If there is consensus on one thing in Georgia, it is the country’s pro-western course of European and trans-Atlantic integration, the Georgian foreign minister Maia Panjikidze told EurActiv Germany in an exclusive interview.
Maia Panjikidze is a career diplomat and has served as Georgia’s ambassador to Germany and the Netherlands.
She spoke to EurActiv Germany’s Chief Editor Ewald König.
Georgia has high expectations for the EU’s Eastern Partnership summit in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius on November 28-29, with respect to its Association agreement with the Union. Did you come to Berlin to search for potential allies?
With regard to the EU summit in Vilnius at the end of November, where the focus will be on the Eastern Partnership, we have very high hopes. We hope to be able to sign off on the Association Agreement, so that it can enter into force and we can initiate its implementation soon. There is no indication that things will not proceed as such.
The EU and the Eastern Partnership have set up an additional forum, the Civil Society Forum, in a format which is new to the countries of the Eastern Partnership. Up till now, it has always taken place in an EU country, in Brussels or Berlin. Just recently, it was held for the first time in a non-EU country, namely in Moldova. I have just arrived from there. The next forum will take place in Georgia.
I am in Berlin because Germany is one of Georgia’s most important partners and we conduct regular consultations with our partners.
Why have you specifically chosen to come to Germany during the ongoing coalition negotiations here?
As I mentioned, Germany is one of the most important partners for Georgia. Regardless of how the coalition negotiations turn out, I am convinced that Germany’s approach relations with Georgia shall remain unchanged. I was invited by the DGAP [Deutsche Gesellschaft für Auswärtige Politik ] to make a presentation and speak about the situation in Georgia before the presidential elections [to be held on 27 October 2013]. However, there is a second reason why I am in Berlin. It has to do with the change of government and my own regret that Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle is leaving. I value him highly and we have cooperated quite well.
For Georgia, it seems like things are going well concerning the initialling of Association Agreement. However, the main topic in Vilnius will be Ukraine. Will there be a signature of the Association Agreement with Ukraine or not?
There are six countries in the Eastern Partnership. Of these, only three are expected to progress any further in Vilnius. Hopefully, those three will be Ukraine, Moldova and us. We’ve been exchanging our experiences and are, more or less, approaching this path together. Thus, coordination is very important. Because we are on about the same level, an agreement with Moldova has already been signed, forming the basis of our common ambitions.
It is my sincere hope, that these three countries will take another step forward.
Other countries have reached a different decision. It is difficult, to maintain the same level and same rhythm. Every country has its own ambitions. What holds us together is our common place as eastern European neighbours to the EU – albeit with different ambitions. I hope however, that the other countries will also show a stronger commitment to Europe and will sooner or later follow our example.
To the delight of the Russians...
Russia’s policy is very clear, as was strongly demonstrated again in September: Russia is not happy with the prospect, that these countries will more intensively take the path in the direction of Europe and perhaps even become members of the EU. Thus, as a balance to the EU, Moscow has created the Customs Union and the Eurasian Union.
Currently, Georgia is experiencing a special period of political cohabitation. However, if there is consensus on anything, then it is the country’s western course of European and Euro-Atlantic integration. This course is being taken because it is the will and the choice of the Georgian people not simply the will and the choice of a government. Our goal is to sign off on the Association Agreement in Vilnius. One thing is clear: the most important part of the Association Agreement – the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA), meaning the Free Trade Area with the EU – is not compatible with the Customs Union.
Has Georgia been, and is it under Russian pressure?
In Georgia, the pressure has never been lifted. We’ve been under pressure from the very start, since our independence. Twenty percent of the country is currently occupied by Russia. Now, pressure has been increased and intensified to the extent that barbed-wire fences have been installed along the occupation line. This is an infringement of Georgia’s territorial integrity and sovereignty, of the ceasefire agreement from 12 August 2012 and an infringement on human rights. From our view, the only way to counteract Russia’s illegal activities is to consolidate international support and thereby send an appeal to Russia to end its illegal activities and fulfil its international obligations. We are very thankful to NATO, the EU, the United States and other countries for their continued support.
For Georgia, there is no chance we will change direction. We are going toward Europe. That is why we associate such strong expectations with Vilnius. We hope very much, that the European Union shares our view, that the Agreement is successful and that we can begin with its implementation toward further development.
Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov accused the EU of double standards and was convinced that South Ossetia and Abkhazia would be recognised by more than just five countries worldwide. That does not sound like convergence.
Unfortunately, Russia is still maintaining its position. In a few problematic areas we could improve relations, on various economic and trade issues, on culture and also on humanitarian issues. However, this is only one side of relations. On the other side, the relationship concerns “red lines”. These have remained the same – for both sides. For us, the red line remains the country’s territorial integrity and sovereignty. For Russia, it is the other way around. In Russia’s view there are three states on the territory of Georgia.
For our part, we have a non-recognition policy regarding the occupied zones; quite the opposite for Russia, which focuses on forcefully winning greater worldwide recognition for the occupied zones.
For the time being there are only four countries left, which have recognised the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, namely Venezuela and Nicaragua as well as two tiny island countries, Tuvalu and Nauru. A third country in the Pacific, the Island Republic of Vanuatu, which first only recognised the independence of Abkhazia, but later withdrew its recognition. Now, Vanuatu has even taken up diplomatic relations with us. A change such as this is also possible in the remaining four countries.
By the way, the support of the EU and the United States as well as other partner countries, is quite significant on this issue.
So, you are still quite far from reinitiating diplomatic relations with Russia?
Diplomatic relations are not possible as long as the two zones are occupied.
Russia is concerned about “biological activities” in Georgia near the Russian border, meaning an American bio-laboratory in your country. What are the Americans doing?
The Americans built the high-tech lab in Georgia a few years ago. We are very happy to have it. It is not a secret laboratory where some sorts of dangerous experiments are underway. As a matter of fact, we invited Russian experts to take a look at the place and have even suggested cooperative projects.
After an excited reaction from the Russians, we invited the entire diplomatic corps to show them that this is a normal scientific facility. The lab reports to the health ministry and deals with food security and the healthcare issues.
Over the past few months, the Americans have created disappointment in Europe due to their intelligence activities…
No, not at all. I don’t share this disappointment. For Georgia, the United States is a very important strategic partner. We cannot complain. And it is not possible, that something dangerous could be occurring there without the knowledge of Georgian authorities.
So, this is just Russian propaganda?
The Georgian authorities have complete control over what is happening in this laboratory. There is nothing dangerous going on there for anybody, neither for the country itself nor for the surrounding area. It is also not a place where international projects are taking place, which other countries could be involved in. The laboratory is only significant to Georgia.
Georgia remains a strategic partner to the United States. We are connected by quite a lot. Nothing can harm this relationship. And it will remain so.
Georgia would like to become a member of the EU. Would you be able to achieve this, even if neighbouring Turkey never joins?
For Turkey, I also hope it can join the EU. But I do not connect Georgia’s own membership prospects with those of other countries. It always has to do with individual decisions. I am certain, that if Georgia fulfils the criteria, nothing can stand in the way of our joining; whether in 10 or 20 year’s time. We will do everything to reach this goal and make this Georgian dream a reality.