In a wide-ranging interview, the Ambassador of Georgia to the EU talked about the lessons learned from 10 years of Eastern Partnership, her country’s reforms, relations with neighbours, including the biggest one – Russia.
Natalie Sabanadze is Ambassador to the Kingdom of Belgium and Grand Duchy of Luxembourg and Head of Georgian Mission to the EU. She is a political scientist by training and author of publications on international affairs.
She spoke to EURACTIV’s Senior Editor Georgi Gotev.
We are meeting right at the anniversary of the ten years of the Eastern Partnership (EaP) and Georgia is obviously one of the most important countries covered by this initiative. One can hail or criticise the achievements of EaP – what is your take?
I think we have something to celebrate. For Georgia, the Eastern Partnership has meant quite a lot. First of all, I think it was considered as a really bold, visionary and political initiative. And I think it should stay this way.
And what it meant for us, is first and foremost, the shrinking of distance. Ten years ago, we were nowhere compared to where we are now…
May 2009 was less than one year after the Russo-Georgian War…
Exactly. And that’s is why what I say is political, because it was a response to some of the difficult geopolitical events that were going on in the region. And this was both.
We are closer not only politically and economically, but actually physically and socially. All the connectivity projects, people-to-people ideas come into place. Then, of course, it’s the broadest association agreement, which is political approximation and economic integration. But in real terms, it also means that for us it is about a political choice. And no matter what others say, this is a political choice that we have made on our own will, it has not been imposed by anyone. It’s done consciously. And it’s done for us and not against anyone.
This association agreement I often say is probably the most tangible manifestation of the political choice that has been made by Georgia. Actually, for all six countries. The EaP brought all the six countries closer to the EU, from their own starting positions, according to their plans and initiatives and ambitions.
But in different ways. Georgia wants to become an EU member, while other countries covered by EaP have different plans. Belarus is very close to Russia. Azerbaijan wants to keep equal distance with the big geopolitical blocks. Does EaP need to be rebalanced?
It’s clear that these six countries have different ambitions, they have different trajectories, maybe different visions of where they want to go. We have a common past which is what unites us- But at the same time, for the European Union it is interesting to have this partnership with the six. And for us it is interesting too with the new agreement with Armenia, now they’re working on the agreement with Azerbaijan – it’s all good for Georgia, because the more of our neighbors are connected to the EU, the better it is for us.
So overall the impact of having an initiative for six is a good one. It’s very important that this does not become a straitjacket for those who want to be more ambitious, so that it’s not like the lowest common denominator for all. Something like this would kill this initiative, and this is why they have invented the idea of differentiation.
It’s very important, although some are worried that, you know, we have to be inclusive and there should not be too much differentiation. For for the viability of EaP and its relevance for everybody, it’s very important that it is flexible.
We say there are things that are in the interest for the six, and we’re happy to do them, and then there are things that are relevant only for three countries. For example, the trade ministerial for the DCFTA partners which was organised by Commissioner Malmström here in Brussels and then the next one in Kiyv, which is a very good one because this is an objective link that we have the three of us, which is the DCFTA and the same issues that we face.
Furthermore, we have a bilateral track and there is also flexibility on the bilateral track. Once we have all these layers in place, it will be an interesting and flexible instrument which definitely has a future.
Now it’s the ten years anniversary, we look at the past and we should think about where the future will go. What is the final destination for us? For us, it’s EU membership. But we received the message that the EaP is not about membership. I understand, but at the same time it is for us about preparing or advancing on the road to membership. It’s doing commitments, sharing values, applying good standards and so on.
Geopolitically, how has the EaP been perceived by Russia? It seems that they see it as a threat and hostile project aiming to go deep into Russian buffer zones. Bearing also in mind that two people with the reputation of hawks, Carl Bildt and Radek Sikorski, are its architects.
Of course, the European officials do not tire to say that this is not targeted against anyone. And this is indeed not something that is directed against Russia. There are definitely ways in which cooperation can be ensured. Initially, if I’m not mistaken, neighborhood policy was conceived in a way that it was even offered to Russia, but of course, it was rejected. The way Russia responded to the signing of the Association Agreement with Ukraine is of course a clear sign that in does see it as a threat.
I think it’s a bit far-fetched to call it a threat, but certainly it is a competition. It is a sign that they do still think that there is a traditional zone of influence in which Russia is the dominant power and should remain it. This kind of initiative is seen as something disrespectful in the way of doing politics. But as far as I understand, and that’s the whole attraction of the EU for countries like us: that it doesn’t do this kind of stuff. It’s a project of integration, which is fundamentally non-dominating, it allows for sovereign choices for freedom. It’s not something either threatening or dominating. And that’s why countries that left the Soviet Union, like Georgia, are seeking integration with the EU, because this is fundamentally different in nature. It is about our freedom, as opposed to something that aims to take away freedom.
This project, in our view, is attractive. I think it’s correct to say that it really is not targeted against anyone and not taking away anything from anyone. In our case, it reflects what we want. When we talk about this great power politics, the smaller countries normally don’t matter, and for us obviously this is not acceptable.
We mentioned the Georgian war, and indeed, Abkhazia and South Ossetia are still outside the control of the Georgian authorities. Here in the West the annexation of Crimea is mentioned very often, but we don’t hear many references to Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Why is that so?
