Tina KHIDASHELI and Kristin Krohn DEVOLD: Female Defense Ministers from Georgia and Norway discuss NATO, gender, civil society

07.03.2021 (Caucasian Journal). On the eve of International Women's Day, Caucasian Journal has interviewed two female defense ministers – Tina KHIDASHELI (Georgia) and Kristin Krohn DEVOLD (Norway). They are discussing a wide range of topics from gender issues to NATO.  

Our double interview can be watched or read in two languages. Below Caucasian Journal is pleased to present the full English text version of interview. 

 ქართულად: The Georgian text version is here
▶ For the video version of interview, click here.

Alexander KAFFKA, editor-in-chief of CJ:  Hello, and welcome to Caucasian Journal video interviews. Our guests today are Tina KHIDASHELI - leader of Civic IDEA, Georgian non-governmental organization, and former defense minister of Georgia, and Kristin Krohn DEVOLD - former defense minister of Norway, and currently head of Norwegian Travel Association, who joins us online.

Dear Tina, first thank you very much for giving this interview. Tina, you have many “hats”: an experienced politician and a legal expert, head of a leading Georgian non-governmental organization, and of course former defense minister – the first and actually the only female defense minister in this country.

Talking about your ministerial term, one cannot avoid two themes: abolishing the compulsory military service and Georgia’s NATO aspiration. If there are any other themes you want to cover you are welcome, but since we have international talk today I suggest starting with the NATO theme.

▶ On military cooperation and NATO

Tina Khidasheli: Sure, thank you first of all, and it's a pleasure to be part of this discussion. In Georgia for the last almost 20 years minister of defense worked in a very close cooperation with the minister of foreign affairs and somehow assumed a portion of the role of the minister of foreign affairs as well, because of our participation in European Union security operations, and ministry of defense always was the core component of the Georgia’s foreign policy - defining it, structuring it and actually contributing a lot for the success of our foreign policy goals.

All it started obviously in Prague during the NATO summit when then President Edward Shevardnadze has knocked on NATO doors, and declared Georgia’s aspiration of joining NATO. Now after almost 20 years from that day we are still aspiring to achieve that goal.

In 2008 was a very important cornerstone in Georgia-NATO relations when in Bucharest during the summit NATO took a decision about unavoidability of Georgia’s actual membership to NATO together with Ukraine, and for the first time in NATO's history we've got a declaration which clearly states that eventually Georgia and Ukraine will become members of NATO. Again, it's been 12 years ago, we are still under this promise but unfortunately there is no clear perspective as to when it is going to happen.

In 2014-2016 we've been experiencing very important developments in Georgia-NATO relations during the Wales summit. We've got a package that we call an alternative to a MAP [Membership Action Plan – CJ].  Absence of MAP is the main impediment to our membership to NATO. NATO substantial package that was averted to Georgia during the Wales summit identified the fields and areas where concrete NATO member states would have contributed for the success of the reforms, success of the institution-building, and success of the eventual membership of Georgia. The project actually started in 2015 - exactly at the time when I became the minister.

And we should say that the country which contributed the most, filled all its promises entirely, and where we celebrated the first success of Georgia-NATO actual real-life cooperation, was Norway.

In August 2015 we have opened the doors of JTEC - the joint NATO-Georgia training center, which is considered to be the one and, unfortunately, still the only platform, where NATO and Georgia's paths cross on the ground in this country. After that obviously lots of other developments have happened. We've opened also the NATO defense school, which is another cornerstone of our cooperation, but JTEC still stands as the most vivid example of the success on this path of integration.

Because of different reasons, partly because almost two thousands of Georgian soldiers participated in NATO-led operations all over the world, being it in Iraq or Afghanistan, or EU-led operations in Africa, being it Mali or Central African Republic; before that in Kosovo, Ukraine, Georgian troops and servicemen have gained absolutely unique experience and had unique opportunities of introduction to the modern armaments, facilities, as well as actual life training in war situations, and managing man-created or nature-created disasters.

