President Salome Zurabishvili was interviewed by the Brussels-based EURadio. Civil.ge gives an informal translation of some key elements of this conversation, which took place in French:
EU and Georgia
Attitude of the European officials [that I’ve met] towards Georgia is extremely positive. We have been the “good pupil” in the European Partnership and also in Association Agreement frameworks, that we have already been implementing for the past five years. Currently, the real question is where we go from here, especially taking into account the internal perturbations taking place within the EU.
The difficulty in making the next step [for rapprochement between Georgia and the EU] is coming from the Union and not from us…
As I often said when teaching the development of the European Union at SciencesPo, from the points of crisis, the European Union always makes steps forward.
So perhaps, if we are optimists, the current crisis – Brexit, raise of populism in Europe – would perhaps force the European Union to reconsider its configuration. At lest we are ready in the starting blocks, waiting what we can draw from this new redistribution of cards.
There are several ideas on the drawing board, such as that of deepening partnership, which might lead to the mode of enlargement, which is less problematic for certain countries by making sort of concentric circles of partnership of various degrees [around the European center].
Brexit itself might bring – if it is not too dramatic – new possibilities, since afterwards for Great Britain, there would be some tailor-made formats created, and perhaps some of these formats Georgia could exploit…;
In certain ways – given the difference of scale, of course – [UK and Georgia] would be in a parallel situation [with the UK]: outside the EU but not completely – because they have just left, and we have not entered yet…
Our idea is to make use of the change of guard [in the EU] with the European Parliament elections in May, and also since ten years anniversary of the European Partnership is approaching, and to organize a conference in Batumi this summer, in July.
We would invite the partner states, EU officials, and associated states like ourselves, and which would be a conference for reflection and a venue to present our proposals. Since the EU in July won’t be the same as it is now, we could use this opportunity for reflecting on what we could do together in the future.
Given that the process of transition in the EU would last at least until the end of the current year, and thus [Brussels] would not be in a position to make new proposals, we could make use of this space to voice our proposals, demands and views, playing to our strengths.[One of these strengths is that Georgia is a] resolutely pro-European state, at the moment when there are less and less. It becomes a rarity, to be so supportive to Europe from the top to bottom – we have recently inscribed our European aspiration into the Constitution, our population has elected in December their President, which is as European as there can be, and the all opinion polls continue to show support to the European Union integration by about 70%.
Second of our advantages is our stability in the region which these days has more factors of instability…and [we are able to achieve it] despite all the challenges – our occupied regions, aggressive actions of Russia towards us, which continues to put pressure at the frontiers of the zones of occupation, with kidnappings, currently they have cut the passage [through the occupation lines]. All of these things are basically permanent, there is continuous pressure. But despite that there is a continued stability in Georgia.
From the point of view we represent also the anchoring point for the European Union in the close neighborhood, which is important to preserve, especially since we have neighbors such as Russia, but also Turkey and Iran, and more to the south Syria…
So in the Black Sea region we are the anchoring point, to which we could also add Armenia, which after the last elections shows its intention to get even closer with Georgia (even though we were never far), by using our experience of rapprochement with the European Union. Obviously, they are doing this later, and also perhaps for them the radical change of external policy is not feasible, but at least, we are no longer alone. Azerbaijan as well shows interest towards the EU again, which is a good news to Europe. We are on the mid-way between China and Europe, we have a free trade agreement with China and this also creates a point of interest from the economic point of view.
Black Sea initiative
One of the requests we have now made is to develop further transit on the Black Sea.
We can not accept that the Black Sea becomes the area of growing insecurity, getting on the maps just because of security challenges – Azov Sea, Crimea. It is in reality having a great potential for transport and trade.
From our point of view, if we are thinking about closer ties with the European Union, short of actual membership, given the steps we already made – visa-free travel, free trade zone, association agreement – an additional step that could be made relates to growing physical proximity.
