Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Teleconference Transcript of President Saakashvili's Briefing

Held at 13:00 CET, Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Good morning. The President of Georgia will make a brief statement, then answer questions.

PRESIDENT: I’d like to briefly describe the situation. Russian tanks have advanced since morning, and moved into the town Gori. They have destroyed buildings, blown up and rampaged through houses. There has been looting by Russian troops, shooting at some people, theft of furniture, computers, everything valuable.

They are now on the main road leading from West to East, blocking the capital’s bloodline, 50km from Tbilisi. They have cut Georgia in half, West and East. The capital is now in some sort of economic blockade.

Regarding the situation in Abkhazia, South Ossetia: two things. First, the Russians have rampaged through Georgian-populated areas of South Ossetia, representing roughly half of what was South Ossetia. They have ethnically cleansed the population. They have separated men from women and set up internment camps for men in the area of Kouta. There are reports of summary executions. There is also looting in several villages.

In Upper Abkhazia, they have expelled practically the entire ethnic Georgian population. The town of Tskhinvali, at the moment when we left, was heavily bombarded. It was totally levelled. They turned it into a sort of second Grozny. We demanded immediate access for the international community, so that they could verify who was responsible. All indications are that the Russians deliberately levelled the city - they destroyed the place. We also have economic sabotage, a humanitarian crisis, and predatory incursions.

One might ask why. I think they’re not just trying to kill a country, but the ideal of free democracy and successful prosperity. They want to show the west who is boss. They’ve tried to cut off energy lines, using their Iskander missiles against pipelines. CNN qualifies them as missiles of mass destruction. This is the latest technology Russia has at its disposal. They used two of them against the pipeline. They dropped dozens of bombs on the pipelines, they’ve bombed the seaports, they managed to bomb our oil terminal in the Black Sea. They also want to punish our democracy, and that’s where we find ourselves now.

Gregory Pfeiffer, National Public Radio: Given everything you’re saying now, and that Moscow says, or at least foreign minister Sergei Lavrov yesterday said he doesn’t even want to talk to you, how do you envision peace talks to go forward, and when? How optimistic are you that there will be talks at all?

PRESIDENT: What we have on the ground is certainly very difficult. President Sarkozy was here yesterday. He brought the framework conditions for a ceasefire, and there were certainly unconditional provisions for ceasing hostilities, not resorting to force, free humanitarian corridors, separation of forces. That’s not happening yet, even if Russia yesterday announced that they were ceasing fire, they are continuing, and they’ve been escalating. It’s hard to say.

It’s not about Georgia any more. You know, if Russia gets away with this, I can predict now that the Baltic countries will be next, Ukraine may be attacked. We’ve seen them – as ruthless, as lawless, as brutal, as arrogant as they can get. They go unchecked. The world community should speak with one voice. We need a big humanitarian relief operation, like the Berlinairlift, because the capital is blocked from all sides. It’s one and a half million people, it’s a modern European city, and it needs a lifeline. The main thing is that if the West fails, it will have tremendous consequences for the years to come.

Gregory Pfeiffer, National Public Radio: How do you envision talks going forward? Are you prepared to talk to Moscow?

PRESIDENT: We’ve been prepared to talk to Moscow the whole way through. When they started to shoot at us, when they started to move tanks in on the 7th of August, we were frantically calling them. I called Prime Minister Putin, and his secretary told me to call back. We were calling them the whole way through, asking them to do something, and they wouldn’t respond. Did Stalin respond to the Finns in 1939? Did the Soviet Union respond to the Hungarians in 1956 or the Czechs in 1968?

For more than a year, they’ve been building infrastructure across our borders. In normal democracies, with a free press, people would ask why the army is building installations at the neighbouring country’s border. In Russia, they’ve been running propaganda that we’re American proxies that want to undermine Russia – it’s the worst wartime propaganda.

I’ve been talking to the West, asking “Why don’t you do something?” They’ve been saying “You’re exaggerating; Russia’s not going to do anything.” Now look what they’re doing. This has already exceeded my worst expectations.

Fred Kemp: hello, President Saakashvili, good to hear your voice.