During those periods on the one hand we have that huge asset which is very valuable for the Georgian statehood as such, and security and defense of this country, and on the other hand we have a strong political standing on basically all agendas introduced both by NATO as an organization, and member countries on bilateral basis. 

Georgia was part of most of the initiatives or, I would say, all the initiatives on fighting terrorism, all kinds of evils threatening democracy and civilization as we know it.

The main impediment on our way to integration is rather practical and very much political, and has nothing to do with either interoperability of the Georgian armed forces, that is normally the main requirement on the NATO's side, or political reforms to be implemented within the army, or civilian-military relations on the defense side.

But it is our big neighbor Russia which is a kind of “an elephant in the room” that everybody knows about, but nobody talks about during the NATO summits. They are not there obviously, they do not participate, but at the same time they are the ones who are influencing decisions regarding not only Georgia but also Ukraine. They've tried to influence the decisions regarding the Balkan states – the North Macedonia, Montenegro. We remember the developments right before the membership path was cleared and invitation decisions were made, but we stay believers. We strongly believe that one day that road will clear for us as well, and I always joke that when the stars lie properly in the sky for Georgia, that's the moment when we need to be ready to jump in, and not to miss the opportunity again, like we did during two waves of big enlargements of NATO at the end of 1990-s and beginning of 2000-s.

AK: Let me introduce Kristin Krohn Devold, former defense minister of Norway, who joins our interview from Oslo.  Like her Georgian colleague, she was Member of Parliament, and works now also in the non-governmental sector, as the head of Norwegian Travel Association. Dear Kristin, greetings from Tbilisi, and thank you for taking part in our interview.

Kristin Krohn Devold: Dear Mr. Alexander Kaffka, it's a great honor to be interviewed by you together with Tina from Georgia, and it's so nice to know that we are more and more females that actually have been ministers of defense – an important position in the world.

AK: So you have now virtually met with your Georgian colleague Tina Khidasheli, and learned about her experience.  It would be interesting to hear your comments. 

KKD: I’d like to start telling about NATO and the role it had for Norway. Norway was occupied by Germany during WW2. That made Norway very dedicated to never let that happen again, and to get into defense cooperation as soon as the possibility opens up. So when NATO was founded Norway was with it from the start. It's been a guarantee for Norwegian security through all these years and, of course, the country that we are neighbor with - Russia - has always been the threat that we're worried most about.

I had a special period as a minister of defense. It was from 2001 to 2005. And we had the election day on 10th of September 2001, and we all know what happened on September 11.

So the day after the election Norway together with the rest of NATO was in a position that we would have to enter a war against Afghanistan and Taliban and Al-Qaeda, and I was appointed minister of defense at that time. So it was an interesting time. Little Norway up here in the mountains, far away from everything, we had to engage in Afghanistan, and we were already in Kosovo. And during my period we also got the second war towards Iraq, which we participated with engineers and rebuilding capacity.

During my period we were engaged in many places over the world, and it was also a period when we really had to test whether our capacities in the defense were relevant, and a lot of them were not relevant anymore.

So we had to modernize quite a lot, and the most important experience we had was that if Norwegian equipment couldn't be integrated with foreign forces’ equipment, it couldn't be used, because we had to do everything together with others. So this was a major transition from thinking what would be good to have back in Norway inside our own borders, and what kind of equipment would we need to operate integrated with others globally.

I’d like also to say that today's threats are a little bit different. I think that cyber threats are increasingly dangerous to us all, and we also see that threats with fake operations through social media do actually influence elections.

So there are many ways for foreign forces to influence our countries, take control of our countries without using a single soldier. So both cyber security and these social media fake campaigns, when they are used massively – and we know that they tried to influence, for instance, the American election, when Trump was elected – these are also things we have to pay a lot of attention, together with more traditional threats.

AK:  Given our talk’s “Nordic dimension” (we shall also involve Finnish and Swedish participants in this talk in the future, who have different models of cooperation with NATO: For instance Sweden and Finland are closely cooperating with NATO without being formal members), do you think perhaps that could be one of realistic goals for Georgia to consider in the future?