For our citizens and for those of the EU, having a direct link by ferry for people and for the merchandise, is a very concrete, very physical [means of rapprochement].
We have managed to integrate this approach into the planning for the transport network, which has gotten – not in terms of direct funding, but in terms of an investment project – support of approximately 3.5 billion EUR for transport communications across Georgia.
Originally the project was foreseeing support mostly intra-Georgian transport and logistics, but we have asked to amend it precisely with the element of link to Constanta [in Romania]. I would certainly visit Romania, which now holds EU presidency, which is also interested in this project – which is not new, but never got the sufficient traction before.
Membership de facto?
Our action plan, which we will develop and present more coherently in Batumi, is to see whether we could become members [of the EU in practice] without actually being members.
We have already many programs, there is also Erasmus+ which we agreed to advance further, and we would work on other ideas as well… There are certainly things we could reflect upon and present requests that are at the same time very concrete and reflect our real interests, in environment, labor rights.
In this latter area, we are facing a particular problem where we would need EU support, which sees the economic development is prioritized over labor rights, and since most of the investment is foreign, the government is at times reluctant to provide a rigid framework. In this field, we would probably need resources and support from the EU to make steps that we have to make anyway.
Reforms: successes and shortfalls
The most positive changes are those linked to the European perspective, that helps us approach the way of European life, the European standards, which does not mean [that we lose our way of life].
This is often the idea that is being carried by the Russian propaganda – both direct and insidious – that approaching Europe means losing identity, an idea that is often common to the populist parties in Europe. In Georgia this idea is not uncommon, but so far it does not reflect itself in political populism [too strongly] – this is where we should make progress, not leave the open field to the parties that would take and channel these ideas…
What were shortfalls – that we have failed to resolve the frozen conflicts, and on the contrary the situation has gotten worse with occupation and recognition of independence, which is expressing itself in expanding isolation of these two regions.
We were always a politicized country, even under Soviet Union Georgia was more politicized and free thinking than other republics, I think this is our heritage. Also being a southern country we tend to be excessive in politics like in other areas of life. TO that we could add the polarization that is not restricted to Georgia only – we see the same trend in countries that only few years ago were anything but polarized.
There is influence of social networks, tensions of the modernization, with choices that are more and more radical, people are not interested by middle way.
In our country – as in many others – there have been actions of Russia, its “soft power” which helps to accentuate the cleavaged through fake news.
It is their strategy to accentuate existing tensions – where there are historical tensions between the countries, these are the target, in others internal cleavages. They have very sophisticated methods for this.
So one of the tasks that I see for myself is to surmount these extremely brutal cleavages. It does not mean to have the same opinion or to negate partisan differences, but to succeed – on certain topics – to work together.
What is somewhat of a paradox, is that [despite apparent polarization] if we take significant issues, there is a strong of convergence of views [among the political rivals] – on NATO, EU, need for transformation of the Georgian society, for example to make arrangements with the European countries to facilitate labor migration. If we take specific themes, there is no great difference, there is a consensus in the Georgian society on main themes – occupied territories, relations with Russia.
There is a sole difference with the parties that we call “pro-Russian” but in reality are not pro-Russian, is that they consider it necessary to start the dialogue with Russia right now, while the rest – including myself – consider that
we could not enter into dialogue while the territories are occupied, if there are no signals from the Russian side, that their position would transform, or there is no signal from our allies – American or European – that they would push for such transformation of policy [of Russia].
There needs to be one or the other condition in place, otherwise, for us to go into conversations with Putin, whose statements and actions get more and more rigid every day… I am a diplomat, and I think that dialogue is always an avenue we can not reject if we need to get the results, but it is crucial to have certain [political] context and to have essential elements in place for the positive movement [in position].
The restoration of diplomatic relations at this stage is not possible, there need to be certain conditions in place, there need to be informal discussions. And even for informal discussions, the Georgian officials can not enter into such dialogue if it gives our population an impression that they have abandoned the position of principle for nothing in return.