Georgian amb. to Israel: No one is safe from Russian aggression - interview

DIPLOMATIC AFFAIRS: Georgian ambassador to Israel warns if Ukraine falls to Moscow, other countries will be in harm’s way.

 GEORGIAN AMBASSADOR Lasha Zhvania: The [2008] war has not finished (photo credit: EMBASSY OF GEORGIA)
GEORGIAN AMBASSADOR Lasha Zhvania: The [2008] war has not finished
(photo credit: EMBASSY OF GEORGIA)

During the 2008 war in his country, Georgian Ambassador Lasha Zhvania was briefly separated from his two small children, when Russian troops took over a road, which made it impossible to travel to the capital of Tbilisi, where the family lived.

“It was summer. My children were in the countryside [with their aunt]. The Russian army blocked the west-east road, so Georgia was disconnected,” Zhvania said.

The swift intervention of the European Union and Poland allowed for the road to be opened for a few hours so Georgians could cross, thereby giving his family a chance to be reunited.

Help stand up against Russia's military ambitions

In an interview with The Jerusalem Post this week, Zhvania recalled that five-day war, which began between August 7 and 8, 2008. He did so to warn the international community that it must do more to help Ukraine stand up against Russia, lest Moscow expand its military ambitions and set its sights once more on his country and others in the region.

Nations like his, which have long-standing territorial conflicts with Russia, but which are not part of the North Atlantic Alliance or the European Union, are particularly vulnerable.

“The [2008] war has not finished,” Zhvania said.

ZHVANIA: WHY can’t I live in Jerusalem, in the [biblical] capital established by King David? (credit: YOSSI ALONI)ZHVANIA: WHY can’t I live in Jerusalem, in the [biblical] capital established by King David? (credit: YOSSI ALONI)

Georgia’s conflict with Russia predates its inclusion in the Soviet Union. It gained independence in 1991 and formed formal diplomatic relations with Israel in 1992.

Among the issues between Moscow and Tbilisi is the status of the Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions, which want independence from Georgia and have received support from Russia.

Technically, the August 2008 war began when Georgia sent its troops into South Ossetia, but the move happened within the larger conflict over the two regions. The war that ensued is viewed as an early sign of Russian expansionism.

Zhvania said he believes the situation heated up in 2008 because Georgia had made moves to join NATO and the EU.

“We cannot resist Russia. That is why we need NATO.”

Georgian Ambassador to Israel Lasha Zhvania

“We cannot resist Russia. That is why we need NATO,” Zhvania said.

This week, on the war’s anniversary, a number of top international diplomats spoke out about their concern about Georgia.

NATO deputy assistant secretary-general Javier Colomina tweeted, “As world’s attention focuses on [Russia’s] war against Ukraine, let’s never forget that – since exactly 14 years ago – Russia occupies parts of Georgia.

“Ever since, Russian forces have illegally been on 20% of Georgian territory, as a result of which thousands of Georgians have been displaced,” he wrote.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken tweeted that “the Kremlin must abide by the commitments it made under the 2008 ceasefire. The United States supports Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

At the time of the 2008 war, Zhvania had returned from his first ambassador posting in Israel from 2005 to 2008 and was the parliamentary chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee.

It was in Georgia that Russia understood that it can do whatever it wants, Zhvania said.

He recalled how helpful Israel and the global Jewish community, particularly those in the US, had been in providing humanitarian aid. The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations in particular also helped open doors for Georgia in Washington, he said.

“Imagine a warfare situation and a humanitarian crisis. People are fleeing their homes. Suddenly, in the center of [the city of] Gori, you see the flag of Israel and the tent constructed by [the NGO Israeli Flying Aid], which was an island of hope for the people. They still remember this,” he said.

“We were not ready for the war, and Russia used cluster bombs. Until the situation calmed down, Israel was there,” he added.

“They were feeding people not just with food but with hope,” Zhvania said.

Georgia and the Jewish people

THE TIES between Georgia and the Jewish people date back thousands of years.

The Jewish community in Georgia is as old as the First Temple and is still in existence today with some 3,000 Jews. There are about 120,000 Jews of Georgian descent living in Israel.

The air traffic between the two countries, which amounts to 42 direct flights a week, speaks to the strength of the relationship, Zhvania said,

Georgia, which is a Christian country, has its own historical ties to the biblical land, particularly Jerusalem, where it once viewed itself as the defender of its holy sites.

In the fifth century, it built a community in the vicinity of Jerusalem’s Malha neighborhood, for Georgians living in the Holy Land.

Zhvania, who returned to Israel in 2019 for his second stint as his country’s ambassador, chose to make his home in Malha. It was a move, he said, that speaks to his own deep religious and historic ties to the city and does not reflect his government’s position on the city’s status, which is reflected by the location of its embassy in Ramat Gan.

“If other ambassadors can live in Herzliya, why can’t I live in Jerusalem, in the [biblical] capital established by King David?” said Zhvania, who studied Hebrew for religious reasons prior to becoming a diplomat.

 national flags flutter on military vehicles near Manbij, Syria October 15, 2019 (credit: REUTERS/OMAR SANADIKI) national flags flutter on military vehicles near Manbij, Syria October 15, 2019 (credit: REUTERS/OMAR SANADIKI)

Modern geopolitics

THESE DAYS, however, his eyes are focused on modern geopolitics, especially the danger an emboldened Russia poses.

He noted that Israel and the Middle East are not immune to this danger.

During his first term as ambassador, he said, the Russian military was not in Syria. Now, he added, it’s Israel’s neighbor.

“If Europe and the international community will not succeed to stop Russia in Ukraine, there will be other targets,” said Zhvania, who added that he fears Russia would want to take over his entire country.

The “Russian story is not over and never will be over, if the international society will not stand [against it]. That is what we are warning.

“No one can relax nowadays, especially in our region. We have to be always alarmed; Israel has to be always alarmed,” he said.