Back in 2008, when Russian troops invaded neighboring Georgia and ended up occupying 20% of its territory, the international outcry was furious. But few countries came to Georgia’s aid.
Nearly 15 years later—as Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine enters its 10th month—David Zalkaliani’s message to the world is basically, “Told you so.”
Zalkaliani, 54, recently took over as Tbilisi’s new ambassador to the United States. Last month, he spoke to The Washington Diplomat during an interview at the small Georgian Embassy fronting R Street, just off Dupont Circle.
“Georgia was the first country to suffer Russian aggression. At that time, we tried to convince the international community for support and solidarity, in order to prevent further aggression against other post-Soviet states,” he said. “Unfortunately, now the whole civilized world sees what Russia is.”
The veteran diplomat, who presented his credentials to President Biden this past May, celebrated two milestones this year: his 30th year in the Foreign Service, and the 30th anniversary of US-Georgian diplomatic relations.
“We have excellent cooperation in defense and security, but my goal is to elevate this partnership to a qualitatively new level,” said Zalkaliani, who was most recently foreign minister and then deputy prime minister. “We want to upgrade the level of our economic partnership with more US investment in energy, transportation, communications, tourism, hospitality and technology.”
In 2021, US-Georgian trade came to $820 million, or about 5.7% of Georgia’s total trade with the rest of the world. That makes the United States its fifth-largest trading partner after Turkey, Russia, China and Azerbaijan.
A graduate of Georgia’s Ivane Javakhishvili Tbilisi State University majoring in international law, Zalkaliani joined Georgia’s Foreign Ministry soon after the ex-Soviet republic declared independence. In 1996, he was posted to Georgia’s embassy in Austria and its permanent mission to the Vienna-based OSCE, serving there until 2000. Among other things, he was part of talks on Russia’s withdrawal of military bases from Georgian territory.
Returning to Vienna as Georgia’s deputy permanent representative to the OSCE (2001-02), he later became a senior counselor at Georgia’s embassy in Washington (2002-04), during which US-Georgian defense cooperation intensified.
Fiercely independent Georgia traces its history back 3,000 years
Zalkaliani was Georgia’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (2004-07) precisely when the Pentagon maintained the Karshi-Khanabad air base there—its first anywhere in the former USSR—to support military operations against Afghanistan’s Taliban. The diplomat, who’s fluent in Russian as well as English, was then posted to Georgia’s embassy in Minsk exactly when the Russians invaded his country in 2008.
“It was an extremely challenging mission for me,” he recalled. “Russia was pressing Belarus to recognize occupied territory, but [Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko] realized that doing so would significantly damage his interests. I’m really proud that, along with my colleagues, we did a lot to prevent Belarus from recognizing our Georgian breakaway regions.”
And despite the fact that Lukashenko now allows Vladimir Putin to use Belarus as a staging ground for attacks on Ukraine, he has never granted recognition to those two regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Nor has he recognized Russian sovereignty over eastern Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics”—even though Syria and North Korea have done so.
In 2009, Zalkaliani resigned from the diplomatic service following “political differences with the Georgian leadership” of the former president, Mikheil Saakashvili. Together with other diplomats, he helped establish the Free Democrats party and later joined the Georgian Dream coalition, which won parliamentary elections in 2012.
Zalkaliani was appointed first deputy foreign minister, a position he kept until 2018, when he became foreign minister.
“The United States is a very high-priority position,” he told The Diplomat. “That’s why appointing me ambassador after serving four years as the minister of foreign affairs is an indication from the Georgian government of how important this US-Georgian relationship is.”
The country Zalkaliani represents traces its history back nearly 3,000 years and is less than half as big or populous as the US state that shares its name. It adopted Christianity in the fourth century, and today boasts 500 varieties of grapes as well as its own distinctive polyphonic folk music and a unique alphabet, which is unlike any other in the world.
Less admirable is another Georgian legacy: Joseph Stalin, the communist dictator who ruled the USSR from the mid-1920s until 1953, and whose brutal purges and forced industrialization of Soviet agriculture led to the starvation of millions of people. Yet it was another native son, Eduard Shevardnadze, who as Soviet foreign minister during the Gorbachev era helped negotiate détente with the United States as well as several landmark nuclear arms treaties.
Zalkaliani: ‘Full solidarity with our Ukrainian brothers and sisters’
The Georgians themselves have for years resisted Moscow’s efforts to dominate their country. It was the first of the USSR’s 15 republics to demand independence, even before the Baltics did.
In 1989, massive pro-independence demonstrations rocked the streets of Tbilisi. Soviet troops fired on the protesters, and 20 people died in the ensuing violence. Anti-Moscow sentiment then spread to the three Baltic states, with similar protests breaking out in Lithuania in early 1990.
