Interview

Ben Hodges: The Anaklia deep-water port will be a key part of the US strategy for the larger Black Sea region

The former Commanding General of US Army Europe, Lieutenant General (retired) Ben Hodges, responded to Europetime's inquiries. We asked him to comment on the Georgian government's announcement that they can start immediate construction and port development by 2023. Also, on the necessity and significance of  infrastructure projects for Georgia as well, which is given the chance to enhance and underline its role and function as a connecting link between Europe and Asia within the framework of the new geopolitical scenario. „Russia and Iran are building a transportation network of rivers, seas, and railroads to avoid sanctions while moving products between the two nations and beyond. Obviously, we’ve got to find ways to close all the loopholes through which Russia and Iran are able to violate the sanctions protocols. But there will be a day when Russia and Iran are not necessarily our enemies, so we should be thinking long-term about how to take advantage of this new trade route, and the soon-to-be-developed USG Strategy for the greater Black Sea region could take this into account. Building a deep-water port at Anaklia in Georgia would be a key part of this, enabling major traffic from the Black Sea region to get to the Caspian Sea via rail through GEO and AZE. Unfortunately, the current government of Georgia does not seem to grasp or favor this sort of strategic thinking and investment“, - Ben Hodges told Europetime. Early on, Ben Hodges told Europetime that the Biden Administration should announce a comprehensive strategy for the greater Black Sea region. Ambassador Degnan: We strongly support the development of the Anaklia deep water port Exclusive interview on Europetime with the US Defense Attaché Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili revealed on 12 December that the long-awaited deep sea port of Anaklia will be built with the government’s participation, which will subsequently own 51% of it. The Prime Minister noted that an international competition will be announced to select the partners and companies which will participate in the project. „we strongly support the development of the Anaklia deep water port, which is critical infrastructure for Georgia to develop. It would be a huge contribution as Georgia develops its role in the Middle Corridor, to bring goods from Central Asia to Europe. Development of the port would also bring jobs to Georgia and the region. We hope to see the Government of Georgia move forward to tender the project and select a qualified developer through a transparent and competitive process“, - US Ambassador to Georgia Kelly Degnan told Europetime. In addition, NATO welcomes the development of infrastructure of strategic importance, such as the port facilities on the Black Sea coast. „We welcome all steps undertaken by the Georgian authorities to promote its economic development and security. According to a NATO official speaking to Europetime, this includes the development of infrastructure of strategic importance, such as the port facilities on the Black Sea coast. "The Anaklia Deep Sea Port is a great opportunity," said Philip Reeker, Acting Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, during a visit to Georgia in June 2021. Senator Rob Portman also stressed that it is extremely important that more countries invest in Georgia. „We should encourage more direct investment in Georgia. One would be infrastructure, specifically a particular port project, which is a huge opportunity for infrastructure investment. But also, there are so many other opportunities in agriculture and other commodities, including mining, including manufacturing,"-Senator Rob Portman said in an exclusive comment with Europetime.

Ambassador Degnan: We strongly support the development of the Anaklia deep water port

„we strongly support the development of the Anaklia deep water port, which is critical infrastructure for Georgia to develop. It would be a huge contribution as Georgia develops its role in the Middle Corridor, to bring goods from Central Asia to Europe. Development of the port would also bring jobs to Georgia and the region. We hope to see the Government of Georgia move forward to tender the project and select a qualified developer through a transparent and competitive process“, - US Ambassador to Georgia Kelly Degnan told Europetime. „Russia’s war against Ukraine has demonstrated the need for alternatives to the northern transit route through Russia, and the United States supports the development of the Middle Corridor to transport goods, energy, and data from Central Asia to Europe. To develop the Middle Corridor requires regional cooperation with the efficient integration of road, rail, and sea transportation infrastructure. The United States has long supported Georgia’s economic development and recognizes the key role Georgia can play in the Middle Corridor with its access to the Black Sea. Specifically, we strongly support the development of the Anaklia deep water port, which is critical infrastructure for Georgia to develop. It would be a huge contribution as Georgia develops its role in the Middle Corridor, to bring goods from Central Asia to Europe. Development of the port would also bring jobs to Georgia and the region. We hope to see the Government of Georgia move forward to tender the project and select a qualified developer through a transparent and competitive process. In addition, the Development Finance Corporation supported the expansion of the Pace Terminal at Poti Seaport through a $50 million loan. The terminal expansion, which opened in January 2022, more than doubled the cargo capacity for the terminal, an important step that moves Georgia closer to its goal of becoming an East-West trade hub. Trammo is another good example, a U.S. company which facilitates the transport of fertilizer from Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Looking forward, the US government is seeking new opportunities for partnership across the Middle Corridor. In Georgia, this means exploring new infrastructure investment opportunities, and increasing our economic development support to the transport and logistics sectors to increase efficiency and value of goods being shipped from and through Georgia.  These investments and partnerships will result in greater global economic integration for Georgia, and more lucrative employment opportunities for Georgians. As always, we are working closely with the citizens of Georgia, the government, and the business community to help ensure Georgia is ready to take full advantage of this opportunity. For example, we stand ready to assist the Georgian government in their path towards greater adoption of international standards for road safety, and to assist Georgian producers with the resources and skills necessary to compete fairly on the global market. In summary, the USG sees the increased interest in developing the Middle Corridor as a substantial opportunity for Georgia’s path towards a prosperous, democratic, globally integrated future“, - Kelly Degnan told Europetime. Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili revealed on 12 December that the long-awaited deep sea port of Anaklia will be built with the government’s participation, which will subsequently own 51% of it. The Prime Minister noted that an international competition will be announced to select the partners and companies which will participate in the project. NATO: We welcome the development of infrastructure of strategic importance, such as the port facilities on the Black Sea coast

Alexander Vinnikov: Georgia should now concentrate on preparing for NATO membership

