TBILISI, GEORGIA - Georgian President Salome Zourabishvili says Russia's decadelong military occupation of South Ossetia and Abkhazia has failed to break the national will to maintain sovereignty and achieve European Union and NATO accession.
"Despite the occupied territories and despite the ... constant everyday pressure with hostage-taking, with humanitarian pressure on the populations on both sides of the occupying line, this has not been a victory for Russia, because Georgia has kept its line and (determination) to join the EU and (North Atlantic Treaty Organization),” she told VOA's Georgian Service in an interview in Tbilisi.
"And I think that was the ultimate aim of Russia: to effect Georgia's determination," she said, adding that, as such, "it's a victory for Georgia and not for Russia."
Despite visa-free travel and formal trade pacts with the European bloc, the EU has yet to grant Georgia membership candidacy, in part because of Brussel's trepidation about openly antagonizing Russian President Vladimir Putin following the 2014 annexation of Ukraine's Black Sea peninsula. (In Georgia, where Russian tank units maintain control over 20% of the terrain, a holdover from the August 2008 five-day war, officials had long espoused their conviction that Russia might one day attempt to annex portions of Ukraine.)
Increased American naval activity on the Black Sea — a kind of maritime gateway for trade and access to natural resources across Asia that circumvents routes through Russia — reflects not only U.S. strategic interest in the region, Zourabishvili said, but an opportunity for Tbilisi to deepen ties with Washington.
"I think the Black Sea is becoming much more important in the strategic view of the United States," she told VOA. With NATO-partnered Romania and Bulgaria on the maritime region's western flank, Georgia is vital strategic partner on the eastern shore, "and we are ready to see the Black Sea being a more important link with the United States."
Beyond established U.S.-Georgian military cooperation, former U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis in October praised Georgia's defense reforms and contributions to the NATO Resolute Support mission in Afghanistan, where Tbilisi's 870 uniformed troops represent the world's largest per capita contributor to the mission. Zourabishvili said she would like to see increased cybersecurity cooperation and training with both the U.S. and NATO.
Asked whether she was open to hosting a U.S. military base on Georgian soil, however, she was doubtful.
"I don't think that it would be recommended," Zourabishvili said. "We don't need to take steps that might be viewed as provocations, and I don't think that the United States would be ready for having here a military base that would attract probably reactions both from Russia and from these ... terrorist movements that are very active in the region."
Meanwhile, Tbilisi's lack of diplomatic ties to Moscow means that it must depend exclusively upon interlocutors to demand that Russia respect its obligations under international law in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
"Of course we know that it won't change the situation in the occupied territories today," she said. "But there might come a day, and I hope it will be soon, where that might have some effect. So we cannot let either Russia or our partners forget that the issue of the occupied territories is a very central issue for Georgia."
Russia, she said, "will never have a veto" over Georgia's transatlantic path.
Although Georgia hosts NATO military exercises and has troops serving with alliance forces in Afghanistan, NATO has set no date for membership.
Zourabishvili, 67, who was born in France, became Georgia's first woman president in December 2018.
This story originated in VOA's Georgian Service.