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A new Georgia, with familiar aspirations

By Carl Meyer      
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On Aug. 8, 2008, as the world settled in to watch the opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games in Beijing, something quite different was happening on the other side of Asia.

As Beijing lit up with Olympic flair, Georgia’s breakaway region of South Ossetia lit up with gunfire as Russia and its former Soviet republic, Georgia, went to war. Canada’s foreign minister at the time, David Emerson, sent out a disapproving statement, calling on Russia to “respect Georgia’s borders.”

Fast forward to Dec. 14, 2012, when Georgia and Russia held their first direct talks on bilateral relations since the five-day war. Two months earlier, the pro-West president of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili, had admitted his party’s defeat in Georgian parliamentary elections, at the hands of a coalition that promised friendlier relations with Moscow.

Despite the new government’s aim to thaw Georgia-Russia relations, Georgia’s new ambassador to Ottawa shrugged off a question on how Canada will have to get used to a Russia-friendly Georgia.

The country’s Western ambitions—to be part of NATO, and the European Union—are still there, and Canada is still supporting them, said Aleksandre Latsabidze, speaking to Embassy on the same day as the historic talks.

“We’re grateful for Canada’s support,” he added, seated comfortably in a couch in his corner office, overlooking downtown Ottawa.

The only difference? 

“A new element in our foreign policy will be normalizing relations…with Russia.”

Georgia is hoping to open Russian markets for products like its famous Georgian wine, which was popular in Russia before imports of it were banned in 2006. The wine, which comes from a region some say is the cradle of winemaking, was recently allowed into Ontario’s liquor retailer, the LCBO, said Mr. Latsabidze. 

Georgia is now hoping to export more of its wine to regions across Canada.

When asked about his other priorities, Mr. Latsabidze said one is making sure Canada sticks with its support for Georgia to become a member of NATO. Another priority is boosting bilateral trade from the relatively small $22 million in imports from Canada and $111 million in exports where it sat in 2011.

He is also hoping to land more Canadian investment in Georgia’s hydroelectric sector. Despite its reputation as a fossil fuel highway—two major pipelines in the region, one carrying oil, the other carrying gas, travel from Azerbaijan across Georgia to Turkey—Mr. Latsabidze wants his country to be known for its hydro power.

The 38-year-old Mr. Latsabidze, born in Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi, is no stranger to Ottawa. When the Georgian Embassy opened in Ottawa in 2011, he moved from a job in Washington as a counsellor overseeing North America to become the chargé d’affaires in Ottawa, from May to September 2011, and then as a senior counsellor until February 2012.

He then left to be Georgia’s ambassador to Argentina (cross-posted to Chile, Paraguay, and Uruguay) before returning to run the Georgian mission in Ottawa. He submitted his credentials to the governor general on Nov. 8.

In the Dec. 14 interview, and in a phone call Jan. 21, he couldn’t identify many meetings with Canadian officials, aside from a meeting with Conservative senator and Senate foreign affairs committee chair Raynell Andreychuk, citing his short time as ambassador and the winter break.

A career diplomat, Mr. Latsabidze has worked inside Georgia’s foreign affairs ministry on desks that oversaw the Middle East, China, Japan, and eastern Asia. He has also been posted to Iran.

As for returning to live in Ottawa, Mr. Latsabidze, who is married with one 11-year-old daughter, couldn’t be more pleased.

“It’s amazing, the city. I love this city; it’s very quiet,” he said. 

His daughter skates, and they’re planning on heading to the Rideau Canal Skateway, which—lucky for him—just opened on Jan. 18. 

cmeyer@embassynews.ca

@ottawacarl

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