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Interview | EU Ambassador Pawel Herczynski

As Georgia is debating the law on transparency of foreign influence, also known as the “foreign agents’ law”, Voice of America’s Ana Chkhikvadze spoke with Pawel Herczynski, Ambassador of the European Union to Georgia. In agreement with VoA we publish the full English transcript of that interview. It has been edited for clarity.

Ana Chkhikvadze, VoA: Thank you very much for your time, Ambassador. My first question: We see the discussions going on in Georgia around the law on foreign agents. Are we talking about the Russian law or are we talking about the Russian regime in Georgia?

Amb. Herczynski: At this point, we are talking about Georgia at a crossroads, and Georgia needs to decide where it belongs. On part of the European Union I can assure you that we have decided that if Georgia is interested, we are wide open to embracing Georgia as part of the next big enlargement. For the moment, there are ten countries that are taking part in this exercise. For many years, Georgia has been the front-runner. Unfortunately, due to the events of the last couple of weeks, things do not look certain. So, there is a moment of uncertainty. I sincerely hope that decisions will be taken in order to make sure that Georgia is back on track with European integration and that it once again becomes a front-runner in this race to get into the next wave of EU enlargement.

Q: You mentioned the next enlargement. What’s the likelihood of that? And do you see that coming actually, or are we talking about decades to come?

A: No, I see this coming. I see this coming very clearly. I’m coming from a country that became a member of the European Union precisely 20 years ago, in May 2004. So we were just celebrating the 20th anniversary of the last big enlargement. Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine has really accelerated developments. And the next big enlargement is happening. If you ask for my personal opinion, I think it will happen very quickly. It is a matter of a few years. And I really hope that Georgia will be part of this next big enlargement and that Georgia will not have to wait for another big wave, which might take at least 20 years.

Q: Your Mission of the European Union to Georgia has raised some questions: sometimes we see statements like the ones you are making now that are pretty harsh. But then we see business as usual continuing with the Georgian government. We see you next to the leaders of the Georgian Dream. There has been an outcry about you cutting the ribbon with them, and there are other areas in which business continues as usual. Don’t you think that gives an idea to the Georgian Dream that no matter what, the relationship with the EU will continue?

A: We have been working with every democratically elected government of Georgia since Georgia’s independence 30 years ago. We are working with this current government and we will also work with the next government formed after the elections in October. The authorities, the government, is our principal interlocutor. With the government of Georgia we are advancing our cooperation in all spheres. And it is for the Georgians to decide in October what government they will have later this year.

Q: But when one day they call you the Global War Party and the other day we see you next to them, don’t you think there is more clarity necessary for the Georgian government to take into account your concerns?

A: I think that, as the European Union, we have been crystal clear about our expectations. About what should happen and what should not happen in Georgia if it wants to advance toward EU membership. But it is for the Georgian people, the Georgian parliament, to decide what laws they want or do not want to have.

For me, as an EU ambassador, it’s not my business to tell what laws are okay or not for Georgia. But it’s my duty and responsibility to tell the public what will be the consequences for the EU enlargement process in case certain laws are adopted. And this is what we have been doing loud and clear both in the EU delegation in Tbilisi, but, first and foremost, through our leaders, who issued a statement the next day after the initiative of the law resurfaced and the day after the third reading in the Georgian Parliament. And in that statement, I’m sorry, there is no ambiguity. It says: withdraw this [law].

Q: There is an ambiguity when it comes to other statements. For example, Council President Charles Michel said that there were legitimate concerns on both sides. So you see one statement from Charles Michel, then your statements, and there is quite a gap there. Why is there a gap? Are you really on the message?

A: Yes. We are crystal clear on the message. At the same time, the European Union is a group of EU institutions and 27 EU member states. So you might have different shades of gray. However, the overall direction is crystal clear, and I do not accept an argument that there is ambiguity.

When it comes to the statement of the European Council president, we have repeated again and again that the issue is not the striving for transparency. On the contrary, we understand that transparency is absolutely essential. We feel that Georgia has enough laws and administrative procedures to secure transparency. Maybe some improvements are needed, and we are ready to provide our expertise to make them happen. But what we are witnessing is something completely different that has nothing to do with transparency but with the marginalization and stigmatization of civil society organizations, with a serious threat to freedom of expression and freedom of media.

Q: We hear discussions about possible changes in the law, perhaps about behind-the-scenes discussions on that topic. We heard this from Jim O’Brien when he was in Tbilisi. You haven’t spoken about it; this issue has been brought up by the U.S. side. What does this mean? What changes could be made to this law that could make this law acceptable to you and to the Georgian public?

A: I’m not a legal expert, but this law is not consistent with the key EU values and core EU norms. I know that this is not the end [of the legislative process] because now the law is in the hands of the president. She has already announced publicly that she will veto the law. I understand that she might also provide an alternative proposal. We need to wait for eleven more days to see what comes out of it. [President Zurabishvili has vetoed the law today, on May 18 –]

We also all know that the Venice Commission, an internationally recognized standard-setter when it comes to legal issues, has been asked to provide its opinion and I understand that this opinion is coming in the next few days.

I also understand that the ruling majority has a possibility not to vote on this law and, in that way, not to enact it. So there are several options on the table. And I sincerely hope that common sense would prevail, not only based on what we as a European Union and other Western countries feel about this law but, first and foremost, based on the [will of the] Georgian people who, in thousands, tens of thousands every single day, are demonstrating against this law.

A: So as I gather, you are still hoping that the determination of the Georgian Dream to push this law through may change. But if not, what?

Q: I absolutely agree with the first part of your statement: We sincerely hope [this would change]. We are well-wishers of Georgia. For decades, Georgia has been knocking on the door of the European Union. These doors were closed. European Union member states have always been bitterly divided when it came to the issue of enlargement, especially the eastward enlargement of the Union. Georgia was always a front-runner. But the doors were closed.

Now, these doors are finally open. It is a miracle that has happened. Why? Because of Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine: devastation, bravery, and suffering of the Ukrainian people. Finally, 27 member states have agreed: yes, we are proceeding with the next wave of enlargement. Yes, we are opening our doors to Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia.

And what is happening? Hesitation. Second thoughts. Confusion. Again, it’s for Georgia and Georgians to decide. But as the European Union, we have opened our doors.

And I’m coming to the second part of your question: I sincerely hope that we will not move from a formula of “more for more” to the formula of “less for less” because this will have horrible effects on EU-Georgia relations.

And who will be suffering first? Ordinary people, ordinary Georgians, will have to pay the price for the deterioration of EU-Georgia relations. And it is my responsibility not to let it happen. It is my responsibility to try every single possibility that still exists in order not to enter into this negative spiral of events that will result in ordinary Georgians paying the price.

Q: Are you discussing sanctions? Are there discussions of any concrete measures that may follow? We’ve seen, for example, the U.S. sanctioning some individuals in Georgia, but you [the EU] have not followed up on it. Are you working with the US partners on this? And are you discussing sanctions?

A: Our cooperation with the U.S. – our closest ally and like-minded partner – is very close. However, you should not compare the European Union with the United States. European Union is an inter-governmental organization of 27 EU member states. The United States is one single country. Our decision-making processes and the U.S. decision-making processes are completely different. We are trying to be aligned. But there are many differences between us.

You asked about sanctions. As far as I know, there is no discussion about sanctions against Georgia or any individuals at the moment. I cannot rule out that, at a certain stage, this might be on the agenda. It is not at the moment.

The biggest difference between us and the U.S. is that our sanctions are adopted by 27 member states by unanimity. So, for us to agree to sanction someone, and in our case, we are talking about asset freezes and travel restrictions, we need all 27 member states to agree.

Q: We saw violence in the past weeks against the activities, against ordinary people. We saw arrests as well. So, even if the law were to be withdrawn, what does this tell you about the state of democracy and the state of affairs in Georgia?

Violence, threats, intimidation – this is absolutely unacceptable. It is unacceptable for any country that calls itself democratic. And, especially, it is absolutely unacceptable for the country that is a candidate country for EU membership, a country that wants to advance towards the EU membership. So we have called on everyone to calm down. We have called on authorities who take responsibility for the violence to make everything possible in order not to let it happen. And, of course, to investigate those well-documented cases of violence that have already happened. I hope we will see that happening.

Q: Let’s talk about how we got here. We have seen some of the issues develop over the years. Leading up to the candidate status, there was the first iteration of this law, but also statements from the government about the EU wanting to drag Georgia into war with Russia, efforts of working with the European partners on the one hand, and spreading anti-Western sentiment on the other. Do you feel that by granting the candidate status to Georgia with all of that was going on, you rewarded bad behavior?

A: The candidate status was not granted to the Georgian government. The candidate status was granted to Georgia. The governments change; this is in the nature of every democracy, but the candidate’s status remains. We have worked very closely with the government to advance on the path toward getting candidate status. European Commission made the assessment and gave a positive recommendation.

So, in view of the European Commission last year, enough progress has been made. We might have wished for even more, but the decision has been made that the progress made last year was sufficient for the commission to give a positive recommendation to the 27 EU member states. The 27 member states have decided – yes, we grant Georgia the candidate status.

You ask me about anti-Western rhetoric. Together with granting of the candidate status Georgia received a roadmap, a compass, of what needs to be done in order to advance further towards EU membership. We call this roadmap nine steps. Nine steps is only one page. Step number one is to fight disinformation and foreign information manipulation targeting the West and the European Union. So clearly, we have picked up on this. We made it the priority number one.

Q: Yes. But did you have an expectation that a government that is behind this rhetoric would decide to give it up? Do you see that happening with this government?

Yes, of course. What I think is very important is the context. Since over two years, we have been witnessing a major war going on in Europe. Russia invaded Ukraine. A big country invaded a much smaller neighbor – Russia. Russia’s imperialism is threatening not only Ukraine. Russia’s aggression is not only happening in Ukraine.

And I do not doubt that even though the Russians are focusing on their war effort in Ukraine, they have enough time and sufficient resources to also meddle in other countries. We will have elections in the European Union next month. And there are already cases where there are hybrid attempts by Russia to interfere. I have no doubt that Russia is also interfering in Georgia.

We have been working with many Georgian governments in the past to increase their resilience [to Russian interference]. We have invested a lot of money to increase that resilience [in Georgia].

But this [interference] is happening, and I have no doubt that a big part of it [is] anti-Western sentiments, anti-EU narratives, and bizarre conspiracy theories. You just mentioned the most outrageous one about us pushing Georgia to open a second front. It is so absurd that I don’t even want to comment on it. But, in fact, yes, this is happening. How much of it is homegrown? How much of it is coming from outside and is only being amplified here? It’s really difficult for me to say. But I sincerely hope that the government, in case it is serious about advancing towards the next step on the path towards EU integration, would very seriously try to limit it as much as possible.

Q: But that’s the question, isn’t it? Why would this government change course? Do you see the possibility of them stopping something that they have been doing since the war in Ukraine re-started?

I will repeat: we have been working with every single democratically elected government of Georgia, including this one. We will work with the government, which will be democratically elected after the October elections. These are our interlocutors. There are things that we like about this government. There are other things that we do not like about this government. But this does not mean that we will not continue with our openness, and our willingness to support the Georgian government on their way towards opening EU accession negotiations, which I still sincerely hope will happen.

Q: And if it does not, what would be the measure, for example, when it comes to foreign assistance from the European Union? Is it in danger with this law?

I told you already that I really would like to avoid talking about “less for less.” On both sides, we have worked so hard, for so many years, to get to this point – Georgia being a candidate country for EU membership – that moving to “less for less” would be disastrous. First and foremost for Georgia, first and foremost for the people of Georgia.

But since you asked me the question, of course, there will be consequences if this law is passed as it is. It will take some time: some of the measures will be decided by the European Commission itself, and other measures will require the decision of member states. Some of these measures would require a qualified majority; others would require unanimity.

We are not there yet, and I sincerely hope we will not get to this point.

Q: Going back to my initial question, even in the absence of this law, is this government pro-European, compatible with the idea of Europe?

We have been focusing so much on this unfortunate law, but in fact, it is only the tip of the iceberg. To advance on Georgia’s path toward the European Union is very serious work, with very serious reforms on nine steps. This is absolutely essential.

Unfortunately, we are halfway between December last year and December this year, it is already May. We are precisely halfway and for the moment, our assessment is that some progress has been made, but not enough progress has been made in order for the European Commission to give a positive recommendation [for the launch of accession negotiations].

But there is still time. Even if we have gone to the half of this period, there is still time. If there is a will, there is a way. And we still believe that if we have serious engagement on the part of the Georgian authorities, we can quickly catch up and make enough progress for the European Commission to give a positive recommendation in October.

Q: One of the requirements is the de-oligarchization of Georgia. Considering that this country is widely seen to be run behind the scenes by Bidzina Ivanishvili, who made his money in Russia in the 1990s, how is it possible for the government that is run by the oligarch to de-oligarchize itself?

From our point of view, de-oligarchization is not about any particular person. De-oligarchization is about creating a system that would allow Georgia to be a fully democratic, rule-of-law-abiding country where the influence of rich businessmen on political life is very limited. So it’s about creating a system of transparency, a system that would not allow high-level corruption. It is a system of checks and balances.

De-oligarchization was also one of the 12 priorities last year, and the government has drafted a very ambitious action plan, which is now slowly being implemented to create a legal framework, a system of checks and balances.

Q: But the laws can remain on paper. We often hear criticism that the European representatives here are working on the process rather than delivering real changes in practice.

Yes, I confirm we support the Georgian authorities in order to design the proper process, but then enlargement – and I have to stress it loud and clear – is a merit-based exercise. We have already started drafting the enlargement report for Georgia. The same reports will be drafted for all candidate countries. European Commission will finalize the drafting in October and then it will be based on results.

Q: Do you have any contact with Mr. Ivanishvili? Are you in touch with him? Has he been involved in your work here? Have you had meetings with him?

No, I have never met Mr. Ivanishvili in my life.

Q: And to conclude, what would you like to tell the Georgian people?

I think we are at a crossroads. It is up to the Georgian people to decide how they would like the country to evolve and what future they want for themselves and their children. On the part of the European Union, I’m very happy and relieved because, finally, after many years of very difficult discussions, we came to the conclusion that the next big wave of enlargement is imminent. I am really happy that Georgia was granted candidate status to the European Union.

So, on our side, we are ready to embrace you the way you are, with your unique culture, with your unique traditions. We want you [inside the EU] because we believe in diversity – this is our biggest strength. But it is for Georgians to walk through those doors.

The doors are open, but you need to walk through those doors, and for that, you need a government that is committed to obeying our norms and our rules. Again, it is the Georgian government that applied to join the club, this club has certain rules that need to be followed. I sincerely hope, looking at the faces of those people [who are protesting], many of those young people, that they will be citizens of Europe in the next couple of years, that they will not have to wait for a generation or for generations for that dream to come true.

And myself being Polish, I can assure you that the membership of my country in the EU was the biggest dream come true, the country has evolved tremendously, and I am really proud of being European and of being Polish, and I hope that the same fate is waiting for Georgians. It is still not too late, it is still possible, but we need to accelerate, work on necessary reforms, and, of course, solve the issue of this draft law, which unnecessarily seriously complicates Georgia’s way to the EU membership.

Thank you, Ambassador.


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