EuropeTime provides an exclusive interview with the head of the NATO Liaison Office in Georgia, Alexander Vinnikov. ET: Considering NATO-Georgia partnership, how do you assess the outcomes Georgia has achieved regarding taking advantage of the support provided to it by the Alliance?Alexander Vinnikov: Georgia is one of NATO’s closest partners. It aspires to join the Alliance. Over time, a broad range of practical cooperation has developed between NATO and Georgia, which supports Georgia’s reform efforts and its goal of Euro-Atlantic integration. Georgia has carried out an impressive range of reforms, particularly when it comes to its defense forces and the wider security sector. However, more needs to be done. I would highlight the issue of democratic oversight of the institutions of the security sector. There’s still more that should be done to align the Georgian system with the principles of NATO member states. Other key reform areas where Allies would like to see progress include judiciary reform, electoral reform, and freedom of the media. Progress in all of these areas would be greatly facilitated by a less polarized political environment. We encourage Georgia to recover the momentum of its reforms, something that has been reduced in the last couple of years. The European perspective granted to Georgia by the EU represents an historic window of opportunity to take forward ambitious reforms. There is significant overlap between the EU’s 12 recommendations and NATO’s recommendations provided through the ANP process. Allies encourage both the government and the opposition to seize this opportunity and reach across the political divide to advance the country on its constitutionally mandated European and Euro-Atlantic path. At the Madrid Summit, Allies made decisions to strengthen the resilience of those partners we consider most at risk of further Russian threats and interference in the context of Russia’s unprovoked and brutal invasion of Ukraine.  Georgia is one of these partners. Allied leaders decided to step up their political and practical support to Georgia, and these decisions are already being implemented. Furthermore, at their most recent meeting in Bucharest (November 29–30), NATO Foreign Ministers reaffirmed the Alliance’s support for Georgia in very strong terms. The Statement by Foreign Ministers underscores the Alliance’s firm commitment to its "Open Door" policy and reaffirms the decisions the Allies took at the 2008 Bucharest Summit and all subsequent decisions with respect to Georgia and Ukraine. Georgia’s E-A aspirations are also reflected in the new Strategic Concept (NATO’s second most important document after the Washington Treaty) adopted at the Madrid Summit. ET: The war against Ukraine has led to increasing of attention towards the Black Sea security. In your view, how important is it to have a fresh coordinated, common strategy towards the Black Sea region and is US discussing this issue with NATO? Alexander Vinnikov: Since 2014, we have implemented the largest reinforcement of our collective defense in a generation, enhancing our ability to defend allies on land, at sea, in the air, in cyberspace, and in space. This adaptation continues, and NATO is stepping up in response to the threats and challenges of today and tomorrow.NATO has a responsibility to prevent the conflict from escalating beyond Ukraine. We have significantly strengthened our defenses in the eastern part of the Alliance, with 40,000 troops under NATO command, hundreds of ships and planes, and eight multinational battlegroups from the Baltic to the Black Sea.NATO’s Strategic Concept endorsed at the 2022 Madrid Summit recognises that the Black Sea is an area of strategic importance not only for the NATO littoral states (Türkiye, Bulgaria and Romania), but for the Alliance as a whole. We have already increased our presence in the Black Sea region since 2014, following Russia’s illegal and illegitimate annexation of Crimea. with more ships, more aircraft, more information exchange, and a multinational battlegroup based in Romania. We are working even more closely with two other Black Sea nations, Georgia and Ukraine, two close partners. We did that before Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, and we are committed to doing even more. We will continue to support the Euro-Atlantic aspirations of interested countries in these regions. We will enhance efforts to bolster their capabilities to address the distinct threats and challenges they face and boost their resilience against malign third-party interference and coercion. ET: On 10-11 November, NATO Partnership and Cooperative Security Committee paid a two-day visit to Georgia. Can you tell us a bit more about this visit and whether there have been made any specific decisions? Do we have to expect high level visits in the nearest future?Alexander Vinnikov: Delegates of the PCSC were very satisfied with the visit to Georgia. Due to the wide range of scheduled meetings with various key institutions (MoD, MoI, NSCO, SSSG, MFA, Parliament, the Public Defender’s Office), parliamentary opposition, and civil society, the delegation had the chance to acquire a comprehensive picture of the situation in Georgia. The delegates were also able to visit the ABL at Odzisi. NATO-Georgia cooperation and Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic integration were integral parts of all discussions. The 12 EU recommendations, Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, and Black Sea security were also widely discussed. Although the views of the Georgian authorities, opposition, and civil society might differ from each other, all interlocutors unanimously agreed on the importance of Euro-Atlantic integration and of Georgia’s eventual accession to NATO. This visit was part of the political support envisioned by the tailored support measures adopted for Georgia at the Madrid Summit. We do expect our close, high-level political dialogue to continue very actively in the coming year as well. ET: After adopting the tailored support package for Georgia on the Madrid Summit, the Alliance has often spoken about strengthening relations with its partners. The last example of this is the Bucharest Summit. This decision (strengthening support taking into account the threats) has been made by NATO in the face of Russia’s war in Ukraine. Considering this, can we say that the process of Georgia’s integration into the Alliance has been accelerated more quickly than it had been provisioned before the war?Alexander Vinnikov: At the Bucharest Summit in 2008, allied heads of state and government decided that Georgia would be a member of NATO in the future. Now it’s important for Georgia to focus on getting ready for membership. It is not just the MoD or armed forces that join NATO; it is the entire country. That is why it is necessary to implement a wide range of democratic reforms. As I said, particularly critical are reforms in the areas of the rule of law, electoral reforms, and freedom of the media, as well as the further transformation of Georgia’s security and defense sectors. Georgia has a key instrument to get closer to NATO: the Annual National Program. An assessment team recently visited Tbilisi, and Allies will soon provide consolidated feedback and advice to Georgia with regard to the implementation of its ambitious reform agenda. It’s important to note that NATO continues to provide very close political and practical support for all of those efforts, and as you note, this support was further enhanced at the Madrid Summit. We are now in the process of implementing those decisions. ET: The NATO Liaison Office in Georgia has a regional mandate, also covering Armenia and Azerbaijan. You went on missions to Armenia and Azerbaijan. How do you assess the results of your visit? NATO values its partnership with these countries, both of which have contributed to Euro-Atlantic security for many years. This year I paid several visits to both Yerevan and Baku in order to take forward our political dialogue and practical cooperation with both partners. Most recently, I visited Armenia in October and held meetings with Armenia’s Acting Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Secretary of the National Security Council, the Head of the Ministry of Defense's Defense Policy and International Co-operation Department, as well as with the Human Rights Defender (Ombudsperson). During the meetings, we discussed issues related to NATO-Armenia relations and cooperation and the prospects for their further development, and we also exchanged views on regional security issues of mutual interest. In November, together with our NATO Military Liaison Officer and Political Officer, we visited Baku. We held a meeting at the Republic of Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and discussed issues related to NATO-Azerbaijan dialogue and cooperation, as well as exchanging views on regional security topics of mutual interest. In Baku, I also delivered a speech at the High-Level Conference on Women, Peace, and Security, "Women for Sustainable Tomorrow," held at ADA University, and met with resident NATO Ambassadors and Heads of Mission of other international organizations accredited in Baku. On the military side, Col. Abidinoglu, our NATO Military Liaison Officer, also participated in the annual "NATO Days" in Azerbaijan, organized by NATO military authorities, which included engagements with Azerbaijan’s National Defense University and with the Land Forces’ and Naval Forces’ OCC units. As part of my mandate, I will continue regular working visits to Armenia and Azerbaijan and will also continue to support the high-level engagement of Javier Colomina, the NATO Secretary General’s Special Representative for the Caucasus and Central Asia.

Exclusive interview on Europetime with the US Defense Attaché

EuropeTime provides an exclusive interview with the US Defense Attaché in Georgia, Colonel Joseph Bilbo. ET: How do you assess Georgia’s achievements since regaining independence as a function of USG assistance? Colonel Bilbo: I had the fortunate opportunity to come to Georgia for the first time in 2009, and since then, I've come back and forth to Georgia multiple times. Each time I saw development in Georgia, whether it was the development of the cities of Tbilisi or Batumi in terms of commerce or the products that were available, a lot of that was the result of the work of the Georgian people and the Georgian government. A lot of that comes as assistance from the United States. The United States has more than 30 offices and agencies here in the embassy that provide assistance to Georgia. But the assistance that used to be provided, the basic humanitarian type of assistance, is no longer part of what the Georgian people need because Georgia has developed beyond that. I think that one of the things that the Georgian people should be proud of is that the assistance that they receive now is a partnership through which we work together to build stronger markets, better and new access to markets, and stronger democratic principles like the rule of law, which invite greater economic development. ET: Do you think that rule of law is a problem in Georgia?   Colonel Bilbo: I think rule of law is a challenge in many countries. Rule of law is a challenge because it's hard and it takes constant work. We all know that law is constantly being challenged in the United States, and the courts play an extremely important role in this regard.   ET: The Georgia Defense and Deterrence Enhancement Initiative (GDDEI) is an important component of defense cooperation between the two countries. Against the background of the ongoing war in Ukraine and given the possible threats, as part of this initiative, are there any programs that have been adjusted or accelerated? Colonel Bilbo: "Jedi" is an evolution of the previous program, the Georgia Defense Readiness Program. It shows the continual development of the partnership in the Georgian Defense Forces. The program is focused on two aspects: many institutional changes at the ministerial level, including regulations and policies; and then engagement with the Defense Forces on building resilience and resistance capabilities within the Georgian Defense Forces and in Georgia's society.   Unfortunately, what we see in Ukraine is that it remains a very relevant aspect of a national defense plan. I wouldn't say that anything has been pushed to go faster because it was already going quite fast. The adoption of these principles within Georgia, just in the last two years, has been quite impressive and continues today.   ET: Everybody agrees that regional stability has rarely been in more danger or been more important than it is now. Should the issue of Ukraine be considered more broadly in the context of Russia's ambitions to influence the territories of other countries, including Georgia, and how do you see the role of the United States as Georgia's strategic partner from this point of view?   Colonel Bilbo: I think Georgia is in a very difficult neighborhood, and it is not uncommon to see instability in this neighborhood. I don't think you have to go back that far; in fact, the nineties saw multiple wars in Georgia and the Karabakh War south of here. Despite being occupied by Russia for 20% of the time, there is some relative stability. A lot of that has to do with the development of deterrence capability.   That's what the United States is partnering with the Georgian Defense Forces to do, which is to build a defensive capability that is a deterrent to any aggressor state. Unfortunately, we see in Ukraine Russia's continued willingness to use force to break international norms in an attempt to seize territory.   It was blatant. They claimed territory in Ukraine much in the same way that Georgia’s territory was invaded and remains occupied. So, we are here to support Georgia’s defense and deterrence and ensure that it remains within its internationally recognized borders.   I think Georgians know already that Russia is an occupier. Russia continues to keep troops on your territory, not because they were invited here but because they invaded. I think that Georgia understands that geography is not going to change, and Georgia is not interested in, nor does the US support, any type of aggressive activity to resolve that conflict. The U.S. participates in the Geneva International Discussions to try to resolve the conflict and force Russia to comply with the ceasefire agreement, but I think Georgians are very aware of the reality of Russian intentions inside of Georgia.   ET: The war against Ukraine has led to increasing of attention towards the Black Sea security. The Black Sea region is one of the most strategically important for the United States. How important is a coordinated US strategy for the Black Sea region now? Colonel Bilbo: Strategy inherently needs to be coordinated to be effective. You're absolutely right that the Black Sea has continued to grow in importance. There's much talk among many countries about the development of a middle corridor. The United States absolutely supports this idea with our European allies. I believe that now, when you look at the Black Sea, when you have a conflict in a contained territory like the Black Sea, coordinating a strategy to ensure freedom of navigation, safe passage for cargo ships, and the continuation of commerce is critical, especially given the number of sea mines that have been placed as a result of the war.   ET: During the conference in Tbilisi, it was said by you that the exchange of information and challenges so often seen in the intelligence community are among the issues that the US is working on with its Georgian counterparts and that the war in Ukraine only showed the need to increase this cooperation. What can you tell us more about it?   Colonel Bilbo: One of the main ways that NATO is engaged with the Georgian Defense Forces is through a program called the Substantial NATO Georgia Package. One of the efforts within that package is called Secure Communications and Intelligence Sharing. It's actually led by the Czech Republic, but many of the NATO allies participate in working with Georgia to continue to increase Georgia's interoperability with NATO, and part of that is our ability to share information with one another. We believe that we have shared interests, such as commerce in the Black Sea, from which I think Georgia can benefit a lot. In order to ensure safety and security, we often have to share information that's quite sensitive.   ET: A few days ago, Ambassador Degnan spoke to the media about the importance of the port of Anaklia; she also noted that several qualified operators were interested in the mentioned project. What do you think is the strategic importance of this port, apart from economic benefits and investments? How important is this project for Black Sea security? In your opinion, does this project fit into the Black Sea security concept? Georgia has an important transit opportunity; it will be possible to transport various cargoes from Central Asia to Europe when, due to Russian sanctions, financial institutions are looking for alternative transit corridors.   Colonel Bilbo: Expanding deep water ports is part of the development of commerce and trade that will occur on the Black Sea.  A deep water port or extra port availability in Georgia should bring economic development to the country.From a security standpoint, it increases the opportunity to host ships from allied and partner nations.  Georgia used to host quite a few visits of U.S. ships and other NATO ships. Unfortunately, that's been constrained due to the war, but we very much look forward to our naval assets visiting Georgia again when the sea is returned to a stable state.   ET: How do you assess 2022 for the U.S.-Georgian partnership?Colonel Bilbo: The pandemic caused us all to pause, and then we had to figure out how to resume. 2022 did a lot for our relationship as well, where we were connecting, albeit often virtually. We've been able to reconnect now, face to face, which has strengthened and reinvigorated our cooperation and partnership, providing the opportunity to bring troops in to train with the Georgian Defense Forces, and the opportunity for Georgia to host international conferences, which helps highlight the challenges that Georgia faces and, I think, will continue to bring stronger and greater partnership with NATO allies and the United States.

