Georgia’s European integration cannot be postponed because of Brexit
Interview with Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili. Interview by Paul Toetzke.
PAUL TOETZKE: Mr. President, you are basically closing out “Georgian weeks” in Germany after the visits of the Georgian speaker of parliament as well the prime minister a few weeks ago. Among others, you met with the German President Joachim Gauck and Chancellor Angela Merkel. One important issue on the agenda was visa liberalisation for Georgians. Were there any promises made concerning the next steps?
PRESIDENT GIORGI MARGVELASHVILI: It is a very specific time right now, only a week after the Brexit referendum. In this context, of course, we discussed the future of the European Union and that is relevant for us as we are talking about the EU as the main target for Georgia’s integration. As for strategic developments such as the Association Agreement, the free trade agreement and the visa liberalisation process, we have a very clear path. I did not come here to ask about some kind of benefits. I came here to plan the future, not only about the EU integration process but also about Georgian-German bilateral relations. German politicians understand very well Georgian politics; in the same way that we understand the German agenda.
One more issue, which I should be mentioning is that in the context of the Brexit, when the EU member states are very much involved in the process of planning the future of the EU, it is very important that the process of Georgia’s EU integration is not postponed. This issue has to be high on the political radar screen in Europe. And I spoke about this with both the president and the chancellor that during the next two years of my presidency I will very much focus on strengthening bilateral relations with Germany. It is good timing. Next year we will have the 200th anniversary of German settlers in Georgia, which is a great opportunity for cultural exchange. In 2018 we have the Frankfurt book fair with Georgia as a partner country. So, those are good occasions to strengthen our relationship.
As I understand there are no specific dates set for Georgia’s visa liberalisation. What will you tell the Georgian people?
Well, we have a very well developed format with our prime minister and that is known to the Georgian people. We have a strong message that the existing timetable on considering this issue will not be postponed because of the Brexit.
In Germany there has been a lot of discussion about the criminality of Georgian citizens living in Germany. This was also the reason Germany recently postponed the opening of the visa liberalisation process for Georgians. Yet, if you look at the statistics, the numbers of suspects from Georgia in Germany are rather low. What do you think is the true reason behind this hesitation?
There are thousands of Georgians living in Germany and receiving a great education here. There are strong relationships in education as well as science and people are active in business. I see the attitude of political representatives in Germany during our meetings and I see only positive reactions. As for the discussions that were triggered, I believe it shows that the European political process is, on the one hand, very democratic and this makes the process slow. We acknowledge that and we are part of those political discussions.
So you don’t think that this argument stands for a stronger opposition against Georgia’s further integration into the EU?
No, I think this is part of the discussion. And if you have a discussion in 27 member states, different issues come up. Of course, those discussions are complex but they also strengthen our relationships with our European partners.
In June Bidzina Ivanishvili – someone who is often seen as the “strong man behind the scenes” in Georgia – said that Georgia has to wait “until Russia realises and when our allies see that it is time to become part of EU as well as NATO”. When will this time be?
By which standards does a president comment on the statement of one of the leaders of the parties in Georgia?
I would like to ask what you personally think? Will there be a time when Russia “realises” that it is time for Georgia to join the EU or NATO?
Well, we do not have to explain our foreign policy targets to Russia. We formulate our foreign policy as an independent nation and we choose our partners. Certainly we have to declare our relationships with our neighbours, but this has been done. And we very openly say that Georgia while strengthening its Euro-Atlantic path does not do it against anyone, including Russia. We have built friendly relations with each of our neighbours. Georgia would even have friendly relations with Russia, if Russia was not occupying 20 per cent of our territory. We have said this on numerous occasions: As soon as Russian troops leave Georgia and Russia acknowledges that Georgia is an independent and friendly nation, we will not build our future in a confrontation with Russia. Which partners to choose and which not, this is the right of a sovereign nation.
Has the conflict in Ukraine demonstrated a need for Georgia to become part of NATO?
It is natural for Georgia to seek the membership of NATO. Georgia is a small country in a very important geopolitical region. There are numerous interests in this region, economic, energy and others. So of course, we are looking for some kind of security umbrella. And you first look at those that are culturally and politically close to you and such unions are the EU and NATO.
You already mentioned the separatist regions South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The Georgian Dream party, which is currently the strongest party in the government, announced before the elections that it would fasten a resolution process with both regions. Are you satisfied with the developments?
We would definitely prefer the negotiations to be more effective. At the same time, I think we have been investing in confidence building mechanisms. We have started the Incident Prevention and Response Mechanism (IPRM), which was launched with Abkhazia and which makes the negotiations easier. Yet, a month ago a person was killed at a checkpoint and this is of course terrible to see.
South Ossetia recently announced a referendum about the accession to Russia. How does Georgia respond to such threats?
There are facts on the ground. The fact is that South Ossetia and Abkhazia are occupied by the Russian military. The result is a mockery of international relations that Russia is trying to stage there by signing strategic relationship agreements with territories that they have occupied. What we will do, and we will do this in coordination with our partners, is to illustrate to our friends what is happening there is a kind of circus of international law.
In terms of democratisation and human rights, Georgia is seen as a role model in the region. Can Georgia play a bigger role in the integration of other states in the South Caucasus?
First of all, we have great working relations with both of our neighbours. Second, the stability and security as well as the growth of prosperity in Georgia definitely brings a positive example for both Armenia and Azerbaijan. The European and Euro-Atlantic agenda of Georgia is very closely observed by both of those countries and they draw consequences out of this. I believe that strengthening Georgia’s European and Euro-Atlantic integration will have a positive effect on the region as well.
Looking at the internal politics of Georgia, parliamentary elections are scheduled in October 2016. According to different surveys, a majority of Georgians see the country’s developments rather critically. Where does this attitude come from?
I do not know which particular survey you refer too; actually we have a new one every day. We have now a bigger choice of political parties that compete in elections. Before we had a completely different political environment. There were only two political parties, black and white, demonising each other. I think there will be at least four or five political parties in parliament and they will have to form a coalition. My concern is that people, who are disillusioned with politicians, will regain their political role and that they will come out and vote.
Yet, when talking to Georgians it seems like the most popular personalities in Georgia are not musicians or actors, but politicians. Is that good or bad?
Well, popular does not always mean loved. But actually I do not think that politicians are very popular. They are discussed and criticised. Yet polls have shown that Georgians are undecided on whom to vote for. I am campaigning for voters to go out and vote for anyone. In general, Georgians are disillusioned with political leaders. So it is important that they will vote, no matter for which party.
Giorgi Margvelashvili is the President of Georgia.
Paul Toetzke is a freelance journalist and master student of East European Studies at the Freie University in Berlin. He is an alumnus of the Solidarity Academy co-organised by New Eastern Europe and the European Solidarity Centre in Gdańsk.