Vice PM: Georgia may accept a Swiss-style EU relationship

Giorgi Baramidze.JPG

The relationship Norway and Switzerland have with the EU could be a basis for Georgia-EU ties, Giorgi Baramidze, the country's vice prime minister for European and Euro-Atlantic integration, told EURACTIV in an exclusive interview.

Giorgi Baramidze, born in 1968, was a member of the Georgian parliament from 1992-2003 and has served as a minister in successive governments since 2003.  He spoke to EURACTIV's Ana-Maