Denial of Georgia's EU membership bid would be "a big victory for Russia," President Zourabichvili says
The day Russia invaded one of its neighbors, waged a bloody war, and seized a fifth of that neighbor's territory fear and shock rippled throughout the region.
We are not talking about Russia's invasion of Ukraine, but rather the small country of Georgia. That invasion was more than 15 years ago. Vladimir Putin's playbook hasn't changed much.
Today, Georgia - which shares a 556-mile border with Russia - is still trying to remove the grip of the Kremlin.
Days after Russia invaded Ukraine, Georgia submitted an application to become part of the European Union with hopes of gaining a Western insurance policy to protect it.
Tonight, you will hear from the president of Georgia, Salome Zourabichvili. The daughter of Georgian refugees, raised in Paris, she says that Vladimir Putin has launched a quiet invasion of Georgia in an attempt to extend Russia's reach.
Sharyn Alfonsi: The war in Ukraine is now moving into its third year. How is the war there impacting life here?
President Salome Zourabichvili: It is, of course, a reminder of everything that this country has gone through. And the fact that it's always an immediate danger and threat. It's already part of the reality that Russia is testing the ground.
Sharyn Alfonsi: You think the Russians are testing the ground right now in Georgia?
President Salome Zourabichvili: Right now.
Sharyn Alfonsi: How so?
President Salome Zourabichvili: Here their way, their easy way, is the hybrid war.
When Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine in 2022, he said it was to, among other things, protect the Russians living there. President Zourabichvili fears Putin could launch a similar campaign in Georgia.
Since the war, Georgia has become home to 100,000 Russians.
President Salome Zourabichvili: It's very unnerving when in your own country you have people that are talking the language of the enemy. And that believe that they're at home.
Sharyn Alfonsi: The Russians believe that they are at home.
President Salome Zourabichvili: They're behaving and believing that they are very much at home. So there is a fine line. And that line has to be kept so that we do not have incidents in the future that would allow Russia to use their favorite doctrine of protecting Russian-speaking citizens.
Sharyn Alfonsi: So why doesn't Georgia just say, "no more Russians through our border"--
President Salome Zourabichvili: That is a question for the authorities.
Sharyn Alfonsi: Aren't you the authority?
President Salome Zourabichvili: No. I don't have the executive powers, un-- unfortunately.
There is no subtlety in spray paint… anti-Russian graffiti blankets the city along with support for Ukraine.
On crumbling walls, the Georgian flag is joined with those of the European Union, the U.S., and NATO.
Over 80% of the Georgian public backs entry into the EU, as does Georgian President Zourabichvili. But her position has become increasingly ceremonial as the country moves toward a parliamentary government.
After she went to Europe to try and pave the way for Georgia's EU bid, Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili accused her of violating the constitution, banned her from traveling to Europe, and tried but failed to impeach her.
President Zourabichvili has defiantly continued to fly to Europe to meet with leaders on her own dime.
Sharyn Alfonsi: It doesn't seem like the prime minister is interested in joining the EU.
President Salome Zourabichvili: Well, that's a question that the whole population is asking, whether they really want it or-- whether it's lip service.
Sharyn Alfonsi: This is a critical time. Do you feel like the West, particularly the U.S., has been responsive enough and supportive enough of Georgia in this moment?
President Salome Zourabichvili: I don't think so. And I will take one concrete example. I've been a president now for five years. And I've not managed-- to have any form of meeting at my level, which would be the president or the vice president even through a phone call.-- I understand that there are more urgent issues. But I think that some more public recognition is needed.
Sharyn Alfonsi: Recognition of?
President Salome Zourabichvili: Of the fact that the United States is supporting our candidate status within the European Union. I know that is the language that the U.S. has with our European partners, but that being repeated by the highest level would be meaningful for the Georgian population.
The EU has laid out a list of requirements for Georgia to become a candidate for membership. The conditions include tackling corruption and lessening the economic and political influence of domestic oligarchs. A decision is expected by the end of the year.
Sharyn Alfonsi: What happens to Georgia if the EU denies the bid?
President Salome Zourabichvili: It will be a big victory for Russia.
A victory Valya Vanishvili refuses to give them. Eighty seven years old, she says she is holding her ground, for herself and for Georgia.