Ekaterine METREVELI: "The war that Ukraine is fighting is our war as well"

25.06.2022 (Caucasian Journal) Today we are honored to meet with Dr. Ekaterine METREVELI, President of Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies (Rondeli Foundation), and Honorary Consul of Finland in Georgia.
The Georgia's European perspective and the bilateral relations of Georgia with its main partners and neighbors are all in the focus of this comprehensive interview. We also talk about the role of think-tanks in the formation of the country's international agenda.

Alexander KAFFKA, editor-in-chief of CJ: Dear Ekaterine, welcome to Caucasian Journal. Thank you for attention to our readers. Many of them are professionals in international relations, and would be especially interested in this interview. There are quite many foreign policy questions on today’s agenda, but let me start by asking to briefly introduce your Foundation, and how did you get involved in it?

Ekaterine METREVELI: Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies is a Tbilisi-based foreign policy think tank, established back in 2001. We aim to improve decision-making practices, contribute to better national security policies, promote European and Euro-Atlantic integration and enhance regional cooperation. I joined the Foundation in 2002, after returning from the US, where I was a Muskie fellow at the University of Pittsburgh. I met Dr. Alexander Rondeli and Temur Yakobashvili, co-founders of the GFSIS, accidentally at one of the receptions and they have invited me to visit their office at Niko Nikoladze 7. I went on the second day and stayed for now already 20 years. Our office at that time was a small, three-room apartment where we’ve started one of GFSIS flagship programs in National Security in cooperation with the Rand Corporation supported by the US State Department. It was a very warm, friendly, family type atmosphere, which we hope to have maintained until today, with a steady growth of the foundation. What we are really proud of is that GFSIS houses people with different political views and this does not prevent us to coexist and contribute to the common goal that is Georgian state anchored in European and Euro-Atlantic space.

AK: One more question about Rondeli Foundation. What’s the model of your interaction with Georgia’s Foreign Ministry and other decision-making bodies? I am sure about the high professional level of the policy recommendations that you produce, but the problem with many good think tanks is often in the practical implementation, and in making people listen to the experts.

EM: We cooperate closely with the MFA as well as with other governmental agencies engaged in national security decision-making. Our training courses are designed to enhance the human capital by raising the level of expertise in international economics, politics, and security issues. Our graduates include over twenty deputy ministers, three ministers and many high-level government officials influentially positioned throughout the Georgian government. Most of our capacity building initiatives include drafting of the policy papers by the participants on the pertinent issue for the state agencies that they represent and the process is mentored by our research fellows. We also regularly organize conferences and seminars in collaboration with other research institutions and government organizations, to encourage the exchange of views among policymakers, scholars, and civil society on key policy issues and to develop recommendations for action.
AK: I suggest we could now move to the concrete foreign policy problems. Let me name a few themes, so you feel free to prioritize them as you wish, and to comment. This week was especially important in the process of Georgia’s accession to the European Union. Can we start with this theme? How realistically do you assess the Georgia’s EU prospects? What (if anything) must be changed now in Georgia to speed up the integration process?

EM: Provisions of the European integration are enshrined in the Constitution of Georgia which is supported by over 80 percent of Georgians. Georgian society has demonstrated once more on the 20th of June it is ready and willing to join the European family. I think that the process of our EU integration is inevitable despite the current challenges. 

In light of the European Commission’s recommendation to grant Georgia “European perspective”, which, on one hand, means that we are on the path of institutional integration into the European Union, I think it is very important now for the Government of Georgia to swiftly implement the reforms and fulfill the conditions in accordance with the opinion provided by European Commission to the European Council.

 There is a huge solidarity of the Georgian people towards the Ukraine and it cannot be any other way.

AK: A connected question. Do you think the public (and the politicians’) expectations from accession to EU are justified? Do you think the public is well informed, and the mass media do a fairly good job in this sector?

EM: The EU has been investing in our cultural, economic, educational and human capital development and this process included important condition precedents too. Although a lot of work still has to be done in regards of improving awareness, independent and pro-western media outlets do provide less-biased and balanced information. They have been promoting European concept among their viewership and readership for decades. At the same time, it has to be noted that unfortunately we are flooded with an enormous amount of disinformation and promotion of the Russian narrative, which undoubtedly creates uncertainty for some parts of society. But the majority of public has a strong understanding of the prospects and justifiably aspires towards the EU.

AK: Another burning issue is Georgia-Ukraine relations. There are so many factors –external as well as well as internal – that have a strong influence on them. It’s such a challenging situation that a highly balanced and professional advice is critical. What do your experts say, and what are your recommendations?