PRESIDENT: Good to hear your voice as well. You’re aware of what’s happening, right?

Fred Kemp: Of course, we talked to your Ambassador yesterday and we want to keep in touch with what’s going on at the Atlantic Council and Bloomberg News. I wonder if you could tell me what it is you need most from the US and Europeans now, and have you made specific requests, and what has been the specific response to the requests?

PRESIDENT: What we need now, absolutely urgently, are airlifts - of food, medicines, because we’re a modern country, but we weren’t prepared for a long war. That’s a key – a lifeline – something comparable to the Berlin airlift. We also need secure communications, a monitored ceasefire that can be monitored by international monitors, and we need peacekeepers on the ground that would come from impartial countries immediately. If this doesn’t happen, things will escalate again.

Georgia is a country of five million people. If there are twelve hundred Russian tanks running around the country, rampaging, looting, killing, this would be such a disaster. We already have people who have fled their homes, tens of thousands of them at this stage. It might go to hundreds of thousands. We are talking to the UNHCR, and they estimate that there are already 100,000 displaced persons from the last few days. One hundred thousand! And it might climb to 180,000. This is a humanitarian catastrophe of huge dimensions, unfolding in the eyes of the world. And it’s in Europe.

Fred Kemp: What has been the response of the US, of the European Union to these specific requests so far?

PRESIDENT: Frankly, it has not been adequate. It has not been adequate. They’re talking about a negotiated ceasefire, how this side should do this, this side should do that – it’s appeasement. Appeasement in 1938 brought tens of millions of deaths to Europe. Georgia is first, like Czechoslovakia was first in 1938, then Poland followed, then the rest of Europe followed, then there was the greatest humanitarian catastrophe the world has ever seen.

People should wake up. It’s not about Georgia. The bombs they were dropping on us had “This is for NATO” written on the side. We need real actions, not just consolation, or solidarity. Solidarity matters. But when people get hungry, when they’re roofless, that’s not going to do the trick. Russia did this because they thought that nobody would intervene. So far, that’s been confirmed.

Ian Traynor, The Guardian: I wonder, in terms of the Sarkozy negotiations, could you give us any details? Would you be prepared, for example, to sign a non-use-of-force agreement? Could you envisage Georgian peacekeepers playing any continued role in South Ossetia, for example?

PRESIDENT: We’ve been prepared all along to sign a non-use-of-force agreement. But we’ve always asked for international verification on the ground. Otherwise, it makes no sense. What we’ve been expressing with Sarkozy is – who’s going to verify? Who’s going to check? I don’t care if it’s Georgians, or French, or Ukrainian, as far as they’re impartial and they protect the population. What we’re seeing now on the ground is the long-standing effort to purify this area. No population, no problem – Stalin’s slogan. No Georgia, no problem! They’ve done it in Silesia, they’ve done it in Karelia, now they’re doing it in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. They’ve thrown out the last elements of the Georgian population, now they’re destroying the rest of Georgia so it’s so crippled it can never get up off its knees again.

Russian peacekeepers are like the fox guarding the chickens. We had sixteen years of peacekeeping by the Russians – and their peacekeepers were the ones that were shooting first! Of course we’ve been discussing internationalisation, we’ve been discussing non-use of force, we’ve been discussing the international guarantees for autonomy and security and all sorts of things. But the first thing that should have been done is an immediate ceasefire, and it’s exactly what’s not happening.

Ian Traynor, The Guardian: The European Union foreign ministers are currently meeting in Brussels, discussing the situation in Georgia. If there’s an agreement on an international presence in Georgia, will Russian forces also be taking part in Abkhazia and South Ossetia?

PRESIDENT: In Abkhazia, it’s out of the question at this stage, because of what the peacekeepers did. In Abkhazia we have 6-700 Russian tanks, ethnically purifying Abkhazia, depriving it of 85% of its pre-conflict population. Now, for an interim period, there can be some Russian peacekeepers, but we all know that these are not peacekeepers, they’re Russian soldiers. So a limited Russian peacekeeping force, for a limited time in a limited zone – maybe. And just in South Ossetia.

