Georgian president: Israel can voice our concerns to Russia

Salome Zourabichvili, a former Iran sanctions negotiator for the UN, says world is ‘back to square one’ in curbing Tehran’s nuclear aspirations

Georgian President Salome Zourabichvili in Jerusalem  (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Georgian President Salome Zourabichvili in Jerusalem
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Israel should serve as a go-between for Georgia and Russia over the latter’s continued occupation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Georgian President Salome Zourabichvili said on Tuesday.
“We have two territories occupied by Russia, which is very present. They have military bases... people have been taken hostage. It is a very painful, direct relationship,” between Georgia and Russia, Zourabichvili said in an interview with the The Jerusalem Post hours after her arrival to Israel.
Zourabichvili is in Israel to attend the Fifth World Holocaust Forum at Yad Vashem and related events.
Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which make up about 20% of Georgia’s territory, have been occupied by Russia since the 2008 Russo-Georgian War. Russia claims the areas are independent states, though it maintains military bases in both. Israel, the US, the EU, the UN and many other countries and multinational organizations view Abkhazia and South Ossetia as territories illegally occupied by Russia.
The president viewed Israel and Georgia as similar in that they are “two small countries in an environment that was historically and still is very complex, difficult, challenging and threatening at certain times... many invasions to fight and overcome.
“The fact that we have, over the centuries, overcome all these threats and manage to preserve independence and sovereignty is something that unites us with even stronger ties than just sympathy,” she stated.
As such, Israel specifically can be a voice for Georgian concerns, she added, because it can “defend the right of a sovereign country to control its borders and territories.”
Zourabichvili, 67, was born in Paris to Georgian parents. She worked in the French foreign service and in 2003 became ambassador to her parents’ country of birth. A year later, Georgia’s then-president Mikhail Saakashvili nominated her to be foreign minister, and thus began her political career in her adopted country.
A career diplomat, Zourabichvili emphasized the importance of dialogue in international relations as opposed to avoidance and isolation, saying it is important for Georgia’s allies to relay its message to Russia
“Dialogue should be one of engagement, of constantly reminding – as I did today with [President Reuven Rivlin] – our closest partners that they need to be our voice towards this very strong neighbor of ours to remind it of its commitments in the ceasefire agreement of 2008 and to remind our neighbor of the fact that there is never a solution that can bring stability that is based on symmetry, occupation and forceful positions,” she said.
Despite the hostilities between Georgia and Russia, Zourabichvili said she would not take a tack similar to that of Poland, whose president Andrzej Duda refused to take part in the World Holocaust Forum, in part because of Russia’s participation and Russian President Vladimir Putin accusations in recent months that Poland had collaborated with the Nazis.
“It’s not for us to decide,” the Georgian president said. “We can decide what relations we’ll have bilaterally.”
Georgia is also moving forward in its efforts to become a member of both NATO and the European Union, Zourabichvili said. The country will take part in a military exercise with the EU later this year, as the only country that is not part of NATO or the EU, and is part of peacekeeping missions in Afghanistan. In addition, it has free trade with the EU and has taken legislative steps toward membership.
Still, the Georgian president said, the process is stuck because of bad political timing in the two organizations.
“Our main priority while we are on this waiting list is to get very clear steps forward, movement towards both organizations, so our population sees the movement has not stopped and that we are getting closer and increasing cooperation,” she stated.
One of the major areas in which Georgia works with NATO partners is cybersecurity, and Zourabichvili seeks to increase its work with Israel in that sector as well, as she told Rivlin in their Tuesday meeting.
“We want to do more with Israel on cybersecurity. We are willing to do more for all issues that concern our security... We know what Israel’s capacities are in this area, so we are very insistent on getting more active cooperation,” she said.
Zourabichvili‘s presidential administration has been hacked twice, so cybersecurity is “a serious concern and we have to tackle it,” she said. She stopped short of blaming Russia, saying that it is difficult to identify the origin of cyber attacks.
Georgia is geographically close to Iran, though they do not share a border, and Zourabichvili oversaw the implementation of sanctions on Iran in the first half of the last decade as part of the UN Security Council’s Iran Sanctions Committee.
“We thought the carrot and stick had worked, but now we are back to square one,” Zourabichvili said of Tehran’s nuclear project. “Sanctions are one of the means to try to bring the other side to a more reasonable position. There are not so many means to effect developments in a country like Iran.”
The current situation, with Iran enriching uranium again and the US increasing sanctions, has an adverse impact on Georgia, she explained.
“Iran is a neighboring country for us. It’s a concern if relations between Iran and our main strategic partner, the US, or other partners get tense or confrontational... Sanctions have an effect on countries like us that have normal commercial relations. It’s not much, but they’re still a neighbor, so we suffer from any increased tension and increased distrust,” she said.
As for the purpose of her visit, Zourabichvili proudly said that Georgia has never had any antisemitism in its history.
More accurately, there was no state- or church-sponsored antisemitism in Georgia as long as it was independent; there were numerous incidents of antisemitism, including blood libels, when it was under control of Tsarist and Soviet Russia. The vast majority of the Georgian Jewish community left in the second half of the 20th century; they were the first Jews allowed to leave the Soviet Union for Israel in large numbers, beginning in the 1970s. Currently fewer than 4,000 Jews live in Georgia.
Zourabichvili said that the peaceful 2,600-year history of Jews in Georgia “is extremely important to how we define ourselves,” and that Georgian Jewish history is considered part of the country’s “immaterial heritage.”
“In certain ways, we are an example for the rest of the world, for the positive things that can happen when two peoples find mutual respect as the basis of their relationship,” she said. “We have actively helped each other at different stages in history.”
Zourabichvili said her country stands with the leaders of 40 other countries attending the Fifth World Holocaust Forum who are there to signal their commitment to remembering the Holocaust, but also to combat contemporary antisemitism.
“I think in today’s world [the Holocaust] is reminding us of what might happen or is happening in the world that is now taken over by polarization... sometimes in the form of antisemitism. For Georgia, it is not something that belongs to our past or culture, but that does not mean we should be indifferent. We live in a global world; all these trends and movements effect everyone,” she said.
The ceremony will also mark 75 years since Auschwitz was liberated by the Red Army, and Zourabichvili said that Georgians served in the Soviet army in the highest numbers per capita.
Zourabichvili also took part in an event honoring Saint Gregor Peradze, canonized by the Georgian Orthodox Church and a Georgian national hero, who was living in Poland, in exile from the Soviet Union, when the Germans invaded. Peradze tried to aid imperiled Polish Jews and was deported to Auschwitz in 1942. He was killed in a gas chamber soon after, because he took the blame for the death of a German officer to save the life of a Jewish prisoner who was the father of many children.
The event in Peradze’s honor took place on Tuesday evening at the Friends of Zion Museum, which honors Christian Zionists, with US Ambassador David Friedman, Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev and others present.