(Bloomberg) -- Georgia’s president said Russia must be required to abandon its nearly 15-year-long occupation of her nation’s territory as part of an eventual peace deal to end the Kremlin’s war in Ukraine.

“Russia has to learn where its borders are,” President Salome Zourabichvili said in an interview in the capital, Tbilisi. “The Georgian issues should be on the table because nobody should think that this war can be resolved without Russia retreating from all the occupied territories” in the region, she said.


Zourabichvili’s call for restoring the regional order hinges on a decisive defeat in Ukraine for Russian President Vladimir Putin, a moment she claimed was fast approaching. “Russia already practically lost the battles if not completely the war,” she said at her presidential residence, its facade festooned with the flags of Georgia and Ukraine. 

Russia sent tanks and troops to within 20 miles of Tbilisi during a brief war with Georgia in 2008 over two secessionist areas that the Kremlin later recognized as independent, marking the first time it unilaterally redrew the borders of states that emerged from the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. Russia has stationed its military in Abkhazia and South Ossetia since then, occupying about of fifth of Georgian territory that remains internationally recognized as part of the Caucasus republic.

‘Big Mistake’

Without requiring Russia to make a full withdrawal as part of surrender terms, “the western world will make another big mistake — as big as 2008, 2014,” Zourabichvili said, referring to Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea. 

Almost a year since Russia invaded Ukraine, the outcome of the war remains far from clear as the two sides prepare for potentially decisive battles in the spring. Ukraine’s US and European allies have stepped up shipments of arms to bolster Kyiv’s forces against a large-scale offensive that officials fear Russia may be planning.

French-born Zourabichvili’s criticisms of Russia put her at odds with Georgia’s government, which has been careful to avoid antagonizing Putin over his invasion of Ukraine. 

While he has condemned Russia’s “unjustified” aggression, Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili hasn’t imposed sanctions on Russia and has refused to provide military aid to Ukraine, accusing critics of his policy last month of seeking to “create a second front in Georgia.” 

The nation of less than 4 million people expanded trade with its neighbor to the north and welcomed tens of thousands of Russians who fled the country with savings in hand, resulting in a $2 billion windfall for Georgia’s economy last year. 

Zourabichvili, 70, was elected in 2018 as Georgia’s first woman president, a largely ceremonial role though she is formally commander-in-chief. She made clear in the interview that she recognizes the limits of her ability to affect policy, though she also said her outspoken stance in support of Ukraine enjoys popular backing among Georgians.


Still, she conceded the authorities had to be “more careful” given Georgia’s status as a country under partial Russian occupation and lacking the protections of countries in the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, both of which it aspires to join.

Georgia’s EU ambitions took a knock in June when member states awarded candidate status to Ukraine and neighboring Moldova, putting them on a path to join the bloc, while telling Tbilisi that it still needed to meet specific conditions to achieve the same category.

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The European Parliament has censured Georgia for repressing media freedoms and backsliding on judicial reform and civil liberties — including those of former President Mikheil Saakashvili, who’s currently hospitalized while serving a jail sentence his supporters say is politically motivated. Georgia’s government denies the accusation.

Saakashvili was detained in October 2021 after entering Georgia for the first time since stepping down at the end of his presidency in 2013. He fled abroad when the ruling Georgian Dream party founded by his billionaire rival Bidzina Ivanishvili, the country’s richest man, accused him of abuse of power. The government says he crossed into Georgia illegally. 

Zourabichvili, who has the power to pardon the leader of the country’s 2003 pro-European Rose Revolution, wouldn’t comment on her plans but said she didn’t think “an individual case will determine our European future.” 

Though Georgia has fallen short in meeting some EU demands, in part because of political divisions, the president said the time has come for a “strategic decision to be taken by Europe.” The country can’t afford another failure to win formal candidacy, which could embolden Russia by presenting Georgia as a “gray zone” for its ambitions, she said. 

“You have to give us candidate status,” Zourabichvili said. “We aren’t perfect, I know that there are things that we have not been doing, but I think that despite all that we need to move forward.”

--With assistance from Julius Domoney.

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