- VoA: Let’s start talking about NATO-Georgia training center. What is the significance of this joint center for Georgia’s NATO aspirations and for the region, if any?
Laura Linderman: The NATO-Georgia joint training and evaluation center is a unique training center in the region. It’s designed to support allies, Georgia and other partners to increase interoperability and also, it’s connected with the recent NATO military joint exercises in Georgia called Agile Spirit [that] involved 250 soldiers from Bulgaria, Georgia, Slovenia, Romania, Latvia. Both, the center and these exercises, are the result of a decision made last year at the NATO summit in Wales to provide a Substantial Package to Georgia. The Substantial Package is sort of a couple of different things that are happening. NATO’s decision last year to open its base and have these exercises was a means of showing increased support for Georgia, while still not offering MAP. It was a way for them to encourage Georgia to keep the faith. But I think also the alliance is trying to strengthen its position in the Caucasus as a counterweight to Russia.
- VoA: In realizing the NATO aspirations what is the next step that Georgia has to satisfy before it goes to the Warsaw summit in 2016?
Laura Linderman: As far as the exact technical details, I don’t know. I think that the strategy of how Georgia should position itself ahead of the Warsaw summit, there’s a couple of different ways they should go. I think the leadership could explore creative means of getting NATO membership with or without MAP. MAP is an important process, but not the only way to get into NATO. They could start pushing a strategy to have NATO declare in Warsaw that Georgia could become a NATO member at any time without MAP. This is an important summit, the Warsaw summit, because there are several other aspirant countries, who are expecting decisions and Georgia’s just one of them. I think that’s why you see the government taking a more aggressive stand in demanding acknowledgement by the alliance of Georgia’s progress and significant progress in political and military reforms. I think Georgia’s done a lot and what’s holding it back is decisions that NATO themselves need to make and that’s obviously tied deeply with the situation with Russia.
- VoA: The NATO secretary today said that NATO is following developments and reforms in Georgia very closely. In your opinion what reforms on democratization front need to be furthered along with the reforms in defense?
Laura Linderman: I think to talk about broad strategy for Georgian reforms, they should be working very hard on integration to as many international economies as possible, because that just makes a country be more integrated, more stable and obviously helps the economy. To talk about specific reforms, continuing to watch for developing powerful and independent institutions, contrarying any tendency to want to have a monopolizing power. The banking sector should be more independent. The same on judicial reforms. It’s going to be very important that these reforms are watched closely and that civil society is going to play an important role in seeing what needs to be rewritten to make sure that these institutions remain and become even further more independent. Developing strong civil servants, so that folks who are working in say ministries they are not connected to a particular political party.
- VoA: In today’s presentation, Georgian Prime Minister said that Georgia continues to have a very constructive policy towards Russia and this joint training center with NATO is not targeted against any of its neighbors. Overall how would you assess the current Georgia-Russia relations and what challenges do you see in this sphere?
Laura Linderman: Georgia’s in extremely difficult position with regards to Russia. You can see that there’s renewed Russian aggression in a form of Moscow moving this line between South Ossetia and the rest of Georgia and other moves. It shows that Russia really hasn’t changed its [attitude] towards Georgia. They are still continuing their policy which they tightened before 2008. Georgia’s inability to stop Russia and also the inability of the West to provide anything more than strong words of condemnation suggests that Georgia’s security challenges are stagnant and getting worse in overall, since nothing has really changed. I think it’s a tough fight for Georgia to be in and what I would recommend is as much as possible Georgian government highlights the strategic importance of their location, as an important central part of the East-West energy transportation corridor that provides pipelines, ports, railways, highways to bring energy, other resources from East to west. [This corridor] has a really big potential and continue to highlight how important Georgia is as a free and easy way for global trade and energy trade.
- VoA: On borderizaton problems in Georgia. Do you think that international community is well aware of this problem and if yes, what’s the solution?
Laura Linderman: I think that they are aware. I think the Georgian government has done a reasonable job. They’re [attending] international forums highlighting this and also when they are talking with their counterparts in the West as well. So, I think folks are aware. It’s an extremely tough atmosphere right now. There’s a lot of ambivalence in the West and folks are not really interested in getting involved. It’ll be important to really target say Germany and also have the traditional allies from Eastern Europe who always support Georgia, get them continuing to highlight these huge problems. It’s a really tough spot and I don’t know that there are any easy, quick answers.
- VoA: In your mind what can the United States do to promote Georgia’s NATO dream, so to speak.
Laura Linderman: I think again it’s tough, because we are going to have presidential elections next year and the U.S. government is pretty distracted with other challenges. I think it is going to be important for Georgia to make a strong case about why they are important and why the U.S. should make a case for them, but I think [Georgia] should probably focus more on, say, Germany and Turkey, convincing them why Georgia should be in NATO. I think Georgia could focus on creating a stronger bilateral military relationship with the U.S. as a way that would certainly only help their NATO chances in a long term as a supplement.
- VoA: And a very last question. How would you assess Minister Khidasheli’s visit to Washington last week and with that what’s the stage in Georgia-U.S. defense partnership dialogue?
Laura Linderman: I think her trip was very successful, credible and only moved the relationship forward. I would assess it favorably and I would say that more visits from Georgian officials to the U.S. are helpful. Say, if the president could come it would be great and they should continue as much as possible to have visits to the U.S.