Interview with Georgian Opposition Leader 'I Can't Allow My Government to Lie to the World'

Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili has promised to redress democratic shortcomings in his country. Nice words, says opposition leader Nino Burdzhanadze in an interview with SPIEGEL ONLINE. But she says it is time for real reform in the country.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Ms. Burdzhanadze, three months have now passed since the beginning of the Russian-Georgian war. What do you think the repercussions have been for your country?

Nino Burdzhanadze: Despite the assistance from the US and from the European Union, for which we are grateful, Georgia finds itself in a very difficult situation. In violation of the cease-fire agreement negotiated by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Russian troops are still stationed on Georgian territory, including outside of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. These are areas that Russia didn't control before.

The opposition in Georgia has begun to find its voice after the summer war with Russia.

The opposition in Georgia has begun to find its voice after the summer war with Russia.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Are you satisfied with the job the EU is doing in monitoring the cease-fire agreement?

Burdzhanadze: We are grateful. But we observe that Russia has not kept to an important part of the agreement, requiring all troops to return to positions held prior to the beginning of the hostilities. Instead, Russia is establishing large military bases in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What are the lessons for Russia, Georgia and the EU from the five-day war?

Burdzhanadze: I'm not really sure if Russia is able to learn. Should the country still feel like the victor, then they are kidding themselves. The country's image in the world has been badly damaged. In addition, there is a growing uneasiness among Caucasian peoples within Russia. Separatism is on the rise.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: And what about the lessons for Georgia and the EU?

Burdzhanadze: We also have to adjust our relationship with Russia. Russia is our neighbor whether we like it or not. But the territorial integrity of our country cannot be allowed to be compromised. Europe made a large mistake by not becoming more involved prior to the war. It is wrong to think that, because Georgia is far away, it is of little concern to Europe. Brussels should intensify its European Neighborhood Policy (ENP) activities with Georgia but also with its Caucasian neighbors Armenia and Azerbaijan. You are interviewing me here on the sidelines of a joint conference sponsored by the Heinrich Böll Foundation and the Bertelsmann Foundation where leading politicians from the region are discussing future regional strategy with European diplomats and experts. Such events are extremely important.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: The summit meeting between EU member states and Russia takes place this week in Nice. What would you like to see from EU leaders such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown?

Burdzhanadze: Georgia must remain high up on the list of global priorities. Europe needs to put pressure on Russia so that it withdraws from South Ossetia and Abkhazia. And for that we need a unified Europe that speaks with a single voice. Otherwise, Russia will have achieved its aim. We want to see it made easier for Georgians to obtain visas to travel in EU member states. Why was Russia granted such a relaxation but we were not?

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Should the European Union resume talks on a political and economic pact with Russia -- talks which were broken off when the war in Georgia began?

Burdzhanadze: Europe should carefully consider how it wants to proceed in its relations with Russia. And it needs to diversify its energy supplies so as not to become overly reliant on Russia.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili has spoken recently, including during his address before the United Nations General Assembly in New York, about a "new wave of democratic reforms." Do you believe him?

Burdzhanadze: Those are nice words, but ones, as has so often been the case, that have not been followed by action. The only good thing about such utterances is that it is an admission that we have deficits when it comes to democracy. The measures that he has taken are cosmetic in nature. He wants to construct an attractive façade.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Do you agree with Saakashvili that Georgia has come further than most other countries that were part of the former Soviet Union?

Burdzhanadze: That isn’t inaccurate. But we should be comparing ourselves with Eastern European countries like Poland or the Czech Republic, or with the three Baltic States.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: A year ago, President Saakashvili used violence to break up an opposition demonstration and closed down a television station that was critical of his government. Since then, he has often said in interviews with the Western press that freedom of the press is alive and well in Georgia and that there are three opposition television channels. Is that accurate?

Burdzhanadze: Everyone who knows Georgia knows that this is not true. I cannot allow my government to continue to lie to the world. To this day, our people still don't know the truth about the recent war. For this reason I have sent a catalogue of 43 questions to President Saakashvili and his government.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What is it you would like to know?

Burdzhanadze: Why we allowed ourselves to be drawn into a Russian trap; who gave the order for the military operation; why our army lost so quickly. In what capacity my successor as parliamentary president called on the population to engage in a guerrilla war against Russia while at the same time the army was ordered to withdraw. Take a look at the entire list. The government is lying to the Georgian people about this war and they are cynical enough to say that Georgia won because it resulted in more attention from the world. That is what our citizens and our soldiers died for.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Have you received the answers you are looking for?

Burdzhanadze: So far I haven't. Instead, the president undertook a cosmetic reshuffling of his government. You might laugh, but the only ones who had to resign were the culture minister and the environment minister. The defense minister and the others who were responsible for the war and the catastrophic defeat remain in office. In what other democracy is such a thing possible?

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Given the democratic shortcomings you have mentioned, how should the EU approach the government of President Saakashvili? Should the Europeans cease paying out billions in aid money?

Burdzhanadze: No. The aid shouldn't cease. We need this money. But the allocation should be tied to strict conditions and Europe needs to closely monitor how the money is spent. It has to help the people, not the government. It needs to go to the refugees from those areas affected by the war. And it needs to go towards strengthening democracy.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: You have just founded a party in an effort to displace Saakashvili. But the opposition is fragmented and your prospects don't seem to be especially good.

Burdzhanadze: I don't want to sound vain, but I am still rather popular. We are demanding that new parliamentary elections be held next spring.

Interview conducted by Matthias Schepp in Tbilisi

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