The occupied Georgian territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in the wake of war with Russia in August 2008 should not be considered as a "frozen conflict," Giorgi Baramidze, vice-prime minister of Georgia responsible for European and Euro-Atlantic integration, told EURACTIV in an exclusive interview.
Giorgi Baramidze, born in 1968, was a member of parliament in Georgia from 1992-2003 and has served as a minister in successive governments since 2003.
He was speaking to EURACTIV's Senior Editor Georgi Gotev.
Mr. Vice Prime Minister: What is the purpose of your visit to Brussels. Who have you met?
First of all, I participated in a conference organised by the European People's Party (EPP), devoted to Georgia, which attracted considerable attention toward my country. I'm happy that many prominent parliamentarians and experts attended this conference. I also had a meeting with Enlargement and Neighbourhood Policy Commissioner Štefan Füle, as well as with the commissioner for education, Androulla Vassiliou, and Transport Commissioner Siim Kallas: as well as with other officials.
The title of the conference you mentioned was 'Reactivation – the future of EU-Georgia relations'. It sounds like these actions are not active enough and need to be reactivated.
Well, it's a catch word, probably. But we kept those relations active. Last year we started negotiations on an Association Agreement. These go smoothly and we hope to finish them on time. From 1 March of this year we have in force visa facilitation and readmission agreements, and we are in a primary consultation process on a DCFTA (a deep and comprehensive free trade area). So indeed it was a very active period.
How would you compare the progress of your country in its relations with the EU with other countries from the EU neighbourhood, like Ukraine?
Ukraine in all regards are leaders. It's a huge country, its location is also much more favourable than Georgia. It's no wonder if the EU pays great attention to Ukraine. But we are following Ukraine's path and moving in the same direction.
But your country has a frozen conflict. I'm referring to Abkhazia and South Ossetia, territories which your country lost in August 2008. How does it influence your relations with the Union?
It's a huge mistake to say that we have a frozen conflict with Abkhazia and South Ossetia. We have an open conflict with Russia. And we have always had a conflict with Russia. We don't have a conflict with our own regions. We have a Russian Federation, which has instigated some elements on the ground, in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Even before the August invasion and war, this conflict with Russia was never frozen. We are telling our friends: don't consider this conflict as frozen, and this situation as frozen.
We have a situation where it's clear that this is not an ethnicity-based problem, because we have 80% of the population taken out of both occupied regions, and these are not only ethnic Georgians. It's very important to underline and to prove that this is not an ethnic problem. We have ethnic Abkhaz, Ossetians, Russians, Ukrainians, Jews and many others, who for disagreeing with the separation of this region from Georgia have been kicked out. 80%! And ethnic cleansing was conducted there, which was confirmed by the Tagliavini report.
This conflict with Russia is an important obstacle for Georgia's development. But we hope that we will be able to overcome the difficulties, with the EU more involved in the conflict-resolution process. We have a European Union monitoring mission on the ground. Unfortunately, they cannot cross occupation lines, because of Russia's non-compliance with the six-point ceasefire agreement. But we hope that in the future this mission will be able to enter occupied territories and perform its duties, according to its mandate. And we hope the EU will be much more decisive in this regard.
You may disagree with me, as I called the situation with South Ossetia and Abkhazia a frozen conflict, but you may agree that it has been Russia's strategy to create no man's lands, as obstacles for their former republics to get closer to NATO and the EU. Transnistria is a similar problem for Moldova. There are other examples as well…
I'm reluctant to call those situations frozen conflicts, but you are right in saying that Russia thinks that by maintaining conflicts in different areas and with different countries, it can prevent both NATO and the European Union from being enlarged, to have those countries included in these organisations. It's quite clear for everybody.
There is less talk of Georgia joining NATO after the August conflict. Perhaps it's not realistic to assume that Georgia could join the Atlantic alliance anytime soon?
No, this is not right. We speak adequately about NATO membership, we speak all the time. When someone asks, we have a very vibrant NATO-oriented campaign in the country, we have an information centre which disseminates information about this.
We don't speak so much as was the case before the war and during the [April 2008] NATO Bucharest summit. During the Bucharest summit we had been asking NATO to give us a mechanism in order to prepare for NATO membership. Now we have this mechanism.
Now we don't have to talk too much, now is the time to do business, to do our homework. We know we need two to three years to be prepared, to upgrade our institutions to NATO standards. And then after, the ball will be in NATO's camp.
We have very good preconditions to become members. Three times NATO has stated that Georgia will become a member of NATO, two times after the war, one at the Kehl [NATO] summit [3 April 2009] and the other at Lisbon [NATO summit 20 November 2010]. So we have decisions that Georgia will become a NATO member and we have mechanisms, we have a national programme and a NATO-Georgia commission. So we have all the preconditions. We just need time and to deploy more efforts to prepare.
Do you think that the EU is better equipped now, with Catherine Ashton's European External Action Service, to help your country solve its problem with Abkhazia and South Ossetia?
Again, we don't have problems with Abkhazia and South Ossetia, we have problems with Russia, we have a conflict with Russia. But certainly, there are issues to be solved in Abkhazia and in South Ossetia. The victims of ethnic cleansing, those 80% of the population, should be able to return and reconcile with the remaining 20%.
We realise that with the Lisbon Treaty, the Union has stronger institutions and is certainly better equipped to address the acute issues in the Union's neighbourhood.
So you will try to put your country's problems higher in Catherine Ashton's agenda?
Certainly. There are two officials working on the issues related with Georgia. One is the special representative of the EU for the Geneva talks, aimed at solving the conflict with Russia [Pierre Morel], and the second one – the special representative of the EU for the Southern Caucasus [Peter Semneby].
How is the economic situation in Georgia? Many countries suffered from rising prices of foodstuffs. Did these problems also affect your country?
Yes, indeed, the problem has affected Georgia. Inflation has reached two digits last year and in the beginning of this year. But in general the economic situation is getting better. Last year we had around 6% real GDP growth. In the first two months of this year we had 9% real GDP growth. Still this is not good enough for us, we hope to do more.
Are foreign investors coming to Georgia?
They are coming, despite the fact of the occupation and the still unsolved world economic crisis. Investment grew last year. Tourism grew by 36%, and as a consequence the economy also grew.
If there was one thing you would like to see happen in relations between Georgia and the EU for the year to come, what would that be?
The finalisation of the Association Agreement, the commencement of the DCFTA negotiations and the introduction of the roadmap for visa liberalisation.