Javier Colomina: We are currently discussing what the tailored support should entail for Georgia and we expect them to be adopted at the Madrid Summit

NATO Secretary General’s Special Representative for the Caucasus and Central Asia, Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Political Affairs and Security Policy, Javier Colomina, answered questions by Europetime about the NATO Summit, NATO-Georgia relations, the Russian war in Ukraine, the accession process of Finland and Sweden, as well as other topical issues. ET: What is your opinion on the implications of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine for NATO? In the long run, how do you view these consequences, and how do you see the alliance's relations with Russia in general?  Russia’s aggression against Ukraine represents the gravest threat to Euro-Atlantic security in decades. It has shattered peace in Europe and is causing enormous human suffering and destruction. We see President Putin concentrating his forces in eastern Ukraine after his failed offensive against Kyiv. Russia is now engaged in a war of attrition, with high numbers of casualties on both sides. The Russian military has resorted to indiscriminate levelling of Ukrainian cities. Schools, hospitals, and residential areas have been flattened and the humanitarian conditions in Russian-controlled areas are dire. Furthermore, President Putin’s war is driving up food prices, pushing people into poverty and destabilising entire regions. This is cynical and destructive and the costs are being borne by the world’s most vulnerable people. We call on Russia to immediately end its blockade of Ukrainian ports; and Allies are working hard, also with the United Nations, to find solutions. Against this background, NATO continues to pursue two parallel priorities. First, we continue to support Ukraine. On the other, we are making sure that this war does not escalate further into Allied territory, while we keep protecting one billion of our citizens living in NATO countries. NATO Allies have provided support for Ukraine for many years, including with equipment, financial support, and training for tens of thousands of Ukrainian troops. Allies and partners have already provided Ukraine with billions of dollars’ worth of lethal and non-lethal equipment, as well as humanitarian aid. All of this is making a difference on the battlefield, helping Ukraine to uphold its right of self-defence, which is enshrined in the United Nations Charter. Allies are also providing substantial humanitarian aid, including by hosting millions of refugees.  They are now stepping up further, with many types of light and heavy military equipment. Secondly, we reacted to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine with speed and unity, to protect our nations. Over 40,000 troops are now under direct NATO command, backed by major air and naval power. This is to deter further Russian aggression, in other words, aimed not at provoking a conflict, but rather at preventing it and restoring peace. We continue to call on President Putin to stop his war in Ukraine, withdraw his troops and engage in good faith in the diplomatic process. Our relationship with Russia is at its lowest point since the Cold War. We regret this, and it is not of our choosing. Our relationship with Russia was not always like this. The fall of the Berlin Wall ushered a new era of partnership with Russia. For many years, we would discuss our common security in the NATO-Russia Council. We cooperated in areas of common interest, from counter-terrorism to arms control, and we worked closely together in Afghanistan.  Russia chose to walk away from this partnership. The war in Ukraine is part of a long pattern of Russia using military force to achieve its political aims, as Georgians are well aware. ET: As for the status of NATO-Georgia relations and implications of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, what are the fundamental pillars that the Alliance will use to make future decisions? Has anything fundamentally changed? First of all, the current security environment makes NATO’s partnership with Georgia even stronger and closer. We intensified our dialogue in recent months: Foreign Minister Darchiashvili and Defence Minister Burchuladze participated in various meetings with their NATO counterparts; Prime Minister Garibashvili met with the NATO Secretary General last May; and I visited the South Caucasus last April. We also maintain a strong level of practical cooperation, with the third NATO-Georgia Joint Exercise last March, and many other ongoing activities under the umbrella of the Substantial NATO-Georgia Package. Against the backdrop of Russia’s unlawful invasion of Ukraine and of its security implications, including for the Black Sea region, Allies have agreed to step up the scope of practical assistance to Georgia. We are currently discussing what this should entail and I expect that more details will be unveiled at the NATO Summit in Madrid next week. The Georgian government has clearly stated that integration into NATO continues to be a top foreign policy and security objective for the country. This also means that, as I have said at other times, we expect Georgia to redouble its efforts in key reform areas such as the judiciary, media freedom and accountability of the security sector. On our side we stand by our commitments from the 2008 Bucharest Summit on Georgia’s aspirations towards NATO membership. Our support for Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity - within international recognized boundaries - remains unwavering. We also continue to recognize Georgia’s contribution to our shared security. Georgia has been one of the largest contributors to our missions in Afghanistan and played an important role in the evacuation efforts in Summer 2021. Georgia also participates in the NATO Response Force; and it has recently led a NATO-Georgia exercise, which involved around 600 troops. ET: What system or tool may be put in place to provide tailored support to Georgia in the face of heightened threats? How might the Alliance aim to continue its cooperation with Georgia at a new stage, possibly in a new format? As I mentioned before, in light of the unprovoked Russian invasion of Ukraine, Allies have agreed to step up assistance to partners such as Georgia, which is one of NATO’s closest partners and has been subject to Russian hybrid threats and pressure since many years. Rather than establish new tools or systems, we should build on the Substantial NATO-Georgia Package and increase our support to Georgia by in the areas of situational awareness, secure communications, resilience and cyber. We are currently discussing, together with Georgian authorities, what these measures should entail in more detail and we expect them to be adopted at the Madrid Summit. ET: Can Georgia expect any concrete, tangible results from the next summit? What will be the main focus of the summit, and what could you say about Ukraine? We will take important decisions at the NATO Summit in Madrid next week. We will strengthen our deterrence and defence; we will agree to support Ukraine for the long haul; we will agree NATO’s next Strategic Concept, which represents the blueprint for our future adaptation in an age of increased strategic competition with authoritarian powers like China; and we will agree to support further our partners at risk with tailored measures. We will commit to working even more closely with our partners in the Asia-Pacific and other like-minded partners around the world. We will also review progress on burden-sharing, because it is clear we must continue to invest in our defence, and to invest more and better together in NATO. Only North America and Europe, working together in a strong NATO, can keep our one billion people safe in a more dangerous world. The participation by NATO partners will also be a distinctive feature of our Summit in Madrid. President Zelenskyy has been invited to address NATO leaders at the Madrid Summit and Prime Minister Garibashvili will also be invited to participate in one of the sessions, which shows the importance of our partnership. Invitations to participate have also been extended to Finland, Sweden, and the European Union, as well as to  our Asia-Pacific partners Australia, Japan, New Zealand, and the Republic of Korea. ET: What are your thoughts on the prospects for Finland and Sweden joining NATO? How do you think Turkey's concerns may be addressed before the Summit? The applications by Finland and Sweden to join our Alliance are historical. As NATO Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg said, “They send a clear message: aggression does not pay; intimidation does not work; and NATO’s door remains open.”  Finland’s and Sweden’s potential accession to NATO would make both countries safer. It would also make NATO stronger, given that both Finland and Sweden are strong democracies and resilient societies, have considerable military capabilities - including substantial reserves and advanced aircraft and naval forces, all able to work together with NATO – and are long-standing contributors to past and current NATO-led missions (in Afghanistan, in Kosovo, and in Iraq), as well as to NATO and Allied exercises. As the NATO Secretary General said: “We are now considering the next steps on Finland and Sweden’s path to join our Alliance; as we do this, we take into account the security interests of all Allies; when an Ally raises concerns, we address them seriously and we find common ground; so we are now working through Türkiye’s serious security concerns, including on terrorism. Türkiye is an important Ally, with a strategic location, playing a key role in the Black Sea, bordering Syria and Iraq, vital for our fight against ISIS. Türkiye is also the NATO Ally that has suffered more terrorist attacks, including at the hands of the PKK. We are now working together, in a constructive spirit, to find a united way forward. All Allies agree that NATO's door is open, that enlargement has been an historic success, and that we must continue to stand together as we face the greatest security crisis in a generation.” Let me add that from a security perspective, Finland and Sweden are in a better place now than they were before they applied. Many Allies have already made clear commitments to Finland and Sweden’s security; and NATO has increased our presence in the Baltic Sea, including with more exercises; for example, Finland and Sweden have been involved in several Allied exercises in recent weeks, including BALTOPS, bringing together 7,500 personnel from 14 Allies – including from Türkiye. This is a clear demonstration of NATO’s commitment to this region.

