One year ago, I was inaugurated as the fifth President of Georgia. It was at that moment that I outlined the goals for my presidency: to return Georgia to her European family, to continue our Euro-Atlantic path, to put Georgia back on the world map, and develop new strategies for the benefit of Georgia and of the Georgian people and for the security of our national sovereignty.
One year has passed since I made that pledge to our nation. Since then, we have started a new outlook on our relations with our closest partners in Europe. My first international visit as President was to Brussels, a symbol of where Georgia’s priorities are, where I met the leadership of the European Union. On more than one occasion since then, I had the chance to meet with Presidents Tusk and Juncker and present our ideas.
When it comes to the European Union, we must knock on every door and leave no stone unturned. Sectoral integration is a reality and we have dedicated the past year in placing more Georgia in Europe, and more Europe in Georgia, whether in politics, culture, sports, diplomacy, or education. I intend on visiting Brussels once more in the coming months to meet with the newly-elected leadership of Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel and set out how we can move closer to our ultimate goal, that of joining the European Union.
This goal has been enshrined in our new Constitution, a testament of the strong will of the Georgian state and people to definitely return to the European family we had been separated from by 70 years of Soviet occupation. Back in July, on a stage I shared with Donald Tusk in Batumi to celebrate the 10 years of the Eastern Partnership, I outlined my plan to start an ad hoc process of chapter negotiations, a strategy that would help us make a great step forward before Brussels can make the political decision to grant us a status of candidate country.
2020 will bring new steps forward and new strategies in our relations with Brussels. Georgia must be present in the next budget of the European Union, the Zagreb Summit of May has to bring new perspectives on EU enlargement, and financial aid must remain well-targeted for the countries of the Eastern Partnership that have risen to the Associate member status and not diluted within a single financial aid basket. Georgia should not only pay close attention to these issues, we should be actively taking part in the political discussions surrounding the key developments of the EU and this is why I have called on the Georgian government to launch a strong lobby in Brussels.
The European Union has consistently been a reliable partner of Georgia. I can never emphasize enough how vital is the presence of the EUMM, especially for those populations living on the occupation line. But the mission has to be allowed to operate, according to the terms of the 2008 ceasefire agreement, on the entire territory of Georgia, including its occupied regions.
The EUMM is only one example of the support we have received from the EU toward our territorial integrity. But we must go beyond and solve the conflict, and not only manage it. This is why I have consistently brought the issue of the Geneva International Discussions, which have stagnated and become merely technical meetings that fail to address the core issues. Everywhere, from meetings with diplomats, interviews at home and abroad, to the great stage of the United Nations General Assembly, I have recalled that Georgia has to be on all agendas of discussions or it is a European security issue, not a local one.
A high-level format of political dialogue is necessary if we want to be serious about solving the conflict. The case of Dr. Vazha Gaprindashvili is example that neither the international community nor we have the format and instruments to solve even such a humanitarian case. We cannot accept this as a fact of life. We have to look for all possible solutions to this crisis and to deescalate the situation on the occupation line and have to look further at a peaceful solution.
We must work to ensure that Georgia remains high on the strategic agendas of NATO, the United States, and Europe and that other global conflicts do not lead people to forget the dire situation in both Abkhazia and the occupied Tskhinvali region. This is why I have called on Washington to appoint a Special Representative for Georgia and help us raise the level of discussions to solve the conflict.
Meanwhile, Georgia has remained committed to being a part of EU and NATO peacekeeping missions in Afghanistan, Mali, and the Central African Republic, demonstrating our status as a reliable partner and a global player, keen to bring stability and peace across the world. As Commander-in-Chief, I had the honor to visit our dedicated troops in Afghanistan within my first two months in office. While at home, they represent the first and last lines of defense for our national sovereignty, Georgian soldiers are symbols of strength, courage, and freedom for the civilians they help protect wherever they serve.
Last week’s terrorist attack at the Bagram Air Field that injured five Georgians was a reminder that the cost of our mission to bring peace abroad can be at times high, but Georgia will continue to fight for freedom and will remain committed to international security.
Ensuring our security at home has been one of my top priorities in the past year. We have countlessly addressed NATO and the EU to get more involved with the security of the Black Sea, the stability of which is the base of many trade routes of the future and peace for Europe’s Eastern region. The decision last April by NATO Foreign Ministers to improve the Alliance’s situational awareness of the Black Sea is a great step forward.
But in this time of hybrid warfare, cybersecurity must be one of our key strategic defense points. This is why I’ve addressed the need for cybersecurity cooperation with our European and NATO partners, underlined Georgia’s desire to join the European Center of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats and to eventually open its own cybersecurity center, oversaw the signing of a cybersecurity cooperation agreement between the Ministries of Defense of Georgia and Lithuania, and met with the NTT Security company in Tokyo to encourage Japanese experts to evaluate threats and train their Georgian counterparts.
Joining NATO is not only a goal of my presidency and of my predecessors. It is the desire of the Georgian people, regardless of political affiliation. It is also a necessity for Georgia’s long-term security, which is why Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg’s remarks throughout the year confirming our future accession to the Organization have been encouraging. After our original meeting in Brussels, his visit to Tbilisi, the strong words of support by NATO PA Chairwoman Madeleine Moon, the North Atlantic Council’s fifth meeting in Georgia, and my awarding of Deputy Secretary-General Rose Gottemoeller with the Order of the Golden Fleece are all signs of our even closer partnership in 2019.