TK: Well, actually if we talk format-wise, we are in the same format as Sweden, Finland, Australia - countries much more developed obviously both in terms of democracy, and in terms of capacities then Georgia.

We are part of this group of states outside in NATO called EOP [enhanced opportunities partners – CJ] partners, and it was always very pleasant when I was the minister and attended various ministerials in Brussels or other capitals sitting around the table with the Swedes, Finns, Australians, because that's kind of a neighborhood that we had in cooperation with NATO. At the same time we understand that regardless of the status these cooperations are on very different levels and on different political standing.

I was always asking this question that whenever we were told that without MAP Georgia has no chance of becoming the NATO member we were always asking: “Are you gonna ask for the MAP requirements from Sweden, if one day there will be referendum, and Sweden decides to become a member of NATO?” And obviously it's not gonna happen. If Swedes decide, they will be in. So we were always asking for the similar treatment.

Though Georgian military, by their own evaluation and by all documents released by NATO military or civilian HQs, are evaluated on the highest terms, absolutely along with any NATO member or EOP member country, unfortunately we understand that it's not happening, and it's not the same. Simultaneously we do need to consider those experiences and find our own way. 

What I cannot see is this neutral status that some of those EOP countries are enjoying, because this is something completely unacceptable for Georgia on the one hand, and on the other hand, in terms of being neutral country you need an approval from m the neighbors which we never gonna get, obviously.

But other than that we've been working very closely within the framework of Wales summit-delivered Georgia-NATO cooperation package, and both Swedes and Finns are participating in various dimensions of it, being it the JTEC that I’ve already mentioned, led by Norwegians, as well as the defense building school and several other, cyber security for example, where not the Nordics but the Baltic countries are in lead: Estonians and Czechs actually are contributing very heavily also.

But eventually the decision of the Georgian people is the membership - different from the populations in either Finland or Sweden. And this is probably the biggest difference between the two, that differentiates us from those countries.

We aspire for membership as soon as possible, the sooner the better. They took a different path, and they can allow themselves a path different from us.

AK: While Norway is a full NATO member, it would be interesting to hear your views about advantages and disadvantages of various NATO cooperation models, especially in connection with involving new countries such as Georgia.

KKD:  I’d like to answer your question about why we are a full member of NATO, while Sweden and Finland have chosen different kind of cooperation. I think this also has to do with historic experiences during WW2. Finland experienced a war between Germany and Russia in their own territory, and they have closeness to Russia, that made them very careful not to provoke Russia after the war.

Sweden was neutral during WW2, and Norway was occupied by Germany more or less all the time. So the Norwegian experience was that we would absolutely not like to be neutral, because we saw that German soldiers could use Sweden as their gateway into Norway, and we saw that neutrality wasn't worth that much, when the stronger part really wanted to use your territory – your trains etc. So Norway said “We do not want to be neutral, we've learned from WW2 that we need to group with our closest friends, closest allies, and we need to do this as a full member of NATO".

Sweden likes to continue its neutrality, that's why they're not a full member, while Finland might have even more historic experiences to be a little bit more cautious towards Russia, than we felt natural for us to be.

But at the same time when we were in Afghanistan with Norwegian soldiers in my period, we had a close cooperation with both Swedish and Finnish forces. They were there together with us in the ISAF mission [International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) was a NATO-led military mission in Afghanistan, established by the United Nations in 2001 - CJ] , and we also had a good cooperation with other European friends that were not full members of NATO. I think there are many ways to choose cooperation, and this is something each country may have to decide itself. And maybe a lot of countries also would like to start as cooperative countries, but maybe then in a later phase entering as a full member.

I cannot give you advice, just say that the three Nordic countries have chosen totally different ways of being a member, and Denmark has chosen the same experience as Norway (they were also fully occupied by Germany during WW2, and that's why they took the same position as Norway after the war).

