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Georgia: Foreign Minister Pushes For Greater EU Involvement In South Caucasus

Georgian Foreign Minister Salome Zurabishvili is in Brussels for a visit that coincides with moves by the European Commission to upgrade the status of the three South Caucasus countries in the EU's European Neighborhood Policy. In an interview with RFE/RL, Zurabishvili said her country's long-term aim remains EU membership. She also said Georgia's orientation toward the West and the attempts to stabilize the region present a "test" for Russia.

Brussels, 2 March 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Zurabishvili is using her visit to Brussels to emphasize that her country does not just want partnership with the EU but ultimately membership, too.

In an interview with RFE/RL, Zurabishvili highlighted that point.

"It's very much the perspective, and I was very frank about it when discussing it in the [EU Political and Security Committee comprising ambassadors from all the bloc's 25 member states]," Zurabishvili said. "I know that the [EU's] Neighborhood Policy is not designed as a step towards membership, but we also [have a goal] and the European Union has to know that we maintain our perspective."

Georgia’s association with the EU is currently within the framework of the bloc’s European Neighborhood Policy. She says Tbilisi takes the Neighborhood Policy "very seriously" in part because it provides possibilities for the kinds of reform that are the precondition for EU membership.

She said that Georgia is therefore impatient to get a Neighbourhood Policy Action Plan just as Ukraine did this month. The three-year plan is seen as a stepping stone to upgrading ties with the EU.

Zurabishvili does not hide her impatience.

"We're expecting -- and I hope there won't be any more delays -- we're expecting a decision to be taken on the action plans at the end of March, at [an EU foreign ministers'] council, and then we expect the action plan itself to be endorsed by the end of the year at the last [EU summit of the year]," Zurabishvili said. "And meanwhile we have all this process of formulating the action plan and negotiating it."

Zurabishvili also said that yesterday she gave the EU ambassadors Georgia's vision of the contents of the Action Plan.

The Georgian foreign minister said her country would like to see EU officials give the kind of attention to her country that they currently are giving to Ukraine – whose recent Orange Revolution so dominated headlines. Georgia’s own Rose Revolution took place a year earlier and, she said, put Georgia on the same path toward the West.

She said Georgia sees its fate linked to that of Ukraine as Kyiv attempts to push beyond the EU’s Neighbourhood Policy toward membership.

"It certainly helps. Everything that has happened in Ukraine helps. It helps the democratic consolidation of Georgia, it helps -- the fact that we're not the only country of that kind in the neighbourhood of Russia. And Ukraine is a very big country with a weight of its own," Zurabishvili said. "It helps and it's certainly better for Georgia to be put in the [same framework as] Ukraine when talking about accession, rather than Turkey."

Zurabishvili immediately added that Georgia has always supported Turkish EU membership, saying it would be in the interests of European stability. But, she said, "Ukraine is moving faster, and we are moving faster also."
Zurabishvili said she sees "more room" for the EU to get involved in attempts to settle Georgia's "frozen conflicts" in South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

She also noted that because Georgia is a small country its pace of reforms has been "sustained and effective."

Zurabishvili praised the role the EU is already playing in transforming Georgia. Since last July, the bloc has a civilian mission set up within the framework of its defence policy project to advise Georgia's law enforcement agencies on reforms.

Zurabishvili said Georgia wants such work to be one of the priorities of the forthcoming Action Plan. She said the transformation of the judiciary, penitentiary, and police systems is "at the core" of her country's democratic consolidation. Zurabishvili went on to compare EU involvement in those spheres to the U.S. role in reforming the Georgian military.

Zurabishvili is also enthusiastic when it comes to ongoing discussions within the EU to set up its own monitoring mission on Georgia's borders with Russia to replace a similar operation run by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) -- now blocked by Russia.

"We have been requesting it, we've been looking at all options possible to replace the BMO [Border Monitoring Operation] mission of the OSCE after the Russians vetoed it," Zurabishvili said. "And, of course, we looked in the first place to an organisation where Russians do not have the right of veto and which is not an organisation that will be looked at as a confrontational organisation in any sense. The EU, for that, is a perfect organisation."

She said there is "nothing to scare Russia" in these plans. She added that her meetings in Brussels have resulted in the impression that Russia is a little bit "less negative" to EU involvement than to a revamped OSCE mission to train Georgian border guards.

EU officials have told RFE/RL, however, that Russia remains very critical of EU plans. A number of EU member states, led by France and Germany, could block EU involvement.

Zurabishvili also said she sees "more room" for the EU to get involved in attempts to settle Georgia's "frozen conflicts" in South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

She said she foresees the EU participating in monitoring an eventual settlement, assisting in customs control and boosting economic rehabilitation -- where the EU is already involved.

However, Zurabishvili said, the EU must go beyond financial assistance and work out a "full strategy to see its own role in a more complex way." The same applies to Abkhazia, where Zurabishvili wants the EU to take a more direct role.

The Georgian Foreign Minister said Russia remains the key factor for Georgia. She said she doesn't "have an answer" to whether Moscow is ready to cooperate with Georgia and the EU. But Zurabishvili said a "work plan" lasting two months was agreed with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on his recent visit to Georgia. The plan will be reviewed before a Russian-Georgian meeting in Moscow on 9 May.

Zurabishvili called this a "test" for Russia.

"The tone of these exchanges and the agreement on the way to proceed maybe, I hope, presents a way forward, I don't know," Zurabishvili said. "It's a test, in fact, that we're putting to Russia to see ‘well, are you ready to come [along]?' We are ready, certainly, to look at each of those issues whether there can be a compromise."

Zurabishvili said concrete progress going "beyond words" is needed soon, or Georgia's people could again turn against their government.

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