Following its brief but bloody 2008 war with Russia, Georgia received $4 billion in postwar assistance, including $1 billion from the US government. Besides Russia itself, only four countries recognize the breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia: Venezuela, Nicaragua, Nauru and Syria.
Before the war, South Ossetia had 60,000 people, while much larger Abkhazia, to the west, had 550,000 inhabitants. While 10,000 Russian troops remain in Georgia—5,000 in Abkhazia, 5,000 in South Ossetia—nearly 15 years after the war itself, said the ambassador, this is not a frozen conflict, contrary to what many people think.
“This is a serious misconception and creates significant problems for the government,” he said. “The installation of barbed wire and artificial barriers divides families and relatives, denies farmers access to their lands, and denies children education in their native language. This is a Berlin-type wall.”
Zalkaliani said that from Feb. 24, 2022—the day Putin ordered his troops to attack Ukraine, unleashing Europe’s worst bloodshed since World War II—Georgia has demonstrated nothing but “full solidarity” with its Ukrainian brothers and sisters.
“We have co-sponsored all resolutions at the UN General Assembly in condemning Russian aggression against Ukraine, and we have joined more than 300 EU declarations. We are fully committed to all sanctions imposed on Russia by the international community,” he said.
The ambassador added: “It was unimaginable that a big country like Russia would invade tiny Georgia to occupy a small piece of land. It was a signal to us that by doing this, Russia was trying to undermine Georgia’s EU and NATO integration process. And now, Russia’s idea was to insert divisions among EU and NATO member states. Fortunately, the entire international community has demonstrated unity, and Russia got exactly the opposite: enlargement of NATO.”
Georgia mediates Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict
Yet Washington-based political observer Tinatin Japaridze says there’s a big difference between her country and Ukraine, starting with size: Georgia is home to 3.5 million people, while Ukraine had a pre-war population exceeding 40 million.
“At the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, there was a lot of talk that Putin was using the same script he used in Georgia in 2008. But I disagree with this, because the expectations Putin had going into Georgia were drastically different,” said Japaridze, vice-president of business development at The Critical Mass, and a special advisor to the Eurasia Group.
“Putin perceives Ukraine as an integral part of Russian and Slavic identity. Therefore, he felt he had more right to go into Ukraine, which is not something he could have claimed in Georgia. Also, he had a lot more domestic support invading Georgia than he does now,” she continued. “Georgia and Ukraine are allied countries, and we wrestle with similar challenges, which is what has kept us together. But it’s very different to put them under the same umbrella.”
In an article she co-authored with Natia Gamkrelidze for the Middle East Institute, Japaridze argues that overstating these similarities “leads to a deeper misunderstanding of both conflicts and leaves out significant differences that need to be addressed.”
Even so, in both cases, the authors argue, Putin fears the economic success and the “democratic contagion” happening in both Georgia and Ukraine. Georgia’s GDP growth averaged 10.5% annually between 2005 and 2007, and in late 2021 and right before the 2022 invasion, Ukrainian GDP expanded by 5.9% year-on-year in Q4 of 2021, up from 2.7% the previous quarter.
One thing is fairly obvious: most Georgians strongly support EU membership and disapprove of Russian citizens in their country.
According to a poll conducted by the International Republican Institute’s Center for Insights in Survey Research, 85% of Georgians either “fully support” or “somewhat support” joining the alliance. Among those who support joining the EU, 60% support joining even if it means cutting trade relations with Russia.
“Citizen demand for joining the European Union remains very high,” said IRI’s senior director for Eurasia. “Georgians’ desire to join the EU has been remarkably consistent in previous surveys, and this new poll reinforces that position.”
Furthermore, when asked if they supported Russian citizens entering Georgia freely without a visa, registering a business, or purchasing property, 78% of respondents answered,“none of the above.”
As the Ukraine war drags on, Georgia seeks to be a mediator in yet another conflict: the ongoing hostilities between its Armenia and Azerbaijan. The former Soviet republics view each other with deep suspicion and have fought several wars and skirmishes since the USSR’s breakup—the lates of which erupted in mid-September, leaving more than 300 people dead.
“We are trying to play the role of peacemaker,” Zalkaliani said, noting that in June 2021, Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili, along with a top US State Department official, Phil Reeker, negotiated the release of 15 Armenian prisoners by Azerbaijan in exchange for Armenia providing maps of concealed landmines in the conflict zone.
And during the recent United Nations General Assembly in New York, Garibashvili unveiled his “Peaceful Neighborhood Initiative,” whose purpose is to facilitate dialogue and confidence-building among all parties.
“Of course, we realize that Georgia has limited resources for a political settlement, but we maintain excellent relations with both countries, and we have Armenian and Azerbaijani minorities on Georgian territory. Never in our history has there been a single case of hostility between them,” he said. “If we can unite all three South Caucasus countries for development, this will bring long-lasting peace and stability—and added importance—to our region.”