Georgia’s road to Euro-Atlantic integration is deep, committed, and resilient, and will never be vetoed by any third party. But it must be met with new strategies that encompass not only NATO, or the EU, as whole, single-minded bodies, but also the political realities of each member states. With President Emmanuel Macron, we signed the launch of the Dimitri Amilakhvari political dialogue back in February, launching a new format in our relations with Paris. Similar formats must be agreed with our other western partners.
On the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, the United States showed us its dedication to our strategic partnership when the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Georgia Support Act last October. Meanwhile, we look forward to a new step in our relations with the nomination of Ambassador Kelly C. Degnan by President Trump.
My visit to New York last September allowed us to start a new chapter in our people-to-people relations with the United States. U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar convinced me that a lot can be done in the near future to deepen the scientific and health care partnership between the U.S. and Georgia. The necessity to launch direct flights from Georgia to the U.S. was obvious when I met with American business leaders. The potential of using Georgia as a rich background for high-production movies was attractive to every Hollywood representative I met. And the cooperation between the Museum of Modern Arts of New York City and Georgian researchers, discussed during my visit, is set to be begin next spring.
Putting Georgia back on the world map must, indeed, go through people-to-people contacts. I have invested a lot of time to ensure that Georgia becomes an attractive touristic destination, meeting tourism industry leaders in Japan, addressing the world community on Georgia’s attractiveness, supporting the popular grassroots ‘Spend Four Seasons in Georgia’ campaign, and discussing with world leaders on how to boost tourism to Georgia.
Last summer, my visit to the FIBA meeting of Munich helped select Georgia as one of the hosts of the 2021 European Basketball Championship, yet a new sign of Georgia’s return to its European cultural family, symbol of the value of sports both internally for a healthy development of our society and as a powerful projection of Georgia as a success beyond our borders. Georgia is set to be the guest country at the 2022 Europalia festival in Brussels and, in the near future, at the Salon du Livre of Paris.
At the heart of these contacts is our diaspora. I’ve insisted to meet with diaspora representatives and Georgian students abroad during each of my international visits, as each Georgian living across the world is an ambassador of our culture, of our talents, and of our nation. The diaspora must take a larger part in the national decision-making process, which is why I’ve proposed to see the diaspora represented in Parliament, starting with the upcoming elections.
Before my presidency, I had sponsored and fought for a bill to allow Georgians to have double citizenship and to restore the citizenship of those with Georgian origins, a key step to maintaining the links between Georgians around the world and their homeland.
The visa-liberalization regime inaugurated in 2017 between Europe and Georgia has helped thousands of Georgians rediscover the European values that we strive to return to and thousands of citizens of the Schengen Zone to discover the beauty of our nation. And, even though some difficulties have appeared along the way, we have worked hard in the past year with European authorities and the private sector to curb the illegal migration problem.
Georgia being recognized as a safe country by 14 members of the EU (including by Cyprus following the announcement by President Nikos Anastasiades at our joint press conference in Tbilisi), the Ministry of Internal Affairs’ close partnership with its French counterpart, and our insistence on the negotiation of circular migration agreements are all proactive examples of our seriousness to address issues.
We have, throughout history, showcased tolerance as our main value. Georgian tolerance has allowed peoples of different ethnicities, of different religions to cohabit within this nation for centuries with no conflict amongst themselves. It is exactly this Georgian tolerance that I want to see included on the UNESCO’s List of Intangible Heritage, an initiative I brought to UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay as early as last February. It is in symbol of this tolerance that I will be visiting Israel to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.
It is in the name of this value of tolerance that we need to recall that I have been trying to overcome the bipolarization of our society.
Georgia’s return to the world map goes directly through the new Silk Road. The historic visit of Wang Yi, the first Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs to visit Georgia in 23 years, this year is proof that Georgia is the trade link between Europe and Asia. Not only is our stability crucial, so is our strategic position with free trade agreements with both China and the EU, which is why I had insisted on the need for an investment agreement to be finalized with Japan during my latest visit to Tokyo, the negotiations of which were successfully finalized last week and will be signed next year, and a free trade agreement with India.
Our friendly relations with the rest of the region is key to ensure stability. This is why I visited both Azerbaijan and Armenia in my first months as President. The excellent state of our relations has been once again reinforced by the launch of TANAP and the resumption of the work of the commission on border delimitation that we agreed with President Aliyev should allow for a rapid conclusion.
Armenia, for the first time, opted to abstain from voting in this year’s UN resolution asking for the right of return of internally-displaced persons from the occupied Abkhazia and Tskhinvali region, having previously voted against the resolution. Our warm relations with our oldest neighbor have been reinforced by the fruitful meetings with my counterpart and between the Prime Ministers.
Our relations with Ukraine are strong and deep. During my meeting in Warsaw with President Zelensky, we agreed on finding common ground on our road to Euro-Atlantic integration. The creation of a strategic council between Kyiv and Tbilisi, announced by the Prime Minister last week, is a yet another great step forward.
I’ve asked for the support of UN member states in all United Nations formats in every single international meeting. This year, 57 nations still abstained from voting in this crucial motion. We must spend the next months convincing these member states to join us in this humanitarian battle.
Our involvement with key international organizations has been strong. My administration has been engaged with the United Nations’ Leave No One Behind campaign and Sustainable Development Goals, placing Georgia as an international player in the key issues of our time. In July, I joined the Global Commission for Urgent Action on Energy Efficiency, showing my dedication to a more active international community to provide concise solutions for the world’s energy problems. In April, I became one of the signatories of the Berlin Call to Action, calling for the protection of European cultural heritage.
This first year of my presidency has helped us set the base for the rest of my term. We will continue working every day to ensure that in 2020, we build on the projects that we have begun and on the successes of the past to ascertain our place on the world map.
This post is also available in: ქართული (Georgian)