Shevardnadze Speaks on the Georgia Crisis 'This War Could Have Been Avoided'

Eduard Shevardnadze, former Soviet foreign minister and president of Georgia prior to being overthrown by Mikhail Saakashvili, says that both sides made mistakes in the lead up to the war between Georgia and Russia. But NATO, he says, made one of the decisive errors.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Mr. Shevardnadze, how can the ongoing crisis in Georgia be overcome?

Shevardnadze: I sent a letter to the Russian leaders, Dmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin, asking them to withdraw their troops. In it, I also said that we have always had a special relationship as neighbors and that our governments now have a responsibility to restore what was good between Russia and Georgia.

A Russian soldier stays behind a barricade in the western Georgian town of Teklati as Georgians protest ongoing Russian presence in the town on Tuesday.

A Russian soldier stays behind a barricade in the western Georgian town of Teklati as Georgians protest ongoing Russian presence in the town on Tuesday.


SPIEGEL ONLINE: Russia wants to keep Georgia from becoming a member of NATO.

Shevardnadze: Needless to say, Georgia's wanting to join NATO isn't something Russia finds pleasing. But the West has the right to support Georgia if it wants to. And every country can align itself as it sees fit. In the end, what can Russia do to keep this from happening? Georgia must join NATO.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: How should Georgia deal with its difficult and powerful neighbor?

Shevardnadze: I've always had a good relationship with Vladimir Putin. I've known him for a long time and think highly of him. When there were refugee issues that had to be dealt with in Abkhazia I worked closely with him and he was cooperative. I was open with him about our plans to work together with the United States. I told him the Americans were training our border guards and advising our army. He said that Russia could do the same thing. I answered that the Americans had more money than he did. We worked with Putin and the Americans at the same time. That's not easy, but it can be done.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Your successor as president, Mikhail Saakashvili, pulled out of the Commonwealth of Independent States a few days ago in protest. Was that the right thing to do?

Shevardnadze: Breaking off relations with Russia is clearly a mistake. A small country must have allies, in the east and the west, in the north and the south.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What led to the war?

Shevardnadze: Many people blame the Georgian president. They are wrong in part, but there is also an element to truth to it. He can't be accused of having acted illegally. It was legal to move our forces into [the South Ossetian capital] Tskhinvali. But it would have been better not to. When he did decide to go in he should have blocked the Roki Tunnel which the Russians came through. The failure to do so was a tactical mistake. He apparently didn't think things through to the end. He evidently had not expected the Russians to take control of Gori, Poti and Senaki, or perhaps come as far as Tbilisi. If I had been in his shoes, I certainly would not have marched in.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: The Russians, though, were doing their part to provoke a reaction. Could the conflict have been resolved peacefully?

Shevardnadze: For 10 years, we have been claiming that we want to resolve the conflict with the autonomous republics peacefully. We had managed to convince many people in Abkhazia and South Ossetia -- not everyone, but very many. We shouldn't have given up on finding a peaceful solution. Sooner or later these conflicts will be solved. But now, the war has delayed that by at least another 10 years.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Is this the beginning of a new ice age between the East and the West?

Shevardnadze: Here in Georgia the situation could hardly be more difficult than it currently is. The West made a crucial mistake by rejecting our request for a Membership Action Plan [at the NATO summit] in April that would have put us on track for joining the alliance. The Russians took that as encouragement, even though it was not intended as such. Now the same countries that blocked the Membership Action Plan for Georgia -- Germany and France -- are opening the door to NATO for our country. If they had done that sooner, this war could have been avoided.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Why do you think that Russia wanted to provoke this war?

Shevardnadze: The Russians feel that they and their interests have been ignored. In part it is also a personal matter between Vladimir Putin and Mikhail Saakashvili. Unflattering things were said. That was unprofessional. Politicians can be very unforgiving about personal insults. But the Russians made mistakes as well, for instance when they said Saakashvili would first have to step down as president and then they would negotiate with his successor. That only served to strengthen Saakashvili. Now he even has the support of the opposition, which is quite strong here.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Will President Saakashvili survive this crisis politically?

Shevardnadze: There can be no doubt that the president is a gifted man who has learned many things. We have a proverb that says: "You learn from mistakes -- but it's better to avoid them."

Interview conducted by Susanne Koelbl

Translated from the German by Larry Fischer

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