Mikhail Saakashvili, the president of the former Soviet republic of Georgia, is in Washington this week for the Nuclear Security Summit. After Georgia's 2008 war with Russia, the U.S. pledged a billion dollars in humanitarian aid to Georgia, which has sent troops both to Afghanistan and Iraq. Robert Siegel talks to Saakashvili about the nuclear summit, and about U.S. aid to his country.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host: One visitor to the Washington nuclear summit is Mikhail Saakashvili, the president of the Republic of Georgia. Georgia was once part of the Soviet Union. In 2008, it fought a war with Russia, which supports the independence of two breakaway regions of Georgia: South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Russia maintains bases there.
The U.S. pledged a billion dollars in humanitarian postwar aid to Georgia, which has sent troops both to Afghanistan and to Iraq. And President Saakashvili joins us in the studio. Welcome.
President MIKHAIL SAAKASHVILI (Georgia): Nice to be back at NPR.
SIEGEL: And first, Georgia is not a nuclear power. There are some nuclear powers in the neighborhood. What's your interest in the nuclear summit in Washington this week?
Pres. SAAKASHVILI: Well, obviously, the whole world has taken interest and I think Georgia, personally, has been working on those issues. You know, in order to combat nuclear proliferation, you need an efficient, transparent and democratic state. And I think we've been trying to construct exactly that. And if you look at our borders - first of all, we had number of cases when highly enriched uranium was detected at the Georgia border. But then, there's a very good cooperation with the U.S., so I think we also bring our experience.
SIEGEL: The postwar aid that the U.S. has pledged to your country is for humanitarian purposes, not for military purposes. Are you satisfied with that restriction?
Pres. SAAKASHVILI: Look, we have very good cooperation with the U.S., and it's not only always certainly humanitarian. We are in Afghanistan. We believe in increasing international security in this region. That's the reason why we're second biggest per capita contributor of troops to Afghanistan after the U.S.
And there's a little number of other efforts where we cooperate also in security with the U.S., so we don't have any limitations in any directions.
SIEGEL: But the billion dollars in aid that Vice President Biden pledged...
Pres. SAAKASHVILI: Sure.
SIEGEL: ...was not to be for military purposes.
Pres. SAAKASHVILI: No, that was a very timely aid, because we have up to half a million refugees and internally displaced person after numerous Russian intrusions over the years. We managed to house basically most of them, and we're working on the others. And it was a good bridge loan to stabilize economy.
SIEGEL: But just before leaving the humanitarian aid, Russia claims that under the guise of delivering humanitarian aid, the U.S. has been rearming Georgia, your country. Does that aid permit you to liberate other funds to direct toward your military?
Pres. SAAKASHVILI: Well, look, I mean, I think this is, in many ways, remnants of unfortunate Cold War rhetoric. And it's - obviously Georgia's such a small country that it would be inconceivable that we should look at the map, big Russia and small, small, tiny Georgia. And, I mean, I am very proud of my country. It's a special country. But it doesn't match Russia in any way in terms of size and certainly, of course, size of military capability - never. And it cannot create problems for Russia. And the only thing we manage to create is a monofunctional state, and a monofunctional state has all the elements. It also includes a functional economy and minimum security, and that's what we're cooperating.
> Map Of Georgia
SIEGEL: But in U.S. relations with Georgia, with your country, do you see today, Washington's concern to have improved relations with Moscow as a factor that is moderating Washington's support for your country?
Pres. SAAKASHVILI: I think I've been - well, I discussed this with President Obama recently. And - but I have to say, you know, he exercised remarkable leadership. And, you know, I watched him at different summits, including those concerning our region, you know, basically everything as I was (unintelligible) - lots of things were very, very impressive and new.
SIEGEL: But this is a question you've raised with him, how the U.S. wants to manage its relations with Moscow and its relations with you is something, a concern that you've raised with the president.
Pres. SAAKASHVILI: Look, I mean, this is not a zero sum game. And obviously, if there is a more normal environment in the neighborhood that helps. And - but on the other hand, you know, I've not seen the U.S. giving in on any of the principal issues. And it's about freedom, about democracy, human rights, about securing the - even small democracy have a right to exist and develop. And being Obama's - not only his statements were very good, but, you know, everything, through the body language. And it was pretty impressive.
SIEGEL: Body language as well, you said.
Pres. SAAKASHVILI: These kinds of things matter. In a region where, you know, there's lots of traditions, lots of hypocrisy and lots of bad history of doublespeak, doublethink. And so even for me, it's very hard to deal with it. And for somebody who was a total newcomer to that stage, it was pretty impressive.
SIEGEL: Now, I want to ask you about something else. Last month, Georgia made news all over the world when a Georgian television channel, run by your former chief of staff, broadcast what we think of as a "War of the Worlds" type program in which it was reported - it was fictitious, but it was reported - that there was another Russian invasion, and then there was treacherous behavior by your political opponents who took over. Did you know of that broadcast in advance?
Pres. SAAKASHVILI: No. Look, I mean, everybody knew because they advertised about the thing the whole week.
SIEGEL: But had you, in any way, approved of such a broadcast?
Pres. SAAKASHVILI: Look, I would have been crazy to approve it because in that broadcast the main thing that happens that Georgian army betrayed and I was killed.
SIEGEL: Right. So you did not...
Pres. SAAKASHVILI: Any government should be crazy to be happy about those two facts.
SIEGEL: So you say you did not approve of that?
Pres. SAAKASHVILI: I did not approve, as I say, unless I become really -go nuts.
SIEGEL: Unless you've gone nuts, you're saying...
Pres. SAAKASHVILI: Yeah.
SIEGEL: ...you would not have done that. Was that broadcast calculated to panic the public, and in fact, to depict the opposition as pro-Russian and worse?
Pres. SAAKASHVILI: No, I mean, the people that depicted there, they are not running in elections. And no, this thing - televisions fight for ratings. These days, this is all about advertising money. (Unintelligible) here, we have a small market, there's a huge competition there.
SIEGEL: So you're chalking it up to show business and the pursuit of ratings and advertising.
Pres. SAAKASHVILI: No, I mean, these days, that's what free television stations are all about. Be provocative, sometimes over-provocative, being outrageous, sometimes too outrageous. And we have to live with it.
SIGEL: Well, President Mikhail Saakashvili of Georgia, thank you very much for talking to us...
Pres. SAAKASHVILI: Thank you so much.
National Public Radio