MEP Michael Gahler: Reform is a key issue when it comes to the rule of law and the judiciary

EU-Georgian relations and other issues were the topics of the Europe Time interview with MEP Michael Gahler, Group of the European People's Party (Christian Democrats). „We are open and prepared to support a real reform process. There is an ambition in your country to apply for EU membership that must succeed in line with its development, and I am afraid that recent months have not been very helpful in promoting your case. That is why we appeal to the Georgian partners to assess the situation and seek ways forward in the interest of the country. We are trying to defuse tension and get more constructive and cooperative ways to address issues done in Georgia. We encourage all steps in the right direction. We have undertaken enormous efforts to have the European Council three times in the country and through the Eastern Partnership. It is not usual, but we care. We are concerned, but we are also constructive in our approaches“. As for the association trio countries and their ambition, MEP Michael Gahler welcomes their ambitious agenda but stresses the importance of the reform. „We have a comprehensive framework with Georgia and this is an association agreement and deep and comprehensive free trade area which provides a huge spectrum of integration, cooperation, reform, and the reform is the key issue when it comes to rule of law and the Judiciary. And it is extremely important not only in Georgia but also in other countries in this neighborhood", - MEP Michael Gahler said. As for the EU membership perspective, MEP Michael Gahler mentioned that Article 41 says every European country can become a member, but the approach should be for all those who aspire to membership, to simply work on this huge and comprehensive cooperation agenda. So we are supportive, but all reactions in the wrong directions are not helpful so far last month and the last year's continuing confrontation has not been promoting your case. That is why we, friends of Georgia, are appealing to all stakeholders to get this done together. We are friendly partners“, - MEP Michael Gahler said.

President Tokayev won, but he owes his position to Russia - Jennifer Brick Murtazashvili Associate Professor

Jennifer Brick Murtazashvili Associate Professor, Director of the Center for Governance and Markets sums up the developments in Kazakhstan in an interview with Europe Time. What outcomes have the country, how did the internal power struggle end, and how are the interests of this or that country expressed there. These issues are being discussed in an interview with Jennifer Brick Murtazashvili whose field of activity includes Central Asia, among other areas. ET: In your opinion, what is the current state of influence in Central Asia? The US has no clear strategy in Central Asia. Right now, it is not clear what US interests are. So, since the US withdrew from Afghanistan, it is not clear what US policy is or what US strategy is. Both Russia and China have a strong mutual interest in Central Asia. This is not a competing interest; they have a mutual interest. Russia is providing security, and China is providing infrastructure and economic development. So the division of neighbors seems to be between Russia and China. ET: Experts point to the internal struggle: what brought the protest and what was its origin? This was a protest about internal issues that started out as a peaceful protest over energy prices. President Tokayev called on Russia to protect and help his position because he did not trust the security services. The security services were under the control of Nazarbayev. So, we saw some kind of little struggle between Nazarbaev`s people and the Tokayev`s people. And they took advantage of the protests to side with one another. ET: What was the outcome? The result is that Tokayev won. He took control of the security services. He invited Russia to strengthen his position. Now he is moving Nazarbaev's family members from different positions of power. They control a lot of wealth and resources. Kazakhstan is a country of oil and gas, and the Nazarbaev family has been appointed to many different positions. This means that Tokayev has put his people in, but he is now dependent on Russia. So, Tokayev called for CSTO or Russian troops. NowTokayev is in charge, but he owes his position to Russia. ET: When we talk about the `outcomes`, the increasing influence of Russia has probably become even more visible. Yes, absolutely. Russia's influence is increasing in Central Asia. They have seven thousand troops in Tajikistan, several hundred troops in Kirgistan, and are already in Kazakhstan. I do not think that Russia was looking for this opportunity. It was unexpected, but the withdrawal of the United States now creates competition, and Russia and China quickly feel the space left by the US.

Russia may use its forces to play muscles to raise the political stakes in negotiations - Hanna Shelest

Tensions over Ukraine are getting worse. Experts discuss the real danger of conflict. The world awaits written responses from the US and Russia to their suggestions, while intelligence services from several countries point to the Kremlin's clear plan to destabilize Ukraine. According to reports, the British government received information on the Russian government's plans to establish a pro-Russian leader in Kyiv. In an interview with Europe Time Hanna Shelest, Director of Security Programmes at Foreign Policy Council “Ukrainian Prism” discussed Ukraine's expectations and topics on how they analyze threats. ET: Let me start with the Associated Trio, as this was a topic you and your coworkers were discussing. Why is this format so crucial right now? It is an important issue from a political point of view because it is always easier to advocate for some changes or positions when it is not just one country. A louder voice and a strong position are important and need coordination. All three countries have association agreements. We have ambitions for EU integration, but at the same time, we have very practical issues to move forward in relations with the EU, such as roaming-free agreements, open sky, etc., that can be promoted. And also, we have our individual tracks. In addition, these states are sharing threats and risks inside the country as well as external threats. When we have three presidents coming and talking, it definitely has more value and more power in Brussels than single approaches. In some ways, it also reminds many European countries of the Visegrad countries' path, with similar goals and decisions. So, for some Western European countries, it is certainly a positive reminder of that path of European integration, and it can help in promoting A3 integration. ET: The context is critical right now, especially in light of the ongoing processes in Ukraine. The countries are continually threatened by Russia. The question is how the countries share the perceptions of threats. And how they see their future. Moldova is a neutral country. Ukraine and Georgia would like to become NATO members and are searching for a NATO mechanism for protection and cooperation, while Moldova has its cooperation with NATO at a certain level. As a result, three countries see this format of the Association Trio as promoting political and economic stability rather than security issues. Perhaps when we discuss security concerns such as resilience, cyber issues, or critical infrastructures, those issues can be considered in relations with the EU? Hard security and conflict are not topics for which the European Union is ready to work at the same level as these countries would like to. ET: Special attention is being paid to Ukraine right now, where there is an unprecedented concentration of Russian forces along its borders; your colleagues also mentioned the danger of conflict; you represent this country (Ukraine), and I'm concerned about your view. The risk of war has been high for eight years. The question is that now the scale of the Russian build-up is much greater than before. At the same time, they may use these forces to play muscles - to raise the political stakes in negotiations. So they bring in more forces and more strategic weapons just to demonstrate that they are serious about their request. So, in this way, we should not be panicking. We must be determined to protect ourselves and maintain contact with our allies in order to send a signal to Russia that we are not alone. ET: What's your opinion about the accelerating membership process of NATO in the face of Russian aggression? The problem is that we still have the biggest fear of many European countries that do not support the immediate membership of Ukraine and Georgia that, by this act, they would provoke Russia. They are afraid to give us MAP for fear of being attacked. But Russia is already considering NATO as a threat, and it has already provoked the conflict in Europe, and many raise a question, will it act like this if Ukraine and Georgia have had the membership action plans. Ukraine and Georgia should use each of their opportunities to increase practical cooperation. It does not matter how we name them, MAP, or annual national plan. What is important is the substance, to speak about the real plan of cooperation that will be on a level that we have never had before. I mean, to be almost members in terms of cooperation without formal membership. But at the same time, we are consistent in our statements about why we would like to have a membership, and it is not just protection from Russian aggression, as we are ready to contribute to Euro-Atlantic and European security. That is why many countries are waiting for us to be more than just security consumers; we need Article 5, but we also want to be security providers for other European countries. ET: What are your expectations from the talks between the US and its allies and Russia? We definitely expect at least a decrease in escalation and build-up at the Ukrainian border. We don’t believe that Russia will give up or that NATO will accept the Russian ultimatum. But if the level of tensions decreases and the conflict moves to the negotiation table, that will already be a good result. However, we do not have high expectations. Russia needs these talks both for domestic propaganda to show that they decide the future of Europe just between Moscow and Washington, as it used to be in Soviet times. And also, for international narratives promotion, making partners choose the side and some European states doubting whether Russia has reasons to behave like this.

