Minister: Georgia will send a team to the Sochi Olympics

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Achieving the territorial integrity with the Russia-occupied territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia will take time, but in the meantime Georgia seeks “fields of cooperation” with Russia and will not boycott the Sochi Olympic Games, Georgian Foreign Minister Maia Panjikidze told EURACTIV 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’s Senior Editor Georgi Gotev

What is bringing you to Brussels?

I came because of a NATO ministerial ISAF meeting and a new format of NATO cooperation, the so-called “4+3”. It took place for the first time yesterday (23 April), for aspirant countries Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Georgia, and three NATO countries: Turkey, Poland and Romania. It was the initiative of the NATO countries; they created this initiative for the better integration of aspirant countries into the Atlantic structures, and we agreed on concrete steps, joint projects.

Of course I used the opportunity to have some bilateral meetings, the most important was with US Secretary of State John Kerry today, because America is our most important strategic partner, of course.

It’s not the European Union?

Of course, this is what I wanted to say now, the European Union is the most most important, because we are in Europe, and we want Europe. This is why I also had meetings with [Deputy Secretary General of the External Action Service] Helga Schmid, with [Trade] Commissioner Karel de Gucht, and I will have a meeting with [Enlargement and Neighbourhood] Commissioner Štefan Füle. I have met before with Helga Schmid and Commissioner Füle. But this was my first meeting with Commissioner De Gucht. And it was important for me to have this meeting with 25 members of the European Parliament, from all groups, called “Friends of Georgia”. They all want to help us to avoid mistakes on our way of European integration and we had a very open and frank discussion. It helps us and it helps the members of the European Parliament to better understand Georgia’s problems and challenges.

Is the political climate better now? The last time we met in December you told me that the centre right European People’s Party was biased against the newly elected government of Bidzina Ivanishvili.

We had representatives of EPP in this meeting today. They asked very direct questions on the concerns they have, and I think I could explain to them that there is no ground for concerns, and that the new government is trying to develop democracy in Georgia and bring the country forward. I assured that the government is very interested in having a strong opposition in the country and is creating conditions for strengthening civil society, for other forces to come out with new ideas. We think that civil society is the most important control mechanism for the society and for the political process. It is one of our main priorities is to give the civil society the chance for development.

Last time you said that the main partner in Georgian Dream, Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream-Democratic Georgia, has plans to join the centre-left Party of European Socialists. Did you make progress toward this goal?

As a foreign minister I am a bit far away from party life…

But you know.

Of course I’m informed and I know that the party, which is now one year old, tries to create a good infrastructure and will take the opportunity to develop international ties. The family where Georgian Dream sees itself is the social-democratic European political family.

Let me ask you about Russia. Your government tries to improve the relations which were badly damaged over the August 2008 war. But reportedly the process of Russification in Abkhazia and South Ossetia continues. How are you going to manage this?

Russia still occupies 20% of our territory. And the de-occupation is the main priority of our country of course. We try to have a direct dialogue with Abkhazians and Ossetians. At the same time we try to make our country attractive for everybody. I think this will be the main argument for the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Georgia. Unfortunately we don’t have a lot of mechanisms to restore the territorial integrity of the country and we try to improve the relations with Russia. But we are realistic and we know that it cannot happen today or tomorrow, it will take time. But what we promised to our people in the whole country is that we will try to do our best to achieve the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the country.

Russia is hosting the winter Olympics in Sotchi, which is quite close to Georgian territory. What is your position?

We refused to boycott the Sochi Olympic Games. The Georgian team will travel to Sochi and participate in the Olympic Games. And we see this event also as a field of cooperation in several issues, like common security, but also some other logistical cooperation.

Prime Minister Ivanishvili was in Strasbourg yesterday, where he addressed the Council of Europe. Your government obviously wants to communicate?

The government did it from the very beginning. The first visit of the Prime Minister was to Brussels, to the EU and NATO. And not only me, other ministers travel a lot in the West, but also to the neighbouring countries. European integration is the priority of our foreign policy and it’s only natural that we meet regularly our counterparts.

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