By Margarita Antidze
TBILISI (Reuters) – Georgia expects relations with the United States under Donald Trump to remain strong despite his calls for improved ties with Russia and Tbilisi will keep pressing for closer collaboration with NATO, the president of the ex-Soviet republic said.
Trump stirred concerns in central and eastern Europe during the U.S. election campaign with his praise for Russian President Vladimir Putin and also his suggestion that the United States may not defend allies deemed to spend too little on defense.
Georgia wants to join NATO, though the Atlantic alliance has played down its chances and Russia, which fought a brief war with the south Caucasus nation in 2008, is firmly opposed.
Georgian President Georgy Margvelashvili told Reuters in an interview late on Tuesday that he was sanguine about the prospect of Trump taking power.
“Our relations and communication with President Donald Trump as well as with our friends and allies on the Hill (in Congress) from the Republican and Democratic sides will be maintained because we are talking about interests and … goals that are and have been shared for the last 25 years,” he said.
“We’ve never had concerns about our allies, we do have interests for intensifying our agenda, and we do not think that this agenda will be undermined,” he said, speaking English.
Georgia spends around two percent of its national output on defense, the target recommended by NATO but still not met by a majority of Washington’s European allies.
The administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama provided extensive military aid to Georgia and spoke out against what they said was Russia’s lack of respect for Georgia’s borders after Moscow backed two breakaway Georgian regions in the 2008 war.
A fifth of Georgian territory remains under the control of pro-Russian separatists. The country is strategically important for the West because it is criss-crossed by pipelines carrying Caspian oil and gas to Europe.
“MORE ACTIVE AGENDA”
Georgia has also pushed hard too for greater political and economic integration with the European Union. It signed a free trade accord with the EU in June 2014 which it hoped would lead to visa-free travel in the bloc for Georgians.
Margvelashvili said he was disappointed that the visa issue was still “sitting in Brussels” even though Tbilisi now fulfilled all the necessary requirements.
“The EU as well as NATO are going through a conservative phase of re-evaluating challenges. We think that this conservative phase should end at some point with a more active and more engaging agenda,” he said.
Margvelashvili, 47, a philosopher by training, said Russia, Georgia’s Soviet-era overlord, remained a serious international player and that Tbilisi would pursue a constructive dialogue with Moscow despite tensions.
“We think that Russia should be a factor that should be taken into consideration by its neighbors as well as other international players,” said Margvelashvili, who as president has a largely ceremonial role.
“Our relationship with Russia is targeted on the policy of bringing the dialogue to rational discussion, the policy of maintaining peace and not letting any of the war parties engage the Georgian side in any kind of provocation.”
But he said good relations with Russia were only possible if it respected Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.
“Russia’s occupation of Georgia is (an) historically unfair move. This will never be accepted by our society and will never be accepted by Georgia’s political leadership,” he said.
(Editing by Andrew Osborn and Gareth Jones)