Whether or not Putin succeeds with this kind of illusionary ‘grand power’ scheme depends a lot on the developments at the Ukraine border - Professor Klaus Larres

The US is planning to transfer Mi-17 military helicopters to Ukraine. Earlier, Ukraine received 90 tons of lethal weapons from the US. The Baltic States sent US-made anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles to Ukraine. The United States and NATO partners will conduct a 12-day maritime exercise in the Mediterranean Sea, beginning Monday, US Department of Defense spokesperson John Kirby said on Friday. The maritime exercise, called "Neptune Strike '22," will run through February 4 and is meant to demonstrate and test NATO's maritime capabilities, according to Kirby. Russia is also set to hold maneuvers at the same time. The announcement came just hours after US Secretary of State Antony Blinken held talks with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, in a bid to de-escalate tensions surrounding fears that Moscow might be preparing to invade Ukraine. Klaus Larres, professor at the University of North Carolina, spoke to Europe Time about what to expect from the discussions between the US, its allies, and Russia, whether they have a chance, and what purpose they serve. ET: How do you evaluate the dialogue between the US, its allies, and Russia? It is a very crucial time and I think we should not be discussing just relations between the United States and Russia, like during the cold war, but Europe should also have a role. The European Union should be a number three partner in these talks. Of course, when we talk about Ukraine, you really need to involve the Ukrainians themselves. If Georgia were on the agenda, it should be a part of the discussion too. But certainly, the EU should be a part of them. ET: What perspectives do you see from these talks? We don't know whether Putin ever expected something to come out of these talks, but refusing to engage in talks would look bad to the international community and the Russian public. The same applies to the U.S. and their public. Neither Putin nor Biden could not engage in discussions. Of course, the West should try to talk to Putin and Russia, but whether it is productive in the end is difficult to say. Last week was not productive; both sides have certain viewpoints, and they didn't move at all on them. ET: If the talk was a non-starter from the beginning, where should we look for its purpose? In the eyes of both international and domestic public opinion, I believe the US had no choice but to engage in negotiations with the Russians. I think the same applies to Putin. He probably needs an excuse if he really wishes to invade Ukraine. Then he can turn around and say "See, I tried to talk to them, I tried to have negotiations but this dialogue was in vain, they did not wish to make any concessions." This would be his justification for claiming to have done his best to make an invasion unnecessary. As the talks were unproductive, despite his allegedly best attempts, he will claim that he had no choice but to embark on some sort of new invasion of Ukraine. ET: Do you see the risk of war? Yes, I think there is a real risk of war, unfortunately. It will be difficult for Putin to say, after his tough rhetoric and his many demands that have not been fulfilled, "I massed over 100.000 troops at the border of Ukraine, I deployed 1500 tanks and much ammunition and other heavy weapons, at a great cost to the Russian economy, and now I just withdraw them again without having realized any of my demands." To the Russian public, this would appear to be a disaster. This would not look like Putin as a strong man and a powerful man. That would look like Putin as a weakling, and we know Putin hates looking weak. So he has to do something, and if the talks remain stalled, the only option he has is either a full invasion or a hybrid invasion, cyber warfare that has already started, or maybe some partial occupation of Ukraine. But it is unlikely that he will just withdraw and say, "I just wanted to talk and now I am going back home without having achieved any concrete results." This is unlikely. ET: What does this signal for Georgia? I think other countries, like Georgia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and other neighboring states, will view Putin’s actions very carefully. And Putin knows that. He wants to put his foot down and claim that there is a Russian sphere of influence and that he is not flexible about it. He wishes to reestablish Russia as a powerful geopolitical player; he wishes to increase and maintain Moscow’s global influence. What is happening in Ukraine is clearly intimidating other countries in the Russian neighborhood, including Georgia. They will be even less inclined than they are already to pick a fight with Putin. I believe the Georgian government tries to steer a very carefully calibrated course toward Russia. It does not want to be too friendly, but it does not wish to be too unfriendly toward Moscow either, despite Georgia’s serious territorial conflicts with Russia. And that is probably the lesson for many countries to learn: „you have to make peace with Russia to some extent and you need to find some sort of friendly accommodation with Moscow or you will have serious problems“, - And this is the lesson Putin wants to convey. This is certainly the lesson Putin wishes other countries to learn and then stick to – „There is a Russian sphere of influence – essentially the territory of the former Soviet Union - and all the countries in it have to consult closely with Moscow and in the last resort have to accept Russia’s wishes“. Whether or not Putin succeeds with this kind of illusionary ‘grand power’ scheme depends a lot on the developments at the Russian/Ukraine border and how the US and the EU countries are dealing with the crisis and whether or not they are standing up to Putin’s aggressive behavior.

This is a moment when the maximum amount of consolidation of society is very important for the survival of both Georgia and Ukraine - Ian Bond

Europe Time Interview with Ian Bond, Director of Foreign Policy, Centre for European Reform, London. Ian Bond joined the Centre for European Reform as director of foreign policy in April 2013. Prior to that, he was a member of the British diplomatic service for 28 years. His most recent appointment was as political counselor and joint head of the foreign and security policy group in the British Embassy, Washington (2007-12), where he focused on US foreign policy towards Europe, the former Soviet Union, Asia, and Africa. He was British Ambassador to Latvia from 2005-07, receiving a CVO (Commander of the Royal Victorian Order) for his work on the Queen’s state visit in 2006. ET: What are your expectations from the dialogue between the US and its allies and Russia? My expectations are very low because the two sides are talking about completely different subjects. We had the extension of the New START treaty at the very beginning of Biden's period of office. But still, some arms control work could usefully be done, on shorter-range nuclear weapons. Some replacement of the INF treaty with effective verification – which is something we haven’t had in recent times. Also, restoring the confidence-building measures we used to have, which Russia blocked a few years ago, on notifying military exercises and allowing international observers to see what is going on and make sure nothing threatening is being done. As for the recent agenda, what Russia wants cannot possibly be on the agenda, which involves the US saying that NATO will not accept new members like Georgia or Ukraine and other countries that want to join. ET: What do you think about Ukraine and Georgia joining NATO or accelerating the process in the face of Russian aggression? At this stage, much as I might think the membership of Georgia and Ukraine would be a good thing, it is not going to happen very quickly and, with the position of countries like Germany and France, it is probably not going to happen at all. So it seems to me that there are a number of steps that both Georgia and Ukraine can take. First, both Georgia and Ukraine are internally divided at a time when they need internal solidarity. I am not going to say who is to blame for this. But Saakasvhili has been arrested. Poroshenko is threatened with arrest or prison time in Ukraine. It seems to me that this is a moment when the maximum amount of consolidation of society is very important for the survival of both Georgia and Ukraine. The second thing is that, in terms of cooperation with the EU and NATO, both Georgia and Ukraine have to make the maximum effort to reach NATO and EU standards. That will help the countries economically and also in military terms. And the third is in terms of developing bilateral relationships; for example, the UK sent anti-tank missiles to Ukraine yesterday to assist the Ukrainians. ET: What steps should be taken by Ukraine and Georgia? I think both Ukraine and Georgia need to prioritize what the most important things are that the military forces do not have. They need to identify them, with NATO countries or other countries as well, to prioritize which systems and what training they most need, and then go to countries bilaterally and try to get them to provide that assistance. It seems to me that both Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova need to make themselves as resilient as possible to deter any kind of Russian aggression. There is no question that it is a crucial time for European security. This is the most dangerous time we have seen since a long time ago. Putin sees weakness in the west and in the countries he is facing. He sees internal political divisions and sees Georgia and Ukraine as weak, and he sees Biden as a weak president facing a divided US. And we have a presidential election coming up in France, and France is quite distracted. We have a new government in Germany that is still trying to work out what its policies are. And in the UK, we have a country that is weaker because of Brexit and is internally divided because of Brexit. So I think Putin probably sees this moment as an opportunity. That makes it a very dangerous period for European security. If you look at the size of the Russian economy, it is very small compared with the economies of NATO countries. So the question is, can NATO use the advantages that it has? If it does so, then it should be able to deter any further misbehavior from Putin. But if NATO countries all go in different directions, playing different games, then we will be much weaker.

The Turkish Ambassador's opinion on the "3 + 3" format - exclusive

Fatma Jeren Yazgan, the Turkish Ambassador to Georgia, spoke exclusively to Europe Time on the "3 + 3" format. „It is one of the platforms that bring countries in the region together to discuss some of the projects where all the regions can benefit. It is specifically important, and we think that it is a good idea, but there can be other formats that we can talk about with our partners. "-Fatma Jeren Yazgan said. Regarding Georgia's refusal to join, the ambassador states that this is a Georgian decision that Turkey respects. „It is Georgia's decision, which we respect, but we would not, of course, take or lead any decision in Georgia's absence about Georgia. We would like Georgia to be present, but it depends on whether or not the Georgian government and people would like to be there. We inform the government of Georgia before and after the meeting and keep them informed of what is being discussed. We met with the foreign minister and informed them of what we talked about. There will be other meetings. Accordingly, we will see. There is nothing that is pressed about this platform. So, anyway, we work with the Georgian government bilaterally as well as in the format of Azerbaijan, Turkey, Georgia“,....the Turkish Ambassador said. As for the NATO-Russia Council: „So dialogue and diplomacy are important. Of course, there is a NATO united stance about the free will of the countries choosing their security arrangements, and that cannot be discussed with 3rd parties. Turkey's position is reflected in the united NATO position. Turkey supports Georgia's membership as long as the Georgian government and people prefer it, and Georgia is committed to Euro Atlantic integration“, - Fatma Jeren Yazgan said. Turkey and Iran have proposed a 3+3 format cooperation mechanism for the Caucasus with Azerbaijan, Russia, Armenia, and Georgia, Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said on Jan. 29 after a meeting with his Iranian counterpart, Javad Zarif. “We are planning a cooperation on the South Caucasus in a 3+3 format with the proposal of Azerbaijani President İlham Aliyev, with the support of [Russian President Vladimir] Mr. Putin, our president, and other leaders,” Çavuşoğlu said, speaking at a joint press conference with the Iranian minister. Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, on the sidelines of the recent Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) meeting in Islamabad, said that Turkey hopes Georgia will also attend the upcoming meeting. Turkey believes that permanent peace is possible through mutual security-based cooperation between the states and people of the South Caucasus region. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov regretted that Georgia did not join the first meeting of the 3+3 format last December, saying Russia had asked Turkiye, Azerbaijan, and Armenia to explain to Georgia the benefits of joining. "Taking part in the format will not oblige them (Georgia) to anything," the diplomat said. He also welcomed the first meeting between representatives of Turkiye and Armenia that took place on Jan. 14 in Moscow as the two countries pursue efforts for normalization, adding that Russia had helped organize the meeting. Georgia will not attend the 3+3 Caucasus platform in Turkey, envoy says.

