhuashvili, 40, replied, "Yes, but I would ask the Russians what do they do as a practical measure to implement what they are saying. Now they say this, that, and the other thing, but what do they do?"
He predicted that in the final analysis it was not in Russia's interest for Iran to gain nuclear arms, and at some point it would make that clear. Although he didn't say it outright, he seemed to agree with those analysts arguing that Russia is using the Iranian issue as a bargaining chip to gain more leverage when talking to the US about other issues.
"At the end of the day I think the Russians will cooperate with the international community on Iranian nuclear weapons," he said, adding that if Russia did not give the Iranians the illusion that it was in their corner, the Iranians might think twice before going forward.
Though a diplomat, Bezhuashvili spoke very bluntly about Russia, and said Moscow was trying to hinder his country's success. Russia, he said, "puts problems on Georgia, manipulates the conflicts, manipulates the border, supports separatists, provides arms sales for the separatists and so on and so forth."
These comments are a reference to the prolonged unrest in the Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two territories that remain outside the control of the Tbilisi government and which are ruled, de facto, by unrecognized governments, supported by Russia. These areas have been a continuous source of tension between Russia and Georgia.
And it is obvious, though unstated, that getting Israel's help in dealing with the security situation in these two regions was one of the goals of Bezhuashvili's visit. "We want to learn from Israel, as well, how to deal with the security situation that you are dealing with, and how to analyze it against the threats and challenges we are facing. You have a lot of experience in security, defense, and police matters. We are very interested in learning and very interested in cooperation."
ACCORDING TO press reports, Israel had quiet security cooperation with Georgia prior to 2005, and even upgraded 25 of the country's MiG fighters. This cooperation, according to these reports, was curtailed following pressure from Russia, somewhat ironic considering the level of Russian arms sales to Syria. Bezhuashvili was Georgia's defense minister in 2004-2005.
He said he does not know of any hurdles the Russians have put in the way of Israeli-Georgian security cooperation. But then, sounding like someone who has intimately dealt with this question in the past, he said, "I don't see the reason why Israel or us should say no to our defense cooperation because of Russia. There will be an indirect effect [on Russia] of course. If Russia is unhappy about our cooperation, well, that's their business. Let them be unhappy, because we are also unhappy with Russia's behavior in some third countries. But what can you do."
In addition to defense cooperation, Bezhuashvili spent his three days here trying to drum up business and, as he readily admits, trying to sell his country. He said that the long history of Jews in Georgia, and the fact that many Georgian Jews moved to Israel, creates a ready-made reservoir of goodwill between the two countries that is being tapped. Currently, according to the Georgian Embassy, there are some 80,000 Georgian Jews here, some of whom are are investing in Georgia.
"There is a spirit here," Bezhuashvili said in praise of Israel, "a dedication, commitment and readiness to sacrifice, in the eyes of every person I talk with - politicians, the military, policemen, students, the young, old and middle-aged. That is what is impressive. That is something that we need to learn; that is something we are doing, trying to getting every single citizen responsible for the country's future."
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