Friday marks the one-year anniversary of the day Russia and Georgia went to war.
Georgian forces attacked the breakaway region of South Ossetia. Russia responded with force and crushed the assault, driving deep into Georgian territory. The fighting lasted for five days before a cease-fire was negotiated.
Now, Russia has thousands of troops in South Ossetia and another secessionist region, and it controls their borders.
One year after the war, tensions are high between Russia and Georgia, which has close ties with the West.
NPR's Melissa Block spoke by telephone with Georgia's president at his office in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi. She asked about the likelihood of new fighting.
President Saakashvili: Well, obviously there have been some bad noises coming from Moscow, like, you know, statements by their Defense Ministry, Foreign Ministry, mobilization and massing of troops, not only inside the occupied areas by the Russian troops, but all across several hundred miles of our borders.
However, what I think is different this time is that both the European Union and especially the new U.S. administration have been engaged very, very strongly in trying preventative diplomacy. I think they heeded our calls. There was a very tough stand taken by President Obama when he was in Moscow. Vice President Biden was sent out here to Tbilisi, and so basically, the chances have diminished because of this very proactive diplomacy, but certainly they are not close to zero, because you are dealing with pretty irrational actors on the other side.
Melissa Block: President Saakashvili, there has been a lot of talk about the U.S. interest in resetting its relationship with Russia. Do you worry that as that relationship is reset, that Georgia will pay the price? In other words, that the U.S. fear of provoking Russia will outweigh the U.S. desire to support Georgia?
Well, look, there are two ways to approach political interests. On the one hand there is this old, 19th, 20th century approach, "Let's trade off, securing each other's interests, and the hell with small countries or their existence or their borders." But I think that this kind of policy that miserably failed in Europe in [the] 20th century and brought major tragedies there clearly demonstrates that that's not an option for any modern states, and I think that this administration clearly understands that.
But is that a legitimate concern, do you think? That U.S. interests in easing the relationship with Russia could come to the detriment of your own country, of Georgia?
Look, obviously there are some people that might speculate about that, but all my contacts I had recently with this new administration pointed exactly to the opposite. I mean when Vice President [Biden] was here, the way he addressed parliament, the way he spoke to media after that, the way President Obama stood up for Georgia in Moscow — I mean, that was very unusual, but it really showed the value-based policy of the U.S., I think ultimately the most pragmatic policy. And certainly I'm a big fan of U.S. success. Every time the U.S. fails our region and in any other regions, indeed, we get into trouble here, but the best pragmatic side of U.S. policy is fighting for its values. I mean, not fighting literally, but standing up for the values, which means that if people are being punished for wanting to be free, to be independent, to have the same kind of democracy that American people have — and they brought it to many other parts of the world. But you know America stands up for people, and that's why people strive to be close to America. And that's why America is increasing its own security.
When Vice President Biden was in Georgia last month, promising U.S. support for your country, he also, though, had the message that Georgians have more work to do to strengthen democracy, more work on independent media and judicial independence, political pluralism. How do you respond to those concerns?
Absolutely. I fully share that. I mean, he said that Georgia is a model democracy in this part of the world, but he also said there's lots of work to do and I couldn't agree more. You know, democracy is a process. I would be the happiest person to do it overnight and to say we are a full-fledged democracy, and that's it, but you know we are also building democracy at gunpoint. Please remember that I'm sitting right now in a presidential palace that is targeted by Russian ballistic missiles and by Russian short-range artillery that is within the range of 30 kilometers from the capital. Thirty-five kilometers, more or less 20 miles. And I think we never played this Russian card, you know, if you listen to our media here, people couldn't care less. They care less about Russia than about their own problems. And it's a sure sign of democracy, if people talk about everyday problems — jobs, health care, you know, the future for their children — and talk less about foreign big fights, that's what gives me hope that this country can be a real democracy despite being democracy at gunpoint. You know, people forget about the fact that they're targeted. They're just proceeding with building their new country.