But who will be willing to replace them? Georgia has always wanted international peacekeepers and mediation. We heartily welcomed the German peace plan. We welcomed every EU initiative on these issues. We’ve always welcomed bringing other people into the negotiations, because on our own against Russia, well, I knew it was just asking for trouble, and that’s what’s happened.

Stefan Cornelius, South German News: going back a few days, I’d like to ask you what made you decide to put the forces into South Ossetia on Thursday night after declaring a halt of weapons at that point.

PRESIDENT: I am sickened by the speculation that Georgia started anything first. We clearly responded to the Russians. Ossetian separatists are supported by the Russian forces, and they were shooting at us for days and days. They were killing people. We declared a ceasefire, hoping to stop the violence. On the day I was supposed to go to the Olympics, 15 minutes before I was supposed to leave, I got off the plane, because I felt something was going wrong. I called Javier Solana, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, friendly presidents, asking them to contact Russia, because they wouldn’t respond to us. We wanted to know what was going on. It was very unusual – we had provocations in the past, but this was very unusual.

The point here is that around eleven o’clock, Russian tanks started to move into Georgian territory, 150 at first. And that was a clear-cut invasion. That was the moment when we started to open fire with artillery, because otherwise they would have crossed the bridge and moved into Tskhinvali. The problem is that on the way, there were villages that didn’t have any military personnel in them, because we weren’t preparing for this. We only had lightly-armed police. So, once they crossed the village, they could move quickly through the villages, then on to Tskhinvali.

They have been building up troops all year. Can you imagine that somebody would bring 1200 tanks into another country within a few hours? It takes months and months. Even the United States couldn’t do it in that short an amount of time. So it’s another Russian fiction. When they shot down our UAV, they said it was war provocation. When they were bombing our territory, they said there were Georgian planes bombing their territory. You know, Finland also attacked the Soviet Union, according to Stalin. Poland also attacked Germany. Small countries always attack, and then get occupied. It’s high time for people to understand what’s going on.

I’ve heard talk of this being a hot-headed nationalist response. Excuse me – what do you mean, response? We were being invaded, occupied, killed – and to suggest that responding to that would be hot-headed nationalism, frankly, would be immoral. I’m astonished that, in the 21st century, that would be possible. My only gamble here was to try to build a free society and a free country. And the Russians are now saying that this is going to fail. My response is that no matter what we do, we’re not going to give up. We had the biggest rally ever in Tbilisi yesterday. This was a time that there were rumours, bombings, there were 200,000 people in the streets despite the fact that people were saying they might bomb the demonstration. Everything’s possible. People showed up en masse. If you have 200,000 people in the streets, that should show you something. Democracy cannot be defeated only by tanks.

But democracies can be betrayed. And it is true that many people in the world are still underestimating the threat, and looking for all kinds of justifications for why they shouldn’t act. For me, frankly, not giving us a MAP was a signal to Russia. They got the signal. No matter what the justification was, publicly, the Russians got the message. They took it as a signal to attack. I’ve been waiting for the attack for months, warning Western leaders about this. They kept saying that “this is not going to happen, that [I] was exaggerating.” I told them they would bomb us. “Oh, no, no, Russians would never bomb anybody.” The scale of the invasion is bigger than the first days of Afghanistan or Prague or Budapest, that’s for sure.

Stefan Cornelius, South German News: What did you hope to achieve militarily?

PRESIDENT: We were trying to stop them at the border – we were late. Once they got to Tskhinvali, they could march on the capital. We tried to stop them in the mountains before Tskhinvali, but we were too late and there were too many of them. I know very well that Russian forces are so overwhelming that – well, we knew they were on the border, but when 150 tanks started to come in, we either would have stopped them before the bridge, in the Roki tunnel, or they would have got to Tskhinvali and got to anywhere.

But for the last year, they’ve been building this infrastructure near the Roki tunnel. Remember the railway troops in Abkhazia? They built tank bases without putting tanks in them. The West said that they couldn’t confirm all this. Looks like the Georgian intelligence services were the best. But to sum up, you resist or you surrender. We had an obligation to resist, I think. It seems very rational. What was our choice?

