Kakha Bendukidze, State Minister of Georgia for Economic and Structural Reforms, claims that Russia should not worry about its bases it does not really need.Question: Do you feel any souring of the Russian-Georgian relations?

Kakha Bendukidze: I do but I would not say that it began now. It began last summer.

Question: But the situation is much worse now, what with the matter of the Russian bases and their withdrawal at hand.

Kakha Bendukidze: I’d say it happened because of reaction of the Duma to the fact that the matter of the bases was brought into the foreground. I do not see any reasons for us to have problems. The government of Russia has never said it wants its bases here forever. They are but one more burden on the Russian budget. Do you really think they are playing any role at all in Russia’s defense capacity?

Question: What about strategic importance. What about Russia’s presence in the region?

Kakha Bendukidze: That’s just a cliche. Explain what you mean, will you?

Question: Control over the region. The Russians withdraw, NATO bases move in…

Kakha Bendukidze: First, I do not understand why Russia perceives a threat in the presence of NATO bases somewhere. When I was in boot camp, I was told of the existence of the notion of “potential enemy”. We were told then that the United States and NATO were the enemy. What does the Russian military doctrine say now? What is Russia’s potential enemy nowadays?

Question: The doctrine must have remained unchanged.

Kakha Bendukidze: I’ve lived in Russia for 20 years. I love this country. Try as I might, I do not understand what is there for Russia and NATO to divide. Why shower all this attention on the problem in the first place? What is that? Do our politicians and political scientists have a problem? What NATO values does Russia not share? They want democracy? Yes. Human rights? Yes. Free-market economy? Yes. What’s the problem then?

Ask all these questions in Moscow? Does Russia think that we have some other values? I do not understand the difference in the values upheld by France, Germany, and Russia that makes NATO our potential enemy. Can you imagine Russia in NATO?

Question: Why not?

Kakha Bendukidze: Precisely! And now, can you imagine it in an alliance with North Korea and Mjanma? No? Well, neither can I. What divides Russia and Germany? They have one religion. They aspire for democracy. They have common cultural values and history. Why are we supposed to regard Georgia as an enemy? Don’t we have other problems to worry about or what?

Question: Do you think that hysteria over the bases should be ascribed to old fears?

Kakha Bendukidze: I think that Russia can and should become a leading NATO country. Russia delivered complicated military hardware to Greece, a NATO country. That’s great. Greece is a natural ally. We should see that there are preconditions for a broader Northern alliance nowadays, an alliance rooted in Greek-Roman culture. That’s a belt from the Pacific coast of Russia to the Pacific coast of the United States. It encompasses Christian countries with more or less similar values. What counts, some of these countries have also built free-market democracies, and others are building them. I suspect that the political scientists who are forming ideology of Russia nowadays worked for the Central Committee of the CPSU once. Or read too many books back then. Russia has never been an enemy of Europe.

Question: When do you think Georgia is going to join Europe?

Kakha Bendukidze: Within a decade, perhaps. It depends on Europe’s policy as well. As I see it, Europe is expanding now but it is bound to take a time-out soon to digest it all. And to decide what now. If Ukraine is admitted in it four years from now, for example, it will be a different Europe. Association of states built on the principles of the European Union where there will be Ukraine and Belgium at the same time is impossible. Europe will have to change. I do not know how, but I know that it will. I’d say that a revolution is bound to take place in united Europe yet.

Question: Do you want Georgia in Europe?

Kakha Bendukidze: I cannot say because I do not know what kind of Europe it will be at the moment. If Europe is subject to Socialist marasmus (just read its Constitution) and everything is overly regulated, if the free exchange of commodities and services is restricted, why then bother with joining such a Europe? If Europe evolves and understands that it is not a bunch of European Socialist republics, then yes, Europe like that is worth being a member of. What I’m stone-cold confident of, however, is that Georgia has to be a NATO country. NATO is the only military alliance of democratic states that exists. We do not know of any other alliance. Small country that we are, we are convinced that we should be an element of some major military alliance.

Question: There is the widespread opinion that all processes taking place in Georgia now and specifically NATO’s interest in the region are ascribed to the Baku – Dzheikhan pipeline.

Kakha Bendukidze: From the point of view of the scope of the global oil trade, what will be pumped through this pipeline is a trifle.

Question: What stage is construction of the pipeline at?

Kakha Bendukidze: It’s nearly completed. The pipeline will be turned on in the near future (in a matter of months) and begin working. Construction of the Baku – Erzurum pipeline will be completed in 2006, becoming one other alternative source of gas for us.

Question: What effect will the turning on have on the economy of Georgia?

Kakha Bendukidze: We will be paid about $50 million or so per year. Not a sum to get excited over, you know.

Question: What effect have the deteriorating relations with Russia had on the economic life of Georgia?

Kakha Bendukidze: Economic processes take time, you know. In general, however, there is some effect evident. Major Russian capitals are more reserved in the matter of investing in Georgia nowadays.

Question: Is it the major problem then? Reluctance of the Russian capitals?

Kakha Bendukidze: I would not say that they do not come at all. It’s just that they could be coming more energetically.