Disrupting the Anaklia project was clearly part of Moscow’s agenda, Paul Goble says

Paul Goble, Special Adviser and Representative of former US Secretary of State James Baker, who also served as the analyst of the Bureau of Intelligence and Research at the State Department, spoke to `Europe Time` in an exclusive interview about the importance of US investment in Georgia and major infrastructure projects. In this context, he concentrates on the Anaklia project's implementation. Paul Goble: „Disrupting this project was clearly part of Moscow’s agenda. I don’t think it was its highest priority...„The Rule of law is critical for continued Western investment. Westerners don't want to go anywhere with their money unless they are certain that the courts will protect them and allow them to get their money out. So yes, the judicial system is critical“. The subject of a `Europe Time` interview with the former US Assistant Secretary of State for Post-Soviet and Baltic Affairs was also continuing processes in the region and already in Central Asia, reinforcing the idea that security in the Black Sea is critical. Paul Goble: The West is in a difficult position given that the president of Kazakhstan invited Russian intervention. I hope it has made clear to all the parties what its leaders have said in public that we do not believe such intervention is justified or legal, given that it is being used to suppress a popular uprising. „The American presence in Afghanistan had become unsupportable inside the US because the public had been demanding a withdrawal for a long time and the government had failed to provide a rationale for staying. I don’t think that the US withdrawal ensured an increase in Russian influence, but it provided Moscow with a greater opportunity to get involved. I am not sure that Moscow’s influence will increase as a result of its intervention. "It may intimidate some, but it will infuriate others," the analyst said, as for the extent to which the US withdrawal from Afghanistan has contributed to Russia's growing supremacy in Central Asia. The former top State Department official also highlights China's role in these procedures in an exclusive conversation with `Europe Time`. Paul Goble: China backs Russia’s intervention because it opposes giving in to popular pressure and because it knows that Russia will “own” the results and that these results may not strengthen Russia in the region but weaken it and give Beijing a greater chance. Last summer, US Acting Assistant Secretary Philip Reeker spoke exclusively to Europe Time on the necessity of creating an appealing environment for investors, emphasizing the importance of large infrastructure projects such as Anaklia. He also discussed the possibility of bilateral trade connections between Georgia and the United States. See this page for more information

The U.S. Embassy spokesperson: Countries must stay vigilant to identify and respond to disinformation so that it does not adversely affect or influence its citizens

In a comment with Europe Time, The U.S. Embassy spokesperson talks about economic ties between the U.S. and Georgia. The topic of the comment was also Russia and the threats posed by it, which remain the main challenge for our country. According to an Embassy spokesperson economic ties between the U.S. and Georgia continue to deepen and improve and the trade relationship between the two countries last year approached $1 billion. As for Russia and the threats posed by them, the U.S. Embassy spokesperson mentioned that the countries must stay vigilant to identify, classify, and respond to disinformation so that it does not adversely affect or influence their citizens. ET: What are the prospects for the implementation of the US-Georgia Free Trade Agreement, what does its realization depend on? The U.S. Embassy spokesperson: Economic ties between the U.S. and Georgia continue to deepen and improve. Our trade relationship last year approached $1 billion. United States Trade Representative (USTR) has the lead on starting Free Trade Agreement (FTA) negotiations with Georgia or any other country. ET: Russia and the threats posed by it remain the main challenge for our country as well as a disinformation campaign that is becoming increasingly difficult to deal with. The United States has done a lot to promote civil society and media development in Georgia. What can you say about how the country can deal with these threats even more effectively together with our allies? The U.S. Embassy spokesperson: Disinformation is pervasive, not just in Georgia, but throughout the world, including in the United States. Countries must stay vigilant to identify, classify, and respond to disinformation so that it does not adversely affect or influence its citizens. That is why an independent, pluralistic media is so important. Government should make every effort to safeguard journalists, both physically and in the media space, so they can accurately and objectively inform the public and hold institutions accountable.

Ben Hodges: It will take firm resolve by NATO and our partners, including Ukraine and Georgia, to make it clear to the Kremlin that we will not tolerate further violations of the sovereignty of European nations and international law

In an exclusive interview with Europe Time, Ben Hodges - Pershin Chair in Strategic Studies at CEPA (the Center for European Policy Analysis) (Commander of the US Armed Forces in Europe 2014-2017) talks about the ongoing processes on the Belarus-Poland border, the building-up of Russian troops on the Ukrainian border, and about the need of firm resolve by NATO and partners as well as a strategy by NATO, and by the USA, for the greater Black Sea region, including Georgia. ET: Good day Mr. General, thank you for finding the time to talk to us. There are so many things happening, I do not know where to start asking questions from. If we look closely at the current events, everything is interconnected. Beginning from refugees on the borderline between Belarus and Poland used as a threatening tool by Lukashenko in response to sanctions to the deployment of Russian troops and military equipment along the Ukrainian border. Against this background, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland are starting to talk about the enactment of NATO Article 4 of. The statements of the NATO Secretary-General regarding Ukraine are also noteworthy. How would you assess these processes, given tensions have reached a peak, both in the South Caucasus and in Eastern Europe? An expansion of the current kinetic conflict in Ukraine is not inevitable…but the pieces are increasingly being put into place should the Kremlin decide to act. It was important for Secretary-General Stoltenberg to welcome Ukraine For Min Kuleba and to express NATO’s concerns about the situation. ET: What does Georgia look like and where is it in the current political landscape? The processes are quite disturbing and full of challenges in the country as well... As you know, the third president of Georgia is on hunger strike in prison, and for almost 14 days now, Georgian MP Helen Khoshtaria has been on hunger strike too demanding to take Mr. Saakashvili to civil hospital. This entire situation highlights the need for a strategy by NATO, and by the USA, for the greater Black Sea region, including Georgia. Georgia is an anchor on the eastern end of this strategically important region and is the place which should be the gateway between Europe and Eurasia. So, the US Government and NATO have an interest in seeing Georgia stable, secure, democratic, resistant to the Kremlin’s malign influence, and living up to its potential as a liberal, democratic society. I don’t easily comment on the internal politics of other countries, especially of friends like Georgia. But I am concerned by the terrible, disrespectful treatment of former President Saakashvili. Regardless of whether or not he is charged with offenses, to publicly humiliate him like this is unbefitting a nation that wants to be respected and wants to be a part of Europe. I am disappointed to see this shameful behavior. ET: The recent aggravation of the situation in Ukraine, the refugee crisis on the Belarusian-Polish border... How can events develop? I see the latest developments in and around Ukraine as a continuation - the next phase of what happened in and around Ukraine back in the Spring. Since that time, despite the false statements of Minister Shoigu, I think it is clear that there never really was a return of those Russian Federation (RF) forces back to their barracks - Russia left a lot of logistics in place after the Zapad 21 exercise. And there has been a lot of very sharp/blatant messaging over the last few months by President Putin and questioning or boasts by others about the future of Ukraine and its legitimacy. And now the latest movements/deployments… In other words, a steady escalation of capability and pressure in the region that never really stopped. This has implications for Georgia as well, given its proximity to Crimea and the Sea of Azov. We know that the Russians only stop when they are stopped. It will take firm resolve by NATO and our partners, including Ukraine and Georgia, to make it clear to the Kremlin that we will not tolerate further violations of the sovereignty of European nations and international law. ET: France has made a concrete and very clear statement of support for Ukraine in relation to Russia… In general, the EU is not really passive… I think that the weaponization of migrants along the border of Belarus with Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia is connected somehow to the RF activities in and around Ukraine, not coincidental, either as reconnaissance or disruption or distraction or all of the above. Very senior Latvian officials told me recently that they see this at least as reconnaissance. They've observed BLR (or RF?) Special Operations Forces out there timing the responses of Latvian border security forces to attempted incursions by migrants. They also think this could be a distraction, something to draw attention away from what they're doing in/around Ukraine. I was in Kyiv and Odessa on two separate trips in the last few weeks. They are very uneasy there. I think the EU is finally taking serious steps about the migrant issue on the border but their attention should be much more on the Kremlin, less so on Lukashenko. Lukashenko deserves any sanctions and other negative actions that come his way but there’s not much more to do to him. The key to the migrant/border crisis is the Kremlin, and right now they are feeling no pressure and have no incentive to stop it. Of course, Turkey is very unhappy that the EU is blaming them in part for the flights of migrants into Belarus which also plays into the Kremlin scheme exacerbating divisions inside the Alliance and/or between Turkey (key to the Black Sea) and Europe. The Suwalki Corridor is also a key part of this. I think that the weaponization of migrants along the border of Belarus with Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia is connected somehow to the RF activities in and around Ukraine, not coincidental, either as reconnaissance or disruption or distraction or all of the above. Very senior Latvian officials told me recently that they see this at least as reconnaissance. They've observed BLR (or RF?) Special Operations Forces out there timing the responses of Latvian border security forces to attempted incursions by migrants. They also think this could be a distraction, something to draw attention away from what they're doing in/around Ukraine. I was in Kyiv and Odessa on two separate trips in the last few weeks. They are very uneasy there. I think the EU is finally taking serious steps about the migrant issue on the border but their attention should be much more on the Kremlin, less so on Lukashenko. Lukashenko deserves any sanctions and other negative actions that come his way but there’s not much more to do to him. The key to the migrant/border crisis is the Kremlin, and right now they are feeling no pressure and have no incentive to stop it. Of course, Turkey is very unhappy that the EU is blaming them in part for the flights of migrants into Belarus which also plays into the Kremlin scheme exacerbating divisions inside the Alliance and/or between Turkey (key to the Black Sea) and Europe. The Suwalki Corridor is also a key part of this. This narrow bit of Polish-Lithuanian territory between Belarus and Kaliningrad is strategically vital because, as you know, it is the land-link between our Baltic Allies (LTU, LVA, and EST) and the rest of NATO/EU. If it were cut/blocked by RF and BLR forces then we’d have a real problem. There is the potential (not inevitable) but the potential for this situation with the migrants on the border of BLR (which is entirely a creation of BLR and RF) to escalate into a major issue, perhaps with kinetic action, at which time the RF might decide it has to step in due to the “humanitarian crisis” or something and, in the process “temporarily” close the Corridor, with its two roads and one railroad. Not likely but it’s completely feasible in my view. So, all in all, this is classic Russian “warfare” - use of all sorts of tools, leverage, threats, language, disinformation, migrants. ET: Energy resources and Russian gas are also one of the main tools of Russia, the example of Moldova is enough for it... Russian gas is clearly a “weapon” and that is part of the overall Kremlin mix as well, all of which is to unsettle/destabilize the EU, present Ukraine to the West as a “failed state”, and keep us all off balance. As a cold winter approaches and while Germany is led by a “care-taker” government until the new Coalition government is in place...hopefully by mid-December. The US administration is right to be concerned about this and I'm glad that Secretary Blinken is finally speaking plainly, and that Secretary of Defense Austin has spoken so plainly, including when he was in the Black Sea region a couple of weeks ago.