EM: The war Ukraine is fighting, is our war as well. Not only our fate, but the future of the whole region and international order depends on the outcome of the war. This war is also a dejavu for most Georgians who have experienced Abkhazia or the Tskhinvali region wars. There is a huge solidarity of the Georgian people towards the Ukraine and it cannot be any other way.

As for the advice, I would be very short, there are the state interests that should be above all personal disagreements or misunderstandings. Today, the geopolitical struggle that has turned into the battle between democracy and autocracy in which Ukraine was drawn, is a dangerous one. This trend will continue most likely and will dominate international politics for years to come even if Russia is soon defeated. Georgia must be firmly within the democratic camp of this important struggle.

AK: The next controversial issue is Georgia’s position on Russia, and other Russia-related problems, in particular the Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Is there anything that must be corrected in the current strategic line, in your view?

EM: The strategy of normalization of relations with Russia, that has been carried out since 2013, unfortunately did not yield positive results for Georgia. Every new government coming to power since independence gave a try to improve relations with Russia, but Russia’s imperial ambitions are not compatible with the idea of sovereign Georgian state, part of the European and Euro-Atlantic community. Have we asked ourselves why we do not have framework agreement with Russia? Russians have insisted on putting wording limiting Georgian sovereignty.

In regards to Abkhazia and Tskhinvali region/South Ossetia, in my opinion it is important to pursue further and enhance the non-recognition policy and the same time creating platforms for intensified dialogues for reconciliation, especially in the context of the war in Ukraine. But here as well, the opportunities are limited due to Russia pushing aggressively annexation process of both occupied regions leaving little space for maneuver for Abkhaz and Ossetians including.

AK: May I ask you my “favorite” question: Do you consider South Caucasus a “region”, or just three countries with totally different vectors? Is there a future for substantial regional cooperation in the South Caucasian format, or in a wider Black Sea format?

EM: When one thinks about the South Caucasus as a region, first of all what comes to mind is a very incoherent, incongruent picture – variety of peoples, customs, languages, religion and history. This diversity is the product of both history and the region’s geography. However, if anything unifies everyone in the region, it is the uncertain future it faces because of its geopolitical importance. Another common aspect is the challenges of the post-Soviet transition. External challenges that are geopolitical are bound with internal problems that those states are still confronted with.

In order South Caucasian nations to succeed, there is only one way - to cooperate, use the opportunities created, use the geographic location as an entry point of East to the West and integrate in the regional and international projects.

In addition, as you’ve mentioned, those countries are pursuing different geopolitical paths. All three of them have attempted to cultivate political and economic relations with a spectrum of states and international organizations in order to facilitate and safeguard independent policymaking. But they have had varying degrees of success. Starting points of those independent attempts also varied in each state due to Russia’s meddling in its perceived “near abroad”, which is a case until today.

Russian invasion in Ukraine has further aggravated the problems faced by the nations of the South Caucasus, but at the same time this opens opportunity as well, if used properly. In order South Caucasian nations to succeed, there is only one way - to cooperate, use the opportunities created, use the geographic location as an entry point of East to the West and integrate in the regional and international projects.

AK: In many countries, the ruling party and the cabinet members complain they are an easy target for criticism, but when it comes to practical things the constructive proposals are few. Can you name three (or more) foreign policy decisions that you would implement first and foremost, if you were in power?

EM: I would start active negotiations with the initiators of new political formats or platforms which emerge since the full-scale war started, e.g. Great Britain, Ukraine, Poland, Baltic States, which are linked with the overall policy to return Georgia back on the international agenda, from which we have been disappearing lately. Also, ask for maximum political-military support to be provided by our allies, and finally – increase, intensify and further develop the transportation and energy corridor opportunities that have emerged due to problems with the Russia route.

AK: Georgia’s bilateral relations… Here the USA comes to one’s mind first, but other nations play significant roles as well in the country’s foreign policy – from Turkey to China, and from Switzerland to Japan. If you wish to comment on any, you are welcome.

EM: Indeed Georgia-US relations are very specific. US was the country that has helped Georgia from the very first days of independence in its state and nation building process. And that assistance included different spheres, like building our border guard structures, assistance to the armed forces, economic development initiatives, investment in our democratic development and most importantly education, as this later, is especially vital for a small nation. In addition to the US, there are other countries that have been serious contributors to Georgia’s development, but I would like to single out Sweden, which, despite its size, is an important player on the international arena and a significant contributor to the development work. In relations to Georgia, Sweden has been instrumental. It is second largest donor after the US, and a big supporter of Georgia on the international arena. Together with Poland, Sweden is the initiator of the Eastern Partnership (EaP) that was aimed to strengthen the political and economic relations between EU and six Eastern European and South Caucasus partner countries, as well as promote the shared values of democracy, rule of law and prosperity [Our readers may read more on EaP here and here - CJ.]

