Did you watch our presidential debates? It sometimes seems like the one subject the candidates agreed on is the necessity of supporting your country, a former Soviet satellite state that has recently been warring with Russia. I was personally very surprised that the candidates were so passionate about Georgia. Of course, John McCain has been many times to Georgia and knows it firsthand. Obama said absolutely all the right things.
How often do you talk to the candidates on the phone? Pretty often. And I think they are very competent.
Why are American politicians so interested in Georgia? First of all, democracy is a strategic interest. And second, there are energy issues. If Russia shuts off central Asia and the Caspian Sea from Europe, the European allies of the United States will be totally dependent on Russian gas and energy.
Why is our friendship with you worth it if it causes a rift between the U.S. and Russia? Look, the rift with Russia is not connected to Georgia. It is connected to values. Russia has become very authoritarian. It doesn’t accept free speech or real elections anymore.
What is it with those Russians? The more insecure you are, the more prone you are to create crises.
Do you think Putin wants to kill you? Well, killing me makes no sense because Georgia already has a Western-educated political class.
Have the Russians made any attempts on your life? President Medvedev has called me “a political corpse” publicly several times. Putin told several Western leaders, “I want Saakashvili’s head.” If they want my head, for me it’s more funny than troubling.
Are you connected to the C.I.A.? No. I told President Bush two years ago that I am sick and tired of trying to convince Putin that I am not a C.I.A. officer. I said: “Mr. President, can you tell him I am a C.I.A. officer? Maybe he will take me more seriously.”
For all your lofty talk about democracy, last November you shut down the opposition television station in Tbilisi. The interference with Imedi TV was an exception, not a rule. This action was taken during mass riots when Imedi TV started to incite overthrow of the democratically elected government. It should be noted that the government did pay damages.
You studied law at Columbia and came to power through the peaceful Rose Revolution in 2003. What sort of salary do you earn? When I became president of Georgia, they brought me money, and I said, “What is this?” They said, “It is your monthly wage.” It was roughly $40. I said: “Well, excuse me, I cannot survive on that. Give me some salary.”
You got a raise? It is up to $6,000 a month, plus all expenses. We’re still a poor country.
How would you describe Georgia in general? It’s spontaneous, it’s open-minded, it’s a little bit chaotic. It’s about wine and beautiful landscapes. It’s about good food.
What kind of good food? Like khinkali. It’s a big dumpling — with juice inside and meat.
It sounds fattening. Well, it should be a little bit fattening. President Bush loved it. Every time I call, he says, “I’m still on my bike, trying to lose the eight pounds I gained in Tbilisi.”
Do you think Georgia will be accepted into NATO in December, when the next vote is scheduled? It’s the $100 million question. I was reassured by Senator Obama, who said that we should have a NATO Membership Action Plan. Whether we get it, we’ll see.
What do you think of Sarah Palin? When she was nominated, she called me. She was lively, she was interactive, she was engaged.
Can she see Georgia from her front porch? No, we are looking in different directions. With the most powerful binoculars, I cannot see Alaska.INTERVIEW CONDUCTED, CONDENSED AND EDITED BY DEBORAH SOLOMON