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Georgia's president on how her country is doing a year into the war in Ukraine

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

One year ago, March 2022, with the war in Ukraine in full swing and awful accounts of atrocities already emerging, I traveled to Tbilisi, Georgia. Now, Georgia is a small country on the edge of Europe across the Black Sea from Ukraine and involved in an especially complicated relationship with its neighbor to the north, Russia.

SALOME ZOURABICHVILI: We are in a place in - geostrategically in a place which is under constant - and you have been seeing that - under constant pressure from Russia.

KELLY: That is the president of Georgia, Salome Zourabichvili. And if anything, that's an understatement. Georgia has its own history of being invaded by Russia. In fact, on our visit, we watched Russian troops patrolling. They still occupy about 20% of Georgia since attacking in 2008. When President Zourabichvili and I spoke last year in her office at the presidential palace in Tbilisi, we talked about the challenges that war in Ukraine presents for her country.

ZOURABICHVILI: But also on the positive side, because there are these new windows of opportunities that are opening up and we are going to live in a different world, I think it's important that Georgia be present to seize all the opportunities that will be possible.

KELLY: Well, today President Zourabichvili is in New York, from where she joins us again. Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

ZOURABICHVILI: Thank you.

KELLY: I would love to start with your sense of how the war in Ukraine is going because a lot of Western leaders, as you know, had predicted that Russia would take Ukraine in days or weeks. And here we are, one year in, Ukraine not backing down but Russia not backing down, either.

ZOURABICHVILI: Well, I think that Ukraine has shown an incredible capacity of resilience in this tragic war. Of course, the price paid is very high that Russia has exhorted from Ukraine. But nonetheless, Russia has not been able to achieve any of the ends that were the war ends of Russia. Ukraine has proven that in 21st century, Russia is not this all-powerful empire that it was under the Soviet Union, that it doesn't have the support of the population...

KELLY: No.

ZOURABICHVILI: ...That Ukraine has shown.

KELLY: On the other hand, as I said, it doesn't show any signs of backing down. It's hard to see how either side wins or loses outright at this point. I mean, is it...

ZOURABICHVILI: Well, when Ukraine...

KELLY: ...Possible that a year from now you and I will be having this conversation again?

ZOURABICHVILI: Yes, it might last. But when Ukraine doesn't lose, it wins. If we remember the 2008 war against Georgia - that was the Five-Days War - and Russia was much more offensive in its relations with the other partners. Today, Russia is really isolated. And what is the main change probably that one can see is that everybody understands now what Russia is about. And that's something very important. Nobody is now believing that Russia can do anything it wants. They might not react, but we have seen in Georgia a very high number of Russians that have left Russia because they do not support any longer this type of regime.

KELLY: Let's turn to your country. When you told me last year that comment I just played - that, as awful as the war is, you saw opportunities for your country - one of the things you mentioned as an example was Georgia had just applied for EU membership one year ago. Where does that stand?

ZOURABICHVILI: Well, those opportunities, first of all, it has to be said, were opened by Ukraine and by this war and by this resilience. We didn't get the candidate status, and it's a big disillusionment for the Georgian population.

KELLY: So a big disappointment is how you would describe it. I mean, I guess I'm thinking...

ZOURABICHVILI: A big disappointment...

KELLY: Yeah.

ZOURABICHVILI: ...But which has not changed that what is important. It has not changed the determination of the Georgian people to support...

KELLY: But whether it's the EU or NATO...

ZOURABICHVILI: ...Pressure on the government...

KELLY: Forgive me. Whether it's the EU or NATO, I mean, realistically, how optimistic are you? You were so hopeful when I saw you a year ago that things might start to shift. And a year later, it sounds like they haven't.

ZOURABICHVILI: Well, I think it has shifted a lot. The fact that two of our partners of the Associated Trio have gotten the candidate status - and at one point in time, people were saying, oh, Georgia will never get the European Neighborhood Policy. We'll never be part of the ENP, which was a much lower step. So at each step, there were people doubting that Georgia could go further. So I'm completely optimistic. I don't know how the dates will go through, but I'm sure of one thing - is that the Georgian population resilience is there. So that's what I count on.

KELLY: When I was in your country a year ago, we saw thousands and thousands of refugees pouring in from Ukraine, fleeing the war, also a lot of Russians coming in from Russia...

ZOURABICHVILI: Yeah.

KELLY: ...Who wanted to escape their country. How has the war changed Georgia in a year?

ZOURABICHVILI: Well, we have seen something that is not very new for Georgia, which has been over the centuries because it was at a place of different empires or occupations. So we have always had refugees or populations from outside living in this small country that is Georgia. For one year, we have had Ukrainian refugees, Russian refugees living together with Georgians whose territory is occupied by Russia. And there was no significant incident happening between these communities. I think that is very important. Whether it has changed Georgia, I wouldn't say so.

KELLY: What about bigger picture? And there were so many questions at the beginning of this war over whether this would mark a shift in the world order, in the order that has been created since the Second World War. Do you think it has?

ZOURABICHVILI: I think it has completely. The European Union is no longer the European Union that was doubting before whether it could have a real defense strategy. The fact that countries like Finland or Sweden are now trying to join NATO is an enormous shift. The relationship between European Union and the United States on such strategic issues has never been, I think, in the past years, so close as it is today. So I think, yes, a new geopolitical image has been forged through the Ukrainian war that will define our future. And the very important thing for Georgia is to be part of that community, whatever the form it takes.

KELLY: Last question, Madam President. You're here in the U.S. You're meeting American officials here. What is your ask? What do you want Americans to know as you continue to lead your country and push for support for Ukraine?

ZOURABICHVILI: I think that what I want is to share Georgia's experience, which, as I said, is a century-long experience of Russia. Now the West is on the verge of really discovering what is Russia. If Russians and Russian leadership does not understand that what is theirs is theirs and what is not is not, then they cannot become a full member of the community. And that will be the subject of the peace negotiations whenever they happen.

KELLY: That is the president of Georgia, Salome Zourabichvili, visiting New York today. Thank you so much for joining us.

ZOURABICHVILI: Thank you. Until next time.

KELLY: Until the next time.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Karen Zamora
Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.