Six months after the "Rose Revolution" that toppled longtime leader Eduard Shevardnadze, Saakashvili leads a country that is heavily dependent on emergency foreign aid.
It was only in January that the EU tentatively indicated that Georgia and other Caucasus countries might be included in the bloc's new neighborhood program.
Yet Saakashvili took his hosts by surprise yesterday when he suggested Georgia is very close to meeting EU membership criteria. He told a news conference after meeting the president of the European Commission, Romano Prodi, that the process may only take a few years.
"I believe that, besides getting the current assistance, we're also becoming members of the Wider Europe Initiative. That's very important. I believe that if present positive trends in Georgia remain effective, [then] in the period somewhere between three to four years we'll be ready in terms of criteria for EU membership. Of course, it will take time. Of course, it will take long procedures. And I'm realistic about that. But I'm also convinced that Georgia could be in good shape in three to four years if we solve those problems and consolidate our statehood the way we are doing right now," Saakashvili said.
Specifically, Saakashvili said his country lags three or four years behind Bulgaria. After the EU's enlargement on 1 May, Bulgaria is the front-runner in the next wave, set to join in early 2007.
Before meeting Prodi, Saakashvili said in a speech before the foreign affairs committee of the European Parliament that Georgia is a country with a "European identity and culture." He listed reforms aimed at bolstering the judiciary and law enforcement structures, rooting out corruption, creating macroeconomic stability and welcoming foreign investors. He also said Georgia would contribute to the EU's stability as a "frontline partner" in the fight against terrorism and a vital contributor to the bloc's energy security.
However, these arguments appeared to have made little impression on Prodi. The commission president stuck to the tough EU line, according to which the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement signed with Georgia in 1995 still has a lot of unused potential. Prodi even refused to indicate whether he would recommend Georgia for inclusion in the bloc's new neighborhood scheme.
"We start from the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement that gives us clearly plenty of room to increase our relations and we want to move ahead in the implementation of the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement. But after the enlargement on 1 May, the commission in the same month of May intends to make a recommendation on the relationship of Georgia and Armenia and Azerbaijan to the European Neighborhood Policy and the [EU] Council [of heads of state and government] will consider this matter further, I hope, in June," Prodi said.
Nonetheless, the inclusion of Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan in the neighborhood project appears to be a foregone conclusion. But EU officials privately doubt whether the three countries will be able to make use of the integration opportunities offered by the project.
Prodi yesterday said the EU has given Georgia 10 million euros ($12.2 million) in food aid in recent months, and will shortly add another 3.6 million to support reforms of the judiciary and law enforcement structures.
Saakashvili yesterday said his country would honor "European standards" of peaceful conduct in dealing with the separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. He said both will be offered autonomy. At the same time, Saakashvili appealed for the close involvement of what he termed "major European structures" in both peace processes.
The Georgian president also extended generous praise to his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, who he said had played a very constructive role in the recent standoff between Tbilisi and the autonomous republic of Adjaria.
"There are two things,” Saakashvili said. “We have high expectations for our relations with Russia, [because] they're accepting the new rules of the game, and the new rules of the game are that military presence is no longer acceptable -- that they should abide by international agreements and [that] they should not meddle in the internal affairs of [their] immediate neighbors -- and I think what Putin demonstrated in Adjaria was [in the first instance] that he clearly gave the message to the local government leader [who] was no longer supported by his population, [who] had problems with central government and [who] had only hopes that President Putin of Russia would support him, that Russia was no longer willing to grant the same kind of support as one would have expected in the past, so that's quite a change from previous Russian [positions]."
But, added Saakashvili, it is too early to say whether this pattern of behavior will continue.