EU Spokesperson: We are supporting the three South Caucasus countries, including through the Eastern Partnership

In an exclusive comment with Europe Time Peter Stano, EU Spokesperson for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy spoke about statements relating to the proposal of a 3+3 format of cooperation for the South Caucasus. „The EU is aware of reports and statements relating to the proposal of a 3+3 format of cooperation for the South Caucasus. On our side, we are supporting the three South Caucasus countries, including through the Eastern Partnership. The EU remains committed to work on supporting peaceful and stable South Caucasus and it is actively engaged contributing to peace-building and post-conflict rehabilitation. It has played an important role in the release of prisoners and the handing-over of minefield maps. The EU has also supported people affected by the conflict with more than €17 million in humanitarian assistance, including for demining and early recovery. The EU is also ready to support border de-escalation and delimitation by providing technical assistance, as needed by the sides, and encourages connectivity and the reopening of economic cooperation in the South Caucasus. Looking ahead, a comprehensive settlement is necessary to put an end to more than three decades of conflict and suffering. To achieve this goal, the EU will continue to be in active contact with relevant international partners, particularly the OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chairs, and fully supports them in carrying out their mandate by working with Armenia and Azerbaijan on a comprehensive solution to all outstanding issues“, - Peter Stano said. Related article US Secretary of Defense: As regards the 3-3 proposal, Russia should focus on honoring the 2008 ceasefire commitments, before promoting any new discussion platform

MEP Rasa Jukneviciene: Russia`s plans are very clear. I would be very careful when Russia is on the side of one or another alliance

Diplomatic Crisis among Turkey and other western countries, the 3-3 proposal, and Russia`s role, EU-Georgian relations, and other issues were the topics of the Europe Time interview with MEP Rasa Jukneviciene, Lithuania Group of the European People's Party (Christian Democrats) Member, Vice-Chair of the EU-Georgia Parliamentary Association Committee. Rasa Jukneviciene is a Lithuanian politician, who has been serving as a Member of the European Parliament since 2019. She served as Minister of Defense of Lithuania from 2008 to 2012. _Do the upcoming elections have a special importance to the EU-Georgia relations? Every election is important if it is democratic. The EU members carefully follow the elections, including the quality of elections, in the member states. Of course, we are interested in the outcome of the election within the EU, because it touches upon us directly, but we are also closely following the situation in the countries like Georgia, in our Eastern Partnership states, because the political situation is not stable along our borders. Of course, like every nation, my country - Lithuania - also experiences political instability from time to time. But the situation in Georgia is different: the process of creating stable European-type political parties that are able to talk to each other and find compromise - that is taking very long. Political parties are too tied to personalities and their conflicts, instead of being focused on certain issues. So, the election is important for the future of Georgia and especially in terms of how ruling parties, (I mean everywhere, be it in Ukraine, Belarus, Russia or Georgian and other countries) conduct the election: whether they manage to refrain from using administrative resources, how they treat the opposition, and whether they act in a democratic way. So it is very important for Georgia and every country and we are following what is going on. _In this regard, what issue deserves special attention from Georgia`s partners? Judiciary System, the behavior of the ruling party, because they have a lot of resources, especially administrative ones, how money is issued and attitudes toward the opposition and justice. Supremacy of law is most important for every democracy, so here are the fundamental rights of a citizen, a fundamentally important issue for the future of Georgia. Without that, there is no possibility to think about membership in the EU and other democratic alliances. _It is noteworthy here that Georgia is preparing to apply for full EU membership in 2024. We were very much supportive when we got this message from the ruling party about their expectations and promises. As I understand it, they have decided to put it into their program. It is a very important message, but one thing is to make a good presentation or to make a good statement but another thing is to act as European. This is very important for politicians, for all sides to try to act as European, to demonstrate to the European Union partners that they are ready to apply for membership. Myself, I believe that the Georgian people deserve such decisions and you have friends in the European Union and they are very much in favor. Unfortunately, sometimes your politicians don`t understand that for your friends in the European Union it does not matter so much which political party is in the government. The most important is what they are doing. Sometimes I think that some politicians in the ruling party think that if we are criticizing them, it means we are working for the opposition. Of course, it is not like this and we would just like to have Georgia together with us in our family. So, I am hopeful. And I saw the results of the opinion poll that more than half of Georgians are in favor of the European Path and want Georgia to become a member of the European Union in the future. But for that Georgians need successful European reforms. And if Georgia is not back to the path of these pro-European reforms, especially the rule of law, it will be very difficult to believe that Georgia will be ready for such an appeal in 2024. _Acceleration of European integration is the goal of the Association trio countries Georgia, Ukraine, and Moldova. How do you evaluate their ambitions? We work very hard here, in the European Parliament to convince the politicians from different political groups that the Association Trio strategy is the only way to have the breakthrough in the Eastern Partnership. But it depends mainly on the countries. Today I see that Moldova is becoming a front-runner in its aspirations. Ithas very strong aspirations and the political will to become a European country by making the reforms. They are Europeans, but have to come as as close to the European Union as possible. Georgia has always been a front runner. Georgia has been the leader in the democratization in the region, but now many friends among the Greens, Liberals, Social Democrats, Conservatives at the European Parliament are very disappointed. Eespecially, after the agreement brokered by the EU’s Charles Michel's was rejected: when one opposition party refused to sign it and afterwards the ruling party annulled it. In such circumstances, what can the EU do for Georgia? The proposal from the highest level was rejected. Now everyone hesitates to try to do something. Of course, the Trio is very important, but disappointment is making the situation worse. More needs to be done. The EU aspirations are inseparable from the democratization of the country, justice, the rule of law, the fight with corruption, the necessary reforms. _The country also aspires to NATO membership. The experience of your country is also interesting in this regard. NATO is also an organization for democracies. So, this is also very important. I remember our aspirations to become a member of NATO before 2004, we had the same requirements on the table. NATO membership is not only about military reforms, it refers to the state efforts, including many other challenging issues. If Georgia gets back to the path of successful pro-European reforms, it means that Georgia will be closer and closer to NATO membership. So, this is almost the same process, but I am very much in favor of Georgia and Ukraine to become members of NATO. I think it was a mistake when in 2008 those countries were not invited to a membership action plan. But this is history now. Today, your country has to do even more to convince the leading countries in NATO to make this decision because we have Russia next to our borders, which is very much against NATO enlargement. It makes matters much more complicated.. So you need more successful reforms than before. It is a hard job. You need more active work to do in capitals.. Without good messages to the reforms of your country, it will not be a good environment to make decisions. If the countries in the European Union or NATO will see that they might admit into the club some trouble makers, some countries with big problems that are permanently in the political crisis, well, the politicians that are making the decisions might not have the best feelings about that. First of all, you need to have some kind of an agreement among the political parties, at least to start to speak. At least to start trying to find a common ground for this very nice nation and its future. At least to have a signature on a common statement, for example about NATO and EU membership, to elaborate necessary steps that the country needs to take in terms of the reforms and the political environment in the country. Without that agreement among the politicians from all sides of the political spectrum, with such battles when the leader of oppositions is in prison, when the former president is in prison, when justice is under the concern, you can make one appeal statement after another on how you want to become a member of NATO. If it is followed by bad news from Georgia, I am not sure if any politician will be happy to make such decisions on MAP or membership. Maybe I sound pessimistic, but I know that in the long term Georgia will be part of NATO, EU. However, on the other hand, today I don´t see a responsible political society, be it one or another political group to go together for that. And Russia, the Kremlin is doing also their job. They are trying to keep this chaos going. And this is what concerns you mainly, because we, your friends at the European Parliament, cannot even do more for Georgia when we, for example, are attacked by your Prime Minister. _You mentioned Russia and I`d like to ask you about the 3+3 format. As regards the 3-3 proposal, our international partners say that Russia should focus on honoring the 2008 ceasefire commitments, before promoting any new discussion platform... Russia`s plans are very clear. They want to keep Georgia far from NATO and the European Path. They think this is an alternative for Georgia. So it is Georgia`s choice to go or not. So I would be very careful when Russia is somewhere inside, on the side of one or another alliance. Georgia has to be back on the path of successful pro-European reforms and does not have to fight against European Union or someone in European Parliament. It is hard to say how to be back on the same track as it was proposed by Charles Michel and how to deal with European Union Leadership, but this is a task for your government. On the other hand, I think that Georgia needs some kind of restart at the highest political level, a new drive. Before your leaders take responsibility and stop this very brutal fight between Ivanishvili-Saakashvili, it will not be easy to overcome the situation. And only Russia will benefit from that situation. It will also depend on the people, if there is enough wise understanding of the importance of the free media, a stable political system, and the rule of law. It is up to the people. I understand that many people think about how to survive in the current economic situation, but Russia will not provide a better economy to Georgia. There is a different statehood in the European Union. Look at the Baltic states - today and before the membership. _How will NATO member Turkey's recent tensions with the West affect its future relations, given that Turkey supports Georgia's membership in the alliance? I think it will be solved. As I see, every side wants to deescalate the situation. Turkey is a very important country geopolitically. I am happy that Turkey is a great supporter of Georgia’s NATO membership and you have to keep this going and good relations with Turkey for Georgia are crucial. But on the other hand, we have to be very careful when it is something new with Russian participation, I mean Kremlin participation. I understand that some kind of disappointment comes when still MAP was not provided for Georgia, but you have to be patient. Of course, the time will come. Of course, NATO decisions are taken by all countries together, so it is not enough that, for example, Lithuania and the USA are supporters. We need consensus to make decisions. All countries are important in NATO.

