AP Interview: Georgia's leader warns of Russian expansion

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TBILISI, Georgia (AP) — Russia is poised to use its armed forces to expand further into former Soviet states, Georgia's president said Tuesday, calling on the West never to accept any Russian aggression.

Russia's 2008 war with neighboring Georgia and its seizure of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 showed that Moscow is ready to exploit any instability in countries it still considers in its sphere of influence, President Giorgi Margvelashvili said in an interview with The Associated Press.

"They are the fastest and the first to bring in their tanks," he said, speaking near-fluent English. "So that's why we can say that half of the Eurasian continent is living under constant threat. If they have some kind of unstable environment in their country, their sovereign country, the neighbor will be quick to solve the problem through Kalashnikov(s)."

Georgia, which aspires one day to join the 28-nation European Union and NATO, is a member of the EU's Eastern Partnership, which holds its annual summit this week in Riga, Latvia. Other members are Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Moldova and Ukraine.

About 300 U.S. troops are in Georgia this month holding joint exercises, and NATO is opening a training center in Georgia later this year. Georgia has been a reliable contributor of troops to NATO-led operations, including campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Margvelashvili said Georgia still feels the military threat from Russia after losing 20 percent of its territory to Russian-supported separatists after the 2008 war. Russia has border guards and troops stationed in the breakaway territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Just as in Georgia in 2008, Margvelashvili said, Russia exploited instability in Ukraine following the ouster of a Russia-friendly president to seize Crimea in March 2014 and foment an armed rebellion in Ukraine's Russian-speaking east. The president warned if there were not a stronger condemnation from the West, the pattern could be repeated in other countries along Russia's border.

"What we are hoping to see is a more stronger, principled message that this is unaccepted — and this will stay unaccepted even after the cease-fire (in eastern Ukraine)," Margvelashvili said.

Georgia also sees a threat across Europe from the vast Kremlin propaganda machine that is working to change perceptions of Russia and specifically its involvement in Ukraine.

Russia's new government-funded Sputnik news agency began operating in Georgia this week, providing news in Georgian and Russian. Russian state television channels also are widely available.

In Georgia, Margvelashvili said, Kremlin propaganda aims to make Georgians question their choice to integrate with Europe, given that the EU and NATO are not offering membership anytime soon.

"The basic message is that Europeans don't care about you, you are abandoned, you don't have a choice and the Georgian European choice is doomed," the president said.

As part of Georgia's effort to strengthen its economy and play a role in European security, he said the country is expanding its role as a trade corridor linking the Caspian and Black seas. Margvelashvili said part of the plan was to increase the number of trading partners who would have an interest in Georgia's stability. He gave the example of a major gas pipeline project that will cross Georgia to deliver Caspian gas to Italy.

Margvelashvili, 45, has a Ph.D. in philosophy and spent most of his career in education, including a short stint as education minister, before being elected president in 2013. He was the personal choice of Bidzina Ivanishvili, a billionaire whose political forces had swept the government of former President Mikhail Saakashvili from power in a parliamentary election the previous year.

Initially seen as Ivanishvili's puppet, Margvelashvili gradually set his own course and has now split with his patron. Polls show that only the patriarch of the Georgian Orthodox Church has a higher national approval rating.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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