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Interview: Georgia 'On Its Way' To NATO, EU, Top Official Says

Giorgi Baramidze spoke to RFE/RL at its Prague headquarters on November 24.
Giorgi Baramidze spoke to RFE/RL at its Prague headquarters on November 24.
Georgia is pushing ahead with reforms aimed at joining the European Union and NATO -- and ready to talk to Russia. That's the message from Giorgi Baramidze, Georgia's deputy prime minister and state minister for European and Euro-Atlantic integration, who spoke to RFE/RL correspondent Daisy Sindelar.

RFE/RL: Speaking before the European Parliament on November 23, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili proposed direct talks with the Kremlin. Are we witnessing a major shift in Tbilisi's relations with Moscow?

Giorgi Baramidze:
It was an official statement, but we always try to pursue having a constructive dialogue with the Russian leadership. It's in our interest, it was in our interest, and it will be in our interest, because we're a small European country that wants to have peace and security in and around our territory.

RFE/RL: Saakashvili also acknowledged past mistakes by Georgia -- without going into specifics -- and said your country would not resort to military force to restore its territorial integrity. Was that his way of acknowledging Georgia may have acted impulsively during the war with Russia in August 2008?

Not exactly. He was speaking about Georgian reforms, not about Russia. We never attacked Russia. The Russians were on our territory. We never crossed our borders.

RFE/RL: But by bringing it up, was he addressing Western concerns that Georgia would act militarily in the future?

It's because of these speculations that we have once again underlined our commitment. Actually, it was done when we signed the so-called Sarkozy-brokered cease-fire agreement. But it was not enough for some people, or maybe for diplomacy to go ahead. So we have solemnly repeated it once again in front of the European Parliament, and the president has sent letters to the UN secretary-general and the OSCE secretary-general.
Practically 99 percent of the facts presented by the commission prove the Georgian case and absolutely dismiss all three of the Russian pretexts for attacking Georgia.

So we are ready. We want to push the diplomatic and political processes forward. And as far as this issue, again, of who started the war, let us read the report [into the war] commissioned by the European Union and you'll see everything. Practically 99 percent of the facts presented by the commission prove the Georgian case and absolutely dismiss all three of the Russian pretexts for attacking Georgia.

RFE/RL: Saakashvili's speech at the European Parliament came on the heels of his first bilateral meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama on the sidelines of the NATO Lisbon summit. It also follows a reiteration of support for Georgian sovereignty by the NATO Parliamentary Assembly. Both the United States and EU are interested in maintaining friendly working ties with Russia. Was Saakashvili's softer tone in Strasbourg a result of pressure from the West?

Is that what you call pressure? Quite the contrary -- I think it was supporting us and encouraging us to move toward further strengthening our democracy and our position in the international arena. Both NATO and the EU have demonstrated very strong support for Georgia and its democratically elected government. As a result, we are stronger morally, I think, than our occupants, and we can take the first step.

RFE/RL: But at the same time, it was a shift from the past, when Saakashvili was sometimes outright belligerent when speaking about Russia.

That's natural because they are occupying 20 percent of our territory. We have 80 percent of the population of these two occupied regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, out of their homes. And many of these homes and villages have been bulldozed and leveled to the ground. [The people] have become internally displaced people and refugees, and Russians -- in breach of the cease-fire agreement -- don't allow them to go back. They don't even allow the European Monitoring Mission to cross the occupation line and enter the occupied territories.
On Lisbon-prostitutes story: "It's such a stupid thing to even talk about this."

So of course we're angry. But we know that we need to be, let's say, constructive. And we need to push for constructive and peaceful dialogue.

Seven Years After

RFE/RL: November 23 marked the seventh anniversary of the Rose Revolution in Georgia, something in which you played a significant role. Seven years later, is Georgia where you wish it were?

To a certain extent. Or maybe even further along. But of course we think we could have been members of NATO if there hadn't been the war with Russia and if there had been unity among NATO members.

But actually, speaking objectively, we're in an adequate place. We're equipped with all the instruments necessary to make us eligible for NATO membership. We have a NATO-Georgia commission, which is a very, very powerful mechanism for political consultations and dialogue. We have the Annual National Program, which is the only essential part of this notorious MAP [Membership Action Plan for joining NATO]. So we have everything in our hands. And we have time to do our homework. That's exactly what we're doing.

And after a couple of years, certainly technically, we will be ready -- bearing in mind that the bar for Georgia is higher that it was for other states because of Russia's resistance. And certainly we need to be much better in order to be, let's say, visibly better than others, and convince NATO members to fulfill their commitment from the Bucharest summit [in 2008] to finally invite Georgia to become a member of NATO.

So we're on our way. At the moment, the ball is in our court. We're not ready yet, but within two or three years we will be. And then it's up to the current 28 NATO members to decide when they will issue an invitation.

As far as the EU is concerned, we have the Neighborhood Policy Action Plan, which is a very important and good set of reforms that we are undergoing with help from the European Union. We have the Eastern Partnership, which is a very important policy of the European Union toward its Eastern European neighbors. And we have already started negotiations on an Association [Agreement]. We have signed visa-liberalization and readmission agreements, which will be enforced from the beginning of next year.

Certainly we have very good perspectives to move forward. Neither the EU nor we are ready for membership right now, but we for the European Union, as part of the Association Agreement, to acknowledge Georgia's long-term EU membership aspirations.

So we are on our way, in spite of every difficulty. One couldn't imagine more difficulties that a small European country could face than we've had during these last two-three years. We had an invasion from the Russian side, we have the continuous occupation of 20 percent of our territory. Simultaneously, we had the global financial crisis, and last year in the spring we had internal political turbulence. Our economy, and our government, survived everything.

Now we have 6 percent real GDP growth. The World Bank declared Georgia the world's No. 1 reformer, according to the last five-year period of economic reforms. Georgia is No. 12 in the World Bank's rating in ease of doing [business], and No. 1 in Central and Eastern Europe. And according to the EBRD [European Bank for Reconstruction and Development], we are Europe's third-least-corrupt country. Aren't these really fascinating achievements for this country?

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