Diego Colas: Georgia can only be stronger if democratic institutions are reinforced

`Georgia can only be stronger if democratic institutions are reinforced`, - Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the French Republic to Georgia, Diego Colas, said in an exclusive comment with Europe Time. `Like we have said, together with my colleagues' ambassadors from the EU, we commend the Georgian citizens, as well as the dedicated electoral staff and observers, for taking part in this important democratic Rendez-Vous. We also welcomed that a full-fledged international electoral mission was deployed and very much supported its conclusions. In that statement, we noted with satisfaction that amendments to the electoral code that we had recommended had improved the legal framework, which is good. We have also pointed to a number of shortcomings that remain and that, in our view, require urgent additional efforts, before the second round as well as beyond. I have expressed my concerns several times in the past few months, especially about the need to improve the protection of journalists, without which there cannot be a healthy democratic European-style state. I have underlined the importance of a judiciary that is truly independent and of a robust commitment to the rule of law. My view is that, given the present issues and challenges that Georgia is facing, Georgia can only be stronger if those efforts are undertaken, if democratic institutions are thus reinforced, and if the judiciary and the rule of law are widely seen as worthy of respect and full of integrity", - Diego Colas said.

MEP Markéta Gregorová: Georgian people have shown that even in a tense atmosphere, they want to exercise their democratic rights in a peaceful way

`Georgian people have shown that even in a tense atmosphere, they want to exercise their democratic rights in a peaceful way`, - MEP MEP Markéta Gregorová (Group of the Greens/European Free Alliance) Said in an exclusive comment with Europe Time. "As we have observed, Saturday's elections have been mostly well-managed and calm. I thank the Georgian people for their approach to these elections - they have shown that even in a tense atmosphere, they want to exercise their democratic rights in a peaceful way. What we condemn is the situation just before the elections - with our own eyes we have seen advertisements inciting violence, heard testaments of pressure against various candidates, or the disproportionality of campaign funding between the government party and others. I do believe, however, that all the parties will now start to focus on fulfilling their promises, both to their citizens and to their partners, such as is the EU. We will observe it closely“, - MEP Markéta Gregorová said.

Ambassador Hubert Knirsch: All the parties that will come together to form the government in Germany, expressed their strong support for European integration

„The election is one step on the way to Georgia`s democratic development", - German Ambassador to Georgia Hubert Knirsch said in an exclusive interview with ‘Europetime’. „International observers observed organized voting days in line with legal requirements. On the other hand, they noticed an unequal playing field in the pre-election period. it was very difficult for smaller and new parties to compete with larger and existing parties, and they have given numerous examples of this. So, in the future, this is an issue that remains to be addressed", - Ambassador said. According to him, the observers undertook this very difficult task and carried out this election in an orderly and correct manner. The election is one step on the way to Georgia`s democratic development and it is an election that takes place under improved law as a result of the 19 April agreement, but it also shows that more things remain to be addressed and this remains the task of everybody concerned for parliament, the government, and especially for the political parties in their competition, in their interaction with each other, not only during the elections but also in the period before the next elections, which starts today", - Ambassador Hubert Knirsch said. As for the German elections and their influence on Georgia, Ambassador Hubert Knirsch said that all the parties that will come together to form the government in Germany have expressed their strong support for European integration. „We are observing the coalition-making process. All the parties that will come together to form the government in Germany, expressed their strong support for European integration. That was the issue that was important in the campaign, and this includes the EU's relations with its eastern neighbors, including Georgia. I am looking forward to future visitors from the German parliament and government who will bring these messages themselves", - Ambassador Hubert Knirsch said. Visa-Free and German Support were topics also Europetime`s interview with the German Ambassador to Georgia. He said that this is an issue that „we are observing all the time". Recently, the number of unjustified („unwarranted") asylum applications in Germany has risen. More recently, they have recently again been observing this and discussing it with the Georgian government, and this is a constant process", - Ambassador Hubert Knirsch said.

What are MEPs' expectations for the upcoming October 2 local polls

Elections on October 2nd and their expectations were the topics of the exclusive comments by the MEPs. For example, Markéta GREGOROVÁ calls on all the running parties to try and calm their voters and create an atmosphere of respect towards each other. Andrius Kubilius wants the election to bring no further division, but a way to return to normalcy and focus on pro-European reforms in Georgian politics. Viola Von Cramon-Taubadel hopes that all parties will realize the momentous significance of these elections and work together towards a Georgia that is based on cooperation and not polarization. Europe Time presents their opinions: Markéta GREGOROVÁ Group of the Greens/European Free Alliance There has been an ongoing spurge of violence before the elections, and a fear that it will continue after them. I call on all the running parties to try and calm their voters and create an atmosphere of respect towards each other. Every party had a chance to show what they stand for-now it is up to the citizens to cast their ballot and make their decision, not up to the parties. I do hope that the observation missions will result in successful elections, void of any misdemeanor. Andrius KUBILIUS Group of the European People's Party (Christian Democrats) I wish that the election would bring no further division, but a way to return to normalcy and focus on pro-European reforms in Georgian politics. Georgian Dream holds leading responsibility for that as the ruling party at the moment. It can contribute to stabilization by fulfilling its commitment under the April 19 agreement to hold national elections if in local elections it gets less than 43 percent of votes. Viola VON-Cramon-Taubadel - Group of the Greens/European Free Alliance My expectation and hope are that all parties will realize the momentous significance of these elections and work together towards a Georgia that is based on cooperation and not polarization. Just like Georgian voters, I also expect that politicians will learn to put the country’s interests above party interests and push important changes through parliament instead of the streets. On 2 October, the European Parliament will observe the local election in Georgia as part of the International Election Observation Mission, together with the OSCE ODIHR and the Council of Europe’s Congress of Local and Regional Authorities. The delegation from the European Parliament is composed of seven MEPs: Michael Gahler (EPP, Germany) – Chair of the delegation Miriam LEXMANN (EPP, Slovakia) Marina KALJURAND (S&D, Estonia) Katalin CSEH (Renew, Hungary) Marketa GREGOROVA (Greens/EFA, Czechia) Jordi SOLÉ (Greens/EFA, Spain) Anna FOTYGA (ECR, Poland). The MEPs arrived in Georgia on 29 and 30 September.