|Saakashvili insists that Tblisi is making solid progress towards Nato membership [EPA]
Georgia is going through one of its most turbulent periods since the Rose Revolution of November 2003 led to the resignation of Eduard Shevardnadze, the country's pro-Russian president.
Under the leadership of Mikhail Saakashvili, Tblisi has made a concerted effort towards joining Nato, a Western military alliance, a move that Moscow has fiercely criticised.
Relations between Georgia and Russia reached a low in August, when the countries fought a month-long war over South Ossetia, one of two breakaway regions in Georgia.
Al Jazeera's Jane Dutton spoke to Saakashvili in Doha to get his reaction to recent events inside his country.
Al Jazeera: Is freedom of speech something important in Georgia?
Saakashvili: I think we have the most vibrant television stations in central Europe. I have been to many of them and I think that if you compare … we have 27 independent central and regional channels in Georgia. For a country of less than five million people, it makes a lot of psychological, political and economic sense.
So how did those channels – and you – respond to Nato’s apparent decision to have put membership of Georgia on hold?
I don't agree with the interpretation that Nato backed off; on the contrary. Until now we were deadlocked on it. Until now, it was like one country or two countries were blocking Georgia’s progress [towards Nato membership].
Now what Nato has essentially done is put away the membership action plan - which is the traditional way to get into Nato – and it has said, without prejudice to that decision, that Georgia and Ukraine should proceed towards Nato membership.
|Saakashvili, right, is continuing efforts with Scheffer to win Nato membership [AFP]
Nato gave a message that Georgia has progressed politically, despite the war [with Russia in August]. One of [Moscow’s] goals during that war was to kill all of Georgia’s Nato aspirations.
Also, we had progress on the ground because Nato is establishing a liaison office and commission with Georgia. That is a vehicle for full-fledged membership of Nato by Georgia.
I have no reason to be unhappy with the decision. I think it is a great decision. It is the smart way to go around the road blocks that were erected. Frankly, it exceeded my expectations.
Would you also like the decision to thaw your relations with Russia?
Nato has said, and Nato secretary Jaap de Hoop Scheffer has said, that this is a gradual, informal relationship.
The issues that Nato will discuss with Russia will be whether Russia is able to abide by international rules, whether Russia is able to be tolerant towards emerging democracies along its border.
I think that, from that point of view, having dialogue with Russia is helpful. I think there is a place for everybody in Europe … we have no doubts about that. There is also always a place for countries like Georgia that are emerging democracies and emerging economic successes, but they are being badly hit by this erratic Russian behaviour.
So where does it leave your relationship with the breakaway republics [within Georgian territory], South Ossetia and Abkhazia?
You want to call them breakaway republics but these are places that are occupied by Russia. They are areas occupied by a foreign power.
You did promise when you came to power that you would get these areas back.
Yes, but it was no longer a Georgian internal issue. The point here is that these areas are occupied by a foreign power. We have the situation of ethnic cleansing. In a country of less than five million people, there are 500,000 refugees – people of all ethnic origins that were thrown out [by Russian forces] because they speak the ‘wrong’ language for the occupiers or they have the ‘wrong’ loyalties.
These are people from all different ethnic communities and the whole idea to have a multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multi-cultural Georgia was attacked by this brutal Russian invasion. The whole idea of Georgia’s economic success was undermined…
Critics say that Georgia in fact led the attack on South Ossetia.
Look, this is shifting things to a totally wrong place. By the same token, you could say that Poland started the second world war. Why? Because Germans claimed that the Poles attacked first, and killed two German soldiers. This is certainly an utter nonsense.
What proof do you have that Russia started the war?
Who attacked who? There was never a single Georgian soldier on Russian soil. We were invaded by 80,000 people, by 3,200 armoured vehicles, by 200 planes. I can assure you that even planes can fly over the Caucasian mountains, although 3,200 tanks could not have come into Georgia as Russia is claiming. It took months and years or preparation.
So why did you not say initially that Russia was doing such a thing? How come that information came out from your side only after Russia went into South Ossetia?
The foreign ministry of Georgia made a statement two days before the large-scale fighting erupted, that there were large number of troops inside Georgia. Somehow, it was not taken up by Western media. People were so used to the blame game that was going on … We made an official statement, it was easily available.
I tried to contact president Medvedev 24 hours before [the hostilities began] to try to convince him to pull out the Russian troops. We invited every single foreign ambassador in Georgia to tour the ground, two days before large-scale hostilities, to see bombarded villages, to see killed people, to see destroyed communities – to show them that Georgia was coming under attack. Nobody denies those facts.
|Swaths of South Ossetia were devastated during the August war [AFP]
The reality is that simply when the war erupted, it overshadowed those facts. The reality of this war is that we have 20 per cent of Georgian territory occupied, we have 500,000 refugees, and we have Russia annexing parts of Georgian sovereign territory. We have seen all the attempts by Russia to undermine Georgia, but I think they have failed.
There seem to be attempts to undermine your grip on power. The leader of the opposition, who is incredibly popular in Georgia, is calling for new elections to remove you from power.
What I have been hearing from all the polls - Gallup polls - is that the current government has a 70 per cent approval rating, as late as last week. We still have an incredibly popular government in Georgia.
We hope to develop a more viable opposition – we have very good contacts with opposition people. The people you are quoting are not even in parliament, they haven't made it.
What Georgia is good for is that it is a vibrant democracy, it is an open society. We are responding to Russian aggression, not by shutting down society but by a new wave of democratic reforms.
There are new opening in the media, in the economy. We have been a shining example in many ways for democratic transformation from a failed corrupt state to a free society. We still have a long way to go.
We almost tripled our economy over the last five years, and we were the biggest per capita recipient of direct foreign investment. That did not just come out of the blue – they came because of openness, because of reforms.
We don't have a lot of gas, but we have freedom, a democratic system, efficient government, a non-corrupt system and overall, an open economy. We are not only going to keep it, we are going to develop it even further. My term expires in 2013. Then I will no longer be president because I can only stand for two terms.
What do you think of the new US administration? What do you think your relationship with Barack Obama will be?
I have to say Joe Biden [the forthcoming US vice-president] came to Georgia when Russia bombs were falling on us in August; he took a personal risk. He initiated the appropriation of $1bn assistance from US congress, during very hard times. That was followed by $4bn from other sources. Now Georgia has a tremendous package to help us through these very difficult economic times.
Hillary Clinton a few years ago nominated me for the Nobel peace prize, although I have never met her, I have spoken to her many times on the phone. I had a very good conversation with Barack Obama over the phone and I have great admiration for him.