▶ On compulsory military service

AK: Compulsory military service. Dear Tina, you were severely criticized for abolishing it during your term, but time and again we hear its high costs, inefficiency, and even corruption and nepotism in this field. So why, do you think, is it still in place?

TK: It is not. I mean, it's a very legalistic issue, to put it this way. I did not abolish military service – I did not have power for that. It's up to the parliament because it is regulated by the legislation. What I did was I found a loophole for showing the way how to deal with this very serious problem for the Georgian society. 

I have canceled request by the Ministry of Defense on bringing the young people under the old species of the compulsory military service. So we basically denied our quota and said that we don't need it. We moved to the fully professional army which is actually the case. When I was a minister, the recruits were only 2 percent of the entire army, which proves the case. I mean, I don't think I need any additional arguments to say that it's a history for the Georgian military.

But they needed recruits in army in order to put it "under the sauce" of the army, because otherwise big majority of them are used for completely different purposes than military service in Georgia. They would be assigned to the Ministry of Interior, to the police forces, and most importantly to the corrections services, which is basically guarding the prisons.

And this is one of the major problems for the 18-19-years-old guys, who've never had any experience with the guns, or with any kind of security action, and suddenly they found themselves standing on those high castles over the prison cells, monitoring prisoners. That gives lots of trouble to them, and definitely they are not prepared for that.

 Tina Khidasheli:
The type of compulsory military service Georgia exercises today is a modern-day slavery

Anyway the idea was two-fold: first of all not to allow anything that equals to slavery in Georgia, (and this is my understanding of the type of compulsory military service Georgia exercises today: It is a modern-day slavery), and, two, was to propose to a country an alternative to the actual needs of the military, and use for the defense of the country that is the constitutional requirement in Georgia.

Currently, regardless of all the criticism of my policies, and the document that I’ve published at that time about putting together needs of the military and constitutional requirement, in 2018 after the constitutional changes we can easily say, that compulsory military service was abolished, because now the Constitution does not say anymore that it is compulsory. It says that it should be regulated by law, which means that any parliament, depending on what kind of political forces enter the parliament with the majority, can change that decision. So it can be either today compulsory, tomorrow non-compulsory again, and then go back and forth, which is kind of an irresponsible decision also. But they did not have the courage of putting the actual wording of abolishing it in the Constitution. So they went this midway of manipulation. I think that lots of problems are related to this issue. First of all, it's the issue with equality. For example, Constitution was saying that everybody was required to defend its own country, but this everybody was only men, and not the women.

We had the problem with the selectivity of the process, because every year you have from 21 to 28 thousand kids graduating from the high schools, which means every year we have from 21 to 28 thousand conscripts. But in reality the need was never over 5-6 thousand. It created an artificial process of selection which left lots of room for the nepotism, corruption, and selectivity. Lots of discussion about the capital city and the regions – less guys were taken to this compulsory service from the cities, and more from the regions – rural areas, remote areas; issues with the minorities – lots of problems associated with it.

The benefit from the compulsory military service was not worth this kind of a social culture, which it was introducing to the country. Costs: It's more expensive, it's inefficient, it's a burden for the professional army, and lots of logistical issues are associated with it.

But at the same time it is absolutely understandable, because coming with the background that Georgia has – with the totalitarian communist past just around the corner, not 100-200 years ago but a couple of decades ago – the compulsory military service was always understood as a method of pressure on the society.

In 2016 I remember that in a district that I was running for the parliamentary seat – and it was the same in 2012 – there would be huge numbers (two thousand, four thousand) kids and their families, who would get the letters from the conscription services, saying that you are due for a military service, and then a week before the elections they would get another letter from the ruling party – whomever was a ruling party at that time – saying that, on behalf of your majoritarian candidate’s recommendation, we have exempted you from the military service, and then families were happy and grateful for this “kind gesture” from their candidate, and inclined to vote for the guy who did such a great gesture for them.

So lots and lots of problems were associated with it. And again, I don't believe that there is any reasonable justification for keeping it, in terms of actual benefit that it brings to the country.

▶ On gender and minorities

AK: I see. You have just mentioned the gender issue, so we are approaching this major theme. You have become the first female defense minister, which is a huge achievement, but my question is how important is it for you personally? Do you consider your higher achievement to become a defense minister, or to become the first female defense minister?

TK: Well, none of those. I don't consider that particular moment of my public life as the most important part of my public life.

There were much more important things that I've done in my life probably. But one thing which is obviously to be mentioned is that men or women serving military is the most honorable job one can have, because every day you wake up and realize that a couple of thousands of your guys are right now waiting for actual death, because they are on the frontlines of the war, and there is nothing more honorable than being in service for those people, their families, being in support of their kids and serving your country.

I think this is what makes the position of a minister of defense so important, and not the fact that whether you're a woman or man. I think it's equally honorable for anybody. In my case, unfortunately, I cannot say that it has dramatically changed any culture or attitudes towards this issue, because I became the minister of defense being a woman. Because I was a human rights lawyer in my first life for 15 years, defending the most problematic of all: prisoners tortured, detainees abused at the police departments, the journalists abused by the police, actually fighting police in the courtrooms or in front of the cameras, because there were lots of instances when they would deny me as a lawyer - entrance to my client and then they would physically fight me not to enter the building..

It created this image of me of a human being – regardless of gender – who was on the frontlines of a fight. And when I became the minister of defense, I don't remember anybody being particularly surprised, because for them I was this warrior – not necessarily a woman – they were used to the fact that I was always on the in the frontlines.

 Tina Khidasheli:
It's kind of a duty of all women in charge... to empower other women, to give opportunities, to use this chance to prove that equality is real...

So someone with less fight and more women-associated profession probably wouldn't make much bigger difference, if becoming the minister of defense.

I think that it's kind of a duty of all women in charge – whether they run big businesses, or NGOs, or media, or they are in government –  to empower other women, to give opportunities, to use this chance to prove that equality is real and it works, and it's practical and normal, and there is nothing special about it. And we've tried our best to bring that culture and attitude at the ministry.

For the first time when I was a minister we have created opportunity for girls to go into the military lyceums, which was not the case before. We had only this opportunity available for boys. It's a full state-funded wonderful school where, together with great education, kids are also getting sports and physical training different from the ordinary public schools, and getting used to overcoming the obstacles in life that in ordinary schools you don't get.

We have been naming things after the famous Georgian women from the first Republic, just to prove the fact that it's not for the first time, and those things were happening: Women were fighting for this country and sacrificing their lives that everybody forgot, and only men and their names were always out there. So that was another part of our campaign to introduce those women to the Georgian public and to prove that it was a part of our history – not something brought by the UN declarations or European conventions, but it was part of our culture and social life over the centuries.

And also we've been helping women outside the army as well. For example we had this social project. Usually over the Christmas, or Independence Day, or Easter (I guess it is the same in most of the countries) different agencies give out gifts – packages for employees or colleagues, to say “Happy New Year” or “Merry Christmas”. What we were doing was instead of buying goods produced in China and distributing them, we were contracting social enterprises run by women, and therefore supporting them to develop, and also to feel important and useful in this society.

Tina Khidasheli:
Women were fighting for this country and sacrificing their lives that everybody forgot

Government can do a lot. State public funding gives opportunity, if you have proper strategic goals and plans, to empower people to make them feel important and useful. And once people have that feeling, then it's mutual – it works the other way around as well. This is how a healthy society works - with a constant cooperation between the governmental and non-governmental actors, and in constant support of each other, and constant promotion of each other's achievements. Unfortunately that's a very unusual culture in Georgia and needs to be developed and promoted.

We've tried our best to bring it, but unfortunately all our decisions were reverted after we left the ministry – I still don't understand why. But I'm pretty sure those things won't be lost. For example, we had a very strong policy of civic Georgian nation, which meant no differentiation by religion or by ethnic backgrounds.

When I became the minister of defense there was no percentage of Muslims, because the number was so small that you cannot put it in percentage – it was like zero point something. While you have almost 12% of Muslim community in Georgia, being it Azeri Muslims, Georgian Muslims, or the ones living in Pankisi gorge.

We started targeting Muslim communities in Georgia, bringing them to army and integrating them.

I remember when I went to Pankisi myself and talked to all kinds of groups there. The people were of different levels of religious beliefs, and I remember a very simple request they had – easy to know without even talking to those communities – they have a different way of fasting, for example. During fasting periods they need special meal plans at the military units where they would serve. They have special attitudes towards wearing beard, and had requests on that, or hygiene-related, or prayer-related issues, that are very well-known. Of course we all know what Muslims are doing it.

And they were very skeptical. They were like “Okay, here is the list of five issues that we need in order to even consider going into army, and we know it's not gonna happen, so why bother, and why are you even coming here?”

And I told them “I'm coming here next Monday with all of those decisions made, and then let's talk”. And they were laughing, and then they left. And the next Monday I came with a changed law, and changed the regulations of the Georgian army – being it catering or whatever was necessary.

They could not believe it, and on the very first call to the professional army which we do three times a year we've got 57 only from Pankisi gorge - 57 Muslim Georgians who've joined the army. And that was a huge number, an all-time record after the independence we had in the Georgian army. And it took very small steps for confidence-building – nothing major, nothing huge. We've just devoted one room in each military base for the prayer to all, so it was not just the Orthodox Christians’ prayer room, but like in the airports you have those prayer rooms, something similar to that.

And we changed the menus. It's like a joke when I talk about it. I cannot even believe that it can be called an achievement. But unfortunately, in a country like Georgia those small things are exactly where this societal understanding of differences are stuck, and you are stuck with this problem.

You might be even bullied about that: “Oh-wow, she brought carpets to the military army for the prayers of Muslims!” So what? If you are bullied by that, then that's not the place where you should be.

Unfortunately those decisions were changed after we left the ministry. But I'm 100% sure that it will come back, and it will be the case in Georgia pretty soon, because those things cannot be ignored forever.

AK: So those tendencies have been changed after you left the office?

TK: Most of our decisions regarding gender equality, religious minorities, generally minorities – not just the religious minorities (it was the same case with the Armenians in Georgia: very small participation) – all of those decisions were changed, or cancelled – it will be better word, probably. But we’ll see.

AK: So, those issues are in an unresolved state now, and they need political attention?

Tina Khidasheli:
No pork policy is a political decision

TK: Yes, unfortunately those small issues require big political courage. It's like a joke, but that's the case: You need to be politically courageous to have a fasting menu for Muslims in the army. I cannot even believe it but that's the case. No pork policy is a political decision.

AK: Obviously. Unbelievable!

TK: Indeed unbelievable.

AK: The Nordic countries are well known internationally for very progressive policies towards gender equality as well as minorities’ rights. As we heard from Tina’s speech, these themes are important in Georgia, as well. Speaking about Norway, are these problems completely resolved – in the armed forces and in the society in general?

Kristin Krohn Devold:
The clever minds are equally shared between men and females

KKD: I’d also like to talk about the gender issues. I think that in a modern society, where cyber attacks and social media fake campaigns are important threats - just like a military threat, it's more important than ever to have clever minds in all positions in society. And clever minds are equally shared between men and females, which means that you need the best brains in politics, in business, and in defense sector.

So we have a historic experience in Norway because we had a female minister in the 80-s – Gro Harlem Brundtland. And she decided that almost half of her cabinet ministers should be females. That was quite exceptional in the 80-s.

This is a 40-years old history now. We are in 2020, and all governments after that have actually continued to have at least 40% female ministers, which means that in Norway now we have 40 years of experience with quite equal positions between men and women in politics, and we had several female prime ministers.

I also know that we had several females finance ministers, foreign ministers, defense ministers, ministers of justice etc. So there's really no difference between the men and women in politics.

It's also developing like that in the business sector, even it takes a little bit more time there, and of course a lot of companies are privately owned and in private companies, it's up to the owner who you want to pick as a managing director, but we see that there is a lot more young females coming up in leading positions also there. We are equally recruiting men and women to the defense sector and into the military.

Louise Bastviken (Dedichen) meeting Tina Khidasheli in Tbilisi
Traditionally it's still probably more men who choose that as a career, but we are recruiting a lot of clever females, trying to inspire them to take education in the military and to help them to build clever offices.

I’d also like to mention that Norway’s military representative in NATO is Louise Bastviken (Dedichen). She’s an admiral, and she's the only female military leader in the NATO. I had a pleasure working with her. She was in my staff when I was Minister of Defense, and it's so good to see that such a clever person, a female, can go up from working in the defense ministry – she’s also been head of military education in Norway – and now she's our representative to NATO as an admiral. So if you start with young they will eventually end up in leading positions.

▶ On civil society and NGOs

AK: Tina, you just mentioned that being the first female defense minister is not your biggest achievement. May I ask in this connection, what would you like to call your achievement instead?

TK: Probably achievement is a bad word… In terms of achievement, yes, that was my biggest achievement. But professional satisfaction is much bigger when you manage to get innocent man out of the prison.

There is nothing bigger than that feeling you have in a courtroom, when you walk out of the courtroom together with that prisoner. There was no moment in my life which was bigger, when I felt more proud – in my previous life when I was practicing law.

AK: I believe you continue to work on these issues in your capacity of the NGO leader – the Civic IDEA?

TK: The organization was created with a very particular purpose. As I said most of the reforms we started within the ministry were changed after we left, and we felt a need of continuing them at least on the societal level as much as possible. Of course we could not bring minorities or women to the army, but we could encourage them to be part of it.

So what we basically do is – again on a societal level, as much as you can have an influence on public opinion – to do necessary work for raising resilience of the Georgian society, for supporting creation of a Georgian one united civic nation, regardless of belonging to religious or ethnic backgrounds, for supporting the dialogue on big issues in a society and reaching agreement on the big issues.

For example, we can kill each other daily on particular domestic policy directions, like what kind of vaccine we should be using, or what kind of lockdown we should have during pandemics. But when it comes to national security issues, any political party in this country, particularly the ones who are in parliament and who are in charge of decision-making, should have a full consensus, without any “but” and “in case”.

So we have a very clear agenda: we fight the concept of “neutral Georgia”, we fight the concept of “Eurasian union” in Georgia, we fight dominance in the Georgian political area of the forces who support any influence from the foreign powers towards supporting totalitarianism, supporting one-party rule, supporting non-democratic behavior, fighting liberal democracy. These are the things that are important to us, the values we carry the values - fundamental values of a liberal democratic society. It defines our agenda when we go on a daily basis with whatever work we do – education, or research, or anti-corruption monitoring, or any direction that we that we carry.

So there are lots of groups fortunately in Georgia who do similar job in different directions, there are lots of media players who are interested in bringing this message to the wider public, and I believe that together with all the players around - being it political parties or media outlets or just average Georgian citizens who voluntarily take a lead on various issues related to anti-occupation movement or fighting foreign influence operations, at the end of the day we can build a resilient society that is capable of identifying all those threats and defeating them for the benefit of the sovereignty of this country.

AK: Are there any specific projects – past, current, or future projects - which you are especially proud of?

TK: Because there are lots of organizations doing a brilliant job on the agenda that I've just described but related Russia, we have decided to do a similar job but not to intervene in the area which is well researched and structured.

We took an initiative on working with other foreign actors who influence or try to influence Georgian politics, Georgia societal culture, and culture of democracy in this country – those being China, Iran, Turkey, and any other country that might fall under the rudder of any of those issues.

So I think that the research that we've been doing for these last three years, particularly on China, and the Chinese state companies operating in Georgia, the corrupt deals they are involved with my government’s representatives, or my government’s representatives involved in corrupt deals with those Chinese companies is a completely new concept in the in the Georgian public discourse.

Regardless of resistance from the beginning and less interest to it, after three years of our work it's changed completely. There is a huge interest, there are lots of organizations now who come for the advice and consulting to us, and also media is very much engaged and interested.

The other initiative that we started two years ago, right before the pandemic (people were joking that we've “predicted” the online education), was that we've established online democracy education platform - the first one in Georgia. Now it's working pretty well: we have over 67 different programs, including on Azeri and Armenian languages as well.

Hopefully we will continue it, with more interaction, more interest, and also more courses added on a wider understanding of democracy, and not limited to only human rights or democratic institution-building – involving security and human security issues as well, like health care and so on. So we have big plans towards this platform, and with the support from the donors hopefully it will be much more successful than it is now.

AK: Tina, your comments on current political situation would be very welcome. And will you stick with your NGO, or would you consider more active political life?

TK:  I cannot imagine a situation when I will go back to politics. At least at this stage it's completely unimaginable for me. I've done it a lot and I've devoted too much of my life to it. I consider that the best quality that I have is that I know when to end something and starts a new chapter, and that's what I did in 2016.

I had a feeling after I resigned from the ministry of defense that there is no job in public service that is better than being minister of defense. There is nothing that attracts me anymore in public service, because I think I’ve served the best job ever in public service.

As for the current political situation, I think now it's on its lowest than it has ever been, not because the situation is worse than ever (we've been through much worse situations), but the political life itself is the worst and at the lowest point, because we do not have political life anymore.

Even in the hardest times in Georgia the opposition parties were extremely active, and there were lots of situations when the political life was taken from the parliament to the streets (I don't mean demonstrations necessarily, but outside parliament), political life was taking over, more people were more attracted to it, and more involved, and more optimistic. Now it's kind of gone.

This whole boycott, one-step process, when you don't really see that anybody has a “plan B”, or “plan C”, next step – none of this is there. It is creating a lots of skepticism and I think that there is not much time left for the opposition to get their voters back. I think that the big majority of the collective opposition voters (regardless of the parties they voted for) are wondering around, looking for a political force to stick with. And this is the moment when we critically need strong leadership.

Will it happen, I don't know. I don't see real potential for it but at the same time we continue to live here, so we need to stay optimistic.

AK: We have learned from Tina Khidasheli about her Civic IDEA organization. Dear Kristin, would you like to tell us about your organization - the Norwegian Travel Association? Tourism and travel are very important for Georgia, too. So, how did you become involved, and what does your organization do?

KKD:  I’m now working as the managing director of the Norwegian Travel Association. We unite all hotels, all restaurants, all camp sites, a lot of concerts and arrangements all over the country. It's a lot of small and medium businesses, but it's the third business sector in Norway. And because Norway has a lot of mountains and fjords, and we have quite an interest from tourists to visit our country. In many ways there is a link between the military and the tourism sector, because one of Norway's positions in NATO has been to be the training area for a lot of foreign forces.

Kristin Krohn Devold:
I came from a sector with a lot of green tents, and now I work in a sector with a lot of red and blue tents

And we have had big exercises in our ground, and I think the fact that we have difficult climate, mountains and difficult terrain makes very good training conditions for the military. It's the same that makes us interesting as a tourism destination sector. So I'm joking, that I came from a sector with a lot of green tents, and now I work in a sector with a lot of red and blue tents – but we're still visiting the same mountains and fjords, staying outside and having fun.

In Norway we are really proud of our mountains and our nature, and I think that also might be a similarity with Georgia. I haven't visited your beautiful country but I've seen a lot of films and photos, and it looks like Georgia has some of the same beautiful nature, nice people, and a strong history, that goes way back.

So I’d like to say to Tina, it was inspiring for me to see that you in Georgia have been the female defense minister, and that we can continue working for the civil society after that, but still taking care about the military sector and defense sector of the country. And I hope we can meet sometime. I would like to come to Georgia and I wish you all the best, and thank you again for interviewing me.

AK: Thank you for very interesting answers!

Read the Georgian language version here. View the video here

Caucasian Journal
 appreciates kind support of Royal Norwegian Embassy in Tbilisi in preparation of this interview.

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