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Georgia: Free Trade, Conflict Resolution Hot Topics In Brussels

Georgian Deputy Prime Minister Giorgi Baramidze (file photo) (RFE/RL) BRUSSELS, October 31, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Giorgi Baramidze, Georgia's state minister for European and Euro-Atlantic integration, has been meeting in Brussels this week with EU representatives and NATO officials. Baramidze has also met with some EU ambassadors, among them the French representative to the EU. Baramidze said in an interview with RFE/RL that his most important discussions centered on the possibility of establishing free trade between Georgia and the EU.

RFE/RL: You are among the first Georgian officials to visit EU headquarters in Brussels following the recent adoption of a European Neighborhood Policy (ENP) "action plan" for Georgia. As Georgia awaits the formal signing of the plan, has there been any noticeable difference in the country's relationship with the EU?

Giorgi Baramidze: Certainly, the ENP action plan sets [out] clear priorities where the European Union and Georgia must concentrate on our relationship. These are important priorities indeed for both Georgia and the European Union, issues that are important for the European Union and Georgia to develop a closer relationship, stressing the importance of the rule of law -- first of all, judiciary reform, [reform of the] Prosecutor General's Office, penitentiary reform, [and] much closer cooperation on the issues of peaceful conflict resolution, which is a vital issue of security of our country and [for the] security of Europe as well, and it becomes [a] more and more acute issue. And issues like free trade, which was quite abstract for us before, now we're talking more precisely about it.

RFE/RL: What was the EU's response on the topic of free trade, considering that Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has made the point that the EU could make life much easier for Georgia -- among other things with regard to gaining greater access to the Turkish market?

Baramidze: There are two issues. [Firstly] that the European Union welcomes the idea [of] talks between Georgia and Turkey about [a] free-trade agreement. There is no requirement that the EU should give a kind of permission to Turkey, it just takes note that Turkey and Georgia are negotiating [a] free-trade agreement. We are almost done with a preferential trade agreement with Turkey because we did not want to lose time and we've gone through this process and we [went] ahead with this concrete dialogue. We hope very soon to be able to proceed with free-trade agreement negotiations with Turkey, and in parallel we will start the process [of preparing] ourselves for free-trade agreement negotiations with the EU.

RFE/RL: Would free trade with Turkey be enough to offset the trade losses Georgia has incurred as a result the current crisis with Russia?

Baramidze: That would not be enough. And that is the point why we are asking the European Union to accelerate [the] process [of starting] negotiations on free trade, because the European Union is the biggest friend of Georgia, Georgia is a neighboring country of the European Union and it's also in the European Union's interest to have peace and security and economic development in its own neighboring countries.

RFE/RL: Do you think the European Union is aware of the potential impact Georgian trade issues could have on its own interests?

Baramidze: We think that the European Union, those who are in charge of this issue [are] clever enough and wise enough to see what is the reality and see the importance of the success of Georgia, because let's be blunt: Georgia is one of the advanced countries of Europe's Neighborhood Policy and if Georgia falls [from] pressure from Russia, this would be a serious problem for the European Union. It would send a very, very bad message to any Neighborhood Policy countries.

RFE/RL: Going briefly back to the Russian pressure, could you provide a short assessment of the impact the Russian economic sanctions have had so far?

Baramidze: As much as we have been able in such a short time to assess the damage, we know that it is going to cost for us at least 1.8 percent [in annual] real GDP growth, and 60 percent of our exports [have been lost], and [Georgia has lost] 50 percent of [its] custom tariffs [income].

RFE/RL: Obviously there are some EU member states that are more keen to cooperate with Georgia than others, but overall do you feel Georgia is receiving enough support from the EU capitals?

Baramidze: Certainly Georgia tries to react very quickly and wants to [ensure that] our European friends react very quickly [and adequately], but we also understand that [this] sometimes takes time. We cannot complain [about] our European friends because they are doing their best and literally every week there is real progress in terms of the European Union having more and more understanding of the situation in Georgia and in the relationship between Georgia and Russia -- that this is not just about Georgia and Russia, it's also about Georgia in Europe, and it's about Europe as well, and it's about Europe's security, it's about values, it's about freedom, it's about human rights.

RFE/RL: So, Georgia considers the EU message delivered to Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Lahti summit last month a satisfactory one?

Baramidze: Certainly there are things that need to be said to Russia [in] a more explicit way, [in a] more clear way, because until Russia understands that it is the common position of the European Union, and [that] the European Union is serious about it, Russia will continue this kind of unacceptable behavior. We certainly expect that the European Union is more active in this regard, but [at] the same time, we appreciate what the European Union has already done for it's own interest and our common interest, and for Georgia.

RFE/RL: How then do you view what the European Union says regarding Georgia? For example, the recurring refrain that Georgia must explicitly commit itself to not using force in either South Ossetia or in Abkhazia. Do you consider that a reasonable request?

Baramidze: Absolutely. We don't have any problem with that, certainly when we have real guarantees for peace and real guarantees [that the] peaceful conflict-resolution process moves on, we are ready to sign any kind of commitment, because we are not anyway going to use any force against our own territories, against our own people. We're not talking about our regions. It's about Georgia and Russia. Although [the] Russians try to put this in a different way. They try to portray themselves [as] neutral, but thank God everybody knows that this is not the case, that Russia is directly involved in this.

RFE/RL: Your title contains the compound term "Euro-Atlantic." What are your expectations of NATO's Riga summit on November 28-29?

Baramidze: We are very optimistic actually, but we don't think that it [will be a] summit of enlargement. It's going to be dedicated to the transformation of the alliance, but we hope that there will be some signals sent to the [Membership Action Plan] countries and to countries having 'Intensified Dialogues' with NATO [such as Georgia] to have some perspectives.

RFE/RL: From your point of view, do you think resolving the two 'frozen conflicts' Georgia is party to is a precondition for joining NATO?

Baramidze: No. Progress in peaceful conflict resolution certainly is part of the preconditions, but not the complete resolution. It is very wise of NATO never [to] link these two issues, because otherwise it would give Russia [an] indirect veto power [over] NATO enlargement.

[Baramidze goes on to say Georgia will be "ready for NATO membership" in 2008, but adds that it will be up to the alliance to decide when to expand].

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MORE: Coverage of the situation in Georgian from RFE/RL's Georgian Service and in Russian from RFE/RL's Russian Service.


RFE/RL's English-language coverage of Georgia and Russia.