Patricia Corrigan, CBS News: do you feel like you were baited into this by the Russians, and given recent history could you not have anticipated this?

PRESIDENT: It’s not about being baited, it’s about being attacked. Tell me any other democracy that wouldn’t respond. You either surrender or you respond. We are not going to surrender. It’s a question of morality, duty, obligation towards your constitution and your people. That’s it. And the magnitude of the Russian response was foreseeable. The Western response was not really predictable.

But I didn’t really expect a military response – I expected the world to speak with one voice. We’ve been warning them that there was a large-scale Russian invasion coming. What more could we do? We knew very well that increasing the military budget was a bit quixotic. But we also watch Russian television, and we saw it was coming. The kind of propaganda they were running – it looked like they were going to attack. One week before the invasion, the Russian military were handing out leaflets saying “We should liberate Georgia from Saakashvili, they’re suffering.” We have these papers.

Yesterday, my wife visited downed Russian pilots in a hospital in Tbilisi – and just so you know, they’re being looked after just fine. They were spouting the same propaganda about Georgia. They’ve been indoctrinated to criticise us when they’ve been killing all these people over the past few days. This conflict never should have happened.

Nina Donahue, Fox News: we were briefed yesterday by high-level State Dept officials. They were downplaying this, saying it was just a flare-up. What I’m asking is, has the US completely underestimated Russia’s ambitions?

PRESIDENT: I think they did. Senator McCain was quite right, saying “We are all Georgians now.” Barack Obama also made a statement. But your State Department underestimated them. They were saying that Russia was just playing games. I asked about what would happen if they crossed the line. They said that it’d be a big mistake. Well, it’s a weak consolation that Russia’s made a mistake. And the West has made the mistake of underestimating them.

But this is also because Georgia is so successful. We were the darling of the World Bank, number 16 or 17 in terms of business environment, leaders in terms of foreign direct investment in the region. We have the lowest corruption in the area, one of the lowest in Europe. We had 12% growth last year, and this year we were anticipating 11%. And of course the Russians were going nuts, because even with their oil and gas we were doing better economically. They tried to undermine us with an economic embargo, they blew up power lines. Some people were calling us paranoid.

Nina Donahue, Fox News: What would you like to see the US doing now?

PRESIDENT: I think America should clearly organise resistance among Western countries. They have lots of leverage to stop Russian aggression. America’s prestige and reputation in the region is at stake. There’s lots of costs that the US should impose on Russia, and this should happen. Otherwise, this is going to continue. The reputation that America has gained since the Cold War is going to hell right now. This is tragic. I lived in the US, I like America. Some people have said we’re building a little America here – we’re a free European country based on the rule of law, democracy and an open society. They’re American and European values – and historically and geographically, we’re a European country.

So that’s what’s happening here, and I would like to thank you, all of you, for joining me on this call. Please, tell the world the truth. Russia is out there spreading propaganda. They have so many resources at their disposal. It’s typical war-time propaganda. They levelled Tskhinvali, and they said the Georgians did it. They showed wounded Georgians and said they were wounded South Ossetians wounded by Georgians. They talk about me like a hot-headed dictator. They are all over the place. There are also politicians in some countries that, for pragmatic reasons, are willing to swallow all of this. So please, global democracy is at stake. Please tell the world the truth. The Russians are killing this issue, and they’re going to kill our country.

Nina Donahue, Fox News: Can I ask one more question?

PRESIDENT: Of course.

Nina Donahue, Fox News: Can you describe the situation on the ground around Tblisi?

PRESIDENT: Yes. The Russians have blocked off the main roads and surrounded the capital. People are trying to flee – we’re talking about hundreds of thousands of displaced persons and a humanitarian disaster. The city is normal. Cars are driving around. Electricity and water supplies are functioning, shops are open. The police are regulating law and order.

But in other parts of the country, the police are not trained to withstand Russian tanks. They are there to establish law and order. Russian troops are bombing the police, and trying to ensure destabilisation and economic collapse. They are good at destroying other countries, and they are implementing this here. Thank you, goodbye.