The Cable

Look West, Young Man: Georgia's 31-Year-Old Prime Minister Turns To Europe, Not Russia

When Irakli Garibashvili was a child, his native Georgia was just beginning to recover from decades as an impoverished Soviet satellite. Garibashvili's house had no electricity or gas, and he studied by candlelight. The newly independent country -- beset by chronic corruption, rampant civil instability, and lingering economic malaise -- wasn't doing much better.

Garibashvili is now Georgia's prime minister and, at 31, the youngest elected head of government in the world. His government's primary focus, Garibashvili told Foreign Policy in an interview, is developing closer economic and political ties with the European Union while laying the groundwork for eventually joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. His country was once firmly oriented east, towards its rulers in Moscow. Garibashvili hopes it will soon be just as firmly oriented west.

"I really want to transform my country into a real, modern, democratic, European state," he told FP, choosing his words carefully. "That's my dream."

Making that dream come true will require deftly finessing Tbilisi's relationship with Russia. With pro-Western leaders in nearby Ukraine struggling to find their way out from under Russia's thumb, Georgia's successes and struggles offer both a roadmap and a cautionary tale for Kiev.

The revolutionaries who now control Kiev, fresh off from ousting Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovych, seem certain to elect new leaders who are strongly committed to closer ties with both the EU and the United States. Top European Union officials have already traveled to Kiev to discuss the terms of a large package of financial aid, and the Ukrainian government has said it will soon ask the United States for a loan.

Russia reacted with fury to the moves, and Garibashvili is well aware of the risks of pushing Moscow too hard. Georgia's last president, Mikheil Saakashvili, took power in 2004 after the so-called "Rose Revolution" ousted the leader who had governed Georgia since it gained its independence in 1991. Immediately after the fall of the Soviet Union, Saakashvili began work to improve ties with the EU. and the United States, angering Russia. In 2008, Georgian troops fought a series of low-level skirmishes with separatist forces in the breakaway region of South Ossetia. Russia intervened on behalf of the rebels and pushed the Georgian forces out. Tbilisi and Moscow severed their diplomatic ties, and South Ossetia and Abkhazia have been under de facto Russian control ever since.

Saakashvili spent his final years in office futilely trying to persuade the West to help reclaim the lost provinces. Garibashvili, who took over as prime minister last November, has a very different strategy.

In his interview with FP, Garibashvili said that he hopes his country's increasing integration into Europe will gradually persuade the citizens of South Ossetia and Abkhazia that it would be in their own interest to rejoin Georgia. Tbilisi is slated to sign a so-called "association agreement" with the E.U. in August, bringing Georgia closer to full membership, and Garibashvili predicted that within the next five years Georgian citizens will be able to travel through the E.U. without visas and that the country's economy will be rapidly expanding because of growing trade with Europe. Residents of the breakaway regions, he believes, will want those perks for themselves.

"They will see the difference in living standards," Garibashvili said. "They will see how they live in Abkhazia and Ossetia, and they will see how Georgians live."

That entire strategy depends on how effectively Garibashvili will be able to realize his vision of Georgia as a regional business and economic hub. Georgia has long been known for its wine exports, but Garibashvili said his country is investing in new high-voltage lines capable of carrying hydroelectric power to Turkey. Garibashvili, speaking like the businessman he was before he becoming a politician, also boasts that his country offers political stability, a cheap labor force, and a pro-business regulatory structure. In the interview, he said he expected his country's economy to grow by at least 5 percent in 2014.

Garibashvili is well aware that a new flare-up with Russia would derail those plans, and he has worked hard to improve the strained relationship between the two countries by appointing a personal envoy to the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin and opening direct dialogue with Moscow.

Russian rhetoric about Georgia is noticeably softer than in the past, but it's clear that Putin isn't yet ready to let bygones be bygones. Garibashvili said that Russian forces have begun building 30 miles of barbed wire fencing along the border with South Ossetia. The work stopped in December, weeks before the start of the Sochi Olympics. On Tuesday, just after the closing ceremony, the work resumed. "That's crazy, right?" he asked in the interview.

Garibashvili is the first leader of a post-Soviet country who didn't grow up living under Soviet occupation, but he won't be the last. Some of Ukraine's next leaders will probably be roughly the same age and will probably have grown up with roughly the same sets of experiences. Georgia is closer to Iran and Iraq than it is to Paris and London. If Garibashvili succeeds, his country will be part of the EU. all the same. That accomplishment won't be lost on the young leaders gradually taking power across the former Eastern bloc. "We want to be an example," Garibashvili said in the interview. "We want to show the way."

JOHN THYS/AFP

The Cable

Mexican Ambassador: 'El Chapo' Will Face Charges in Mexico First

U.S. attorneys anxious to prosecute the world's most notorious alleged drug lord are going to have to wait. In a statement to The Cable, Mexican Ambassador to the U.S. Eduardo Medina-Mora opened the door to a future extradition of Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, but said he'll face charges in Mexico first.

"Mr. Guzman could eventually face the charges against him in the U.S., after facing the charges against him in Mexico," said Medina-Mora. "Mr. Guzman still has pending time to serve in Mexico from his original sentence and he also faces new charges in Mexico that will be processed in Mexican federal courts."

The remarks suggest a protracted stay for Guzman in Mexico, an outcome that may not sit well with the Obama administration, Congress, and federal prosecutors around the country.

As head of the Sinaloa cartel, Guzman has been charged in at least seven federal district courts in the U.S., including Chicago, which named him Public Enemy No. 1 last year, a title first given to notorious gangster Al Capone. There's a good reason that federal prosecutors want Guzman outside the country: He has been tried and imprisoned in Mexico before.

In 2001, he escaped from his cell with the help of guards and remained at large until his capture three days ago. Extraditing Guzman to the United States could've helped ensure that he's less able to coerce prison guards to assist in his release, said Mike Vigil, the former chief of international operations for the Drug Enforcement Administration. "In the back of their mind, [Mexican government officials] have to be thinking, 'Here's an individual with millions of dollars, the ability to bribe and to threaten,'" he said. Guzman is known to have threatened prison guards and their families before.

A senior law enforcement official told The Cable that Obama administration officials pressed the extradition case at the highest levels in the Mexican government, apparently to no avail.

On Sunday, the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, Rep. Michael McCaul, urged the Mexican government to consider extraditing him immediately. "There is corruption in [Mexico]," McCaul told ABC News. "I would ask that the Mexicans consider extraditing him to the United States, where he would be put into a super-max prison under tight security, where he cannot escape."

But U.S. officials will have to be patient, said Medina-Mora. "Bilateral security and justice cooperation between Mexico and the United States unfolds in a mature and serene way, and cases like Mr. Guzman's are processed with openness," he said. "I think that the charges he faces in Mexico will be processed first and an eventual extradition request would be considered at the appropriate time."

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