It is unfortunate that we don’t hear about it as much. It has probably more to do with the fact that we live in an environment where the international agenda is extremely crowded. The active phase of the war happened some time ago and it is very difficult to compete for attention right now, even though all our efforts are of course, aimed at making sure that this does not slip – from the headlines, but also to make sure it doesn’t slip from the actual international agenda, and that policymakers in Brussels and the member states keep that high on their to-do list.
This is important because firstly, we can say that the war started and ended in 2008, but the aggression never stopped. It continues, Georgia and the population that lives in the occupied regions is the constant victim of this aggression.
Accepting this kind of outcome is bad, not only for us and our security, but it is of course bad for the international order which is based on norms and principles, because that sets a very bad precedent, also for Ukraine. What happened in Ukraine is not a new thing, it’s a pattern that is being repeated. And we should be wary of setting bad precedents, just because we can’t solve it, because there is a big power against it. If we can’t solve it, that does not mean that we should accept it. The way to signal this is by rejecting it and keeping it high on the agenda, reminding those who are responsible and those who are in control of these territories. It’s not a new reality, as they say, that needs to be accepted, it’s abnormal, it needs to be solved. And it needs to be solved through a negotiated solution.
One cannot tire repeating this, because that’s in everybody’s interest. At some point, maybe circumstances will change. We never know, after all, the Berlin Wall came down, and that was not easy to predict.
It’s like an untold secret but your country has been quite successful in in reforming, in many areas. It’s also obvious that Georgia has tried to export its experience with other countries, like Ukraine.
Yes, Georgia has been very successful in reforming. It started in 2003 already, quite dramatic structural reforms took place and now we can say that Georgia, known in the past for endemic corruption, a non-functional police force, non-functional state institutions – this has all been corrected. It’s been a remarkable success. Of course, as we do share that experience and in many ways, it’s very well received by other countries that have similar legacies and similar background. It shows that if it had worked in Georgia, it can happen anywhere, and that there is no cultural handicap.
Can you mention the main areas of successful reform?
There is the reform of police, there is the reform of public services. That’s for example, something that Georgia is sharing its experience not only with former Soviet countries but worldwide, because we have one of the probably quickest and easiest ways to receive all public services under one roof. This model works extremely well and the petty corruption which was the inbuilt in these services for years and years, a legacy of the Soviet management, has been completely eradicated.
You are more advanced than a number of EU member countries, why not share it with some of them?
In that sense, yes. We do and we talk about it. There is a real interest because it is it is quite impressive.
You are quite modest about this. Is this the Georgian way?
When they criticise your country about democratic backsliding, what do you respond?
I don’t see backsliding? I know Georgia is not a perfect democracy. It’s not a perfect country in any way. Obviously it’s work in progress, but it is a constant and continuous progress. And we’ve been changing and what is most important, I think that if you ask me can Georgia really backslide and become an authoritarian country in the old style, I would say it’s impossible. It’s impossible not because of the elite, because of the government, it’s impossible because the population – the public will reject it.
In Georgia, there is a very strong civil society, with very vocal actors. Every time there is a controversial decision taken or reform, there is a very strong reaction. And actually, one of the things that I do think as the sign that there is there is progress, is that governments are becoming increasingly responsive to public pressure.
Are the institutions strong enough?
The institutions are functioning. I don’t know whether institutions are as strong as they are in Belgium that you can leave for I don’t know how many days without a government, that would be a challenge. But they are functioning and to be honest, I think Georgia’s civil service is the backbone of the of the state. We have incredibly dedicated, hard working civil servants that are not particularly well paid, and they do their job with passion with no time limitation. And that’s what keeps it going. And it actually I’m a newcomer to the Georgian civil service and I see I’m very impressed with it, and I think it needs to be appreciate.
Georgia enjoys now visa free travel in Schengen. Is there big migration from Georgia?
There is no big migration. We have some issues with this because after the visa fell, there’s been an increasing number of unfounded asylum seekers, there are people who seek medical support, the numbers have been increasing. In absolute terms, maybe these are not that big, but proportionally they’re quite big. So we are working now with our partners both in member states that are particularly affected and the commission to try and put in place mechanisms that would filter this better.
The Belt and Road initiative has become a big topic. What is your country’s position? Do you fear China getting the upper hand along this route?
We want to be part of this initiative, not looking at it as a threat, because this is mainly an economic project for us. Political alliances are very clear, but we are where we are, we are on this road. We are on the so called Old Silk Road and our geographic position hasn’t been exactly a blessing but there’s nothing we can do about it. So we have to take advantage of it. This kind of initiatives try to reduce the distance, and we want to develop Georgia as a sort of transport trade production hub, given where we are. We have signed a free trade agreement with China. We have the DCFTA, we have free trade agreement with the CIS, and this because Georgia is a small market, we consider this is a good opportunity. It’s a small market, but with very good business climate and, and free and lead lean services. We think that this is our comparative advantage that companies including foreign companies can come here start doing business and have access to all this market. So in that sense, we’re interested in this kind of projects from purely economic development point of view.
In your region some countries have difficult relations between each other: Azerbaijan and Armenia, Armenia and Turkey… Except for Russia, your regional relational seems okay?
We have zero problems with our neighbors, to paraphrase a former Turkish former foreign minister, except for Russia.
And this is also a comparative advantage?
Absolutely, and we are very keen to maintain good relations with all our neighbors, to have good relations with all our partners within the Eastern Partnership. What we have with Russia is: no diplomatic relations, frozen state of war, and we hope for a better future.
Edited by Alexandra Brzozowski