I would... increase, intensify and further develop the transportation and energy corridor opportunities that have emerged due to problems with the Russia route.

AK: Now let me switch from Rondeli Foundation to your other “hat”, as you are the Honorary Consul of Finland in Georgia. May I first ask how did you become the Finnish representative?

EM: Let me start from the very beginning. Our organization, Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies was named Rondeli Foundation after its founder and first president - Alexander Rondeli’s passing. He was an extraordinary person, with many wonderful traits, big fan of Finland and Finland’s first Honorary Consul in Georgia. Thus, our foundation has been linked to Finland for years through Alex. In 2016, Finnish Rowing Ambassador to the South Caucasus, Arja Makonnen has offered me to become an honorary consul, and of course I agreed. It is a big honor and a responsibility. Finland is an exemplary country for me, from being one of the poorest nations in Europe by the end of the WW2 and having an over 1300 km long border with Russia, it has managed to become EU member and now is knocking on the NATO door. With Finland and Sweden joining NATO, the whole security arrangement of the Baltic/Nordic region will change. But it is not about EU and NATO, it is about the state that Finns have built - social justice, best educational system, trust in institutions, level of democracy. Due to all of these, Finland has also been named as the happiest nation in the world and that is exactly due to the type of the state they have built.

AK: In 2021 Caucasian Journal had the honour to interview the Finnish Ambassador H.E. Kirsti Narinen, so our readers know that her office is in Helsinki: There is no physical Finnish embassy anywhere in the South Caucasus. Given this situation, I suppose that the locally-based honorary consuls must bear a considerable workload. Is that correct, and what is your consul’s routine?

EM: Honorary consuls’ responsibilities are to assist Finnish citizens in Georgia and to help enhance and promote Finnish-Georgian relations – culture, business, education, Finnish way of life. Unfortunately, there are not too many Finns in our country, but there have been interesting cases that needed my engagement. We also assist Georgian students going for studies to Finland and promote partnership and cooperation between our countries. Through Erasmus program many young Georgians are able to pursue studies in Finland. We also have a first Finnish school in the South Caucasus, which we are very proud of. Number of Finnish authors had been translated into Georgian language. I would like to especially single out my favorite author, historian, Hendrik Meinander. I believe there is a lot that Georgians will find compelling in his book Finnish history that is translated to Georgian.

We do not have an enabling legal framework promoting private philanthropies, hence the local private sector has no tax incentives for sharing their funds for common goods. The problem is also that the State does not set the example.

AK: I suppose that Rondeli Foundation is a non-profit organization. If this is so, my last question to you is in your capacity of an NPO leader – as Caucasian Journal is an NPO as well. Georgia’s NPO sector is rather strong, with hundreds of organizations, but their impact on the civil society, public life, economy could be more evident. In addition, the NPOs’ funding is rarely coming from the local donors in Georgia, which alienates them even further from the real life. Do you agree with this view, and if yes, what’s at the root of this problem?

EM: Yes, Rondeli Foundation is an NPO. We are operating since 2001 and during all those years have solely been dependent on the international donor funding. Practically there are no local donors in Georgia. I think there are different reasons, mostly because there is no tradition, no culture for that. If individuals or businesses financially support certain cause, in majority of cases it has to serve their interests in one way or another. Moreover, we do not have an enabling legal framework promoting private philanthropies, hence the local private sector has no tax incentives for sharing their funds for common goods. The problem is also that the State does not set the example. We train public servants in our programs, all of them are funded by international donors. Government acknowledges the need for capacity building, but does not usually commission the trainings. Thus, to answer your question, I do not think that international funding alienates NPOs, it makes possible their existence, as the sustainability is always under a question.

AK: If there is anything that you would like to add for our readers, the floor is yours.

EM: I would like to thank your readers for the attention and stress how important it is today to follow and support independent, unbiased media when the information space is overcome with false messages and it is extremely difficult to navigate to the truth. I believe that collective measures for safer and more stable Europe are crucial and Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia, hopefully will bring new perspective and contribute to strengthening of the shared values.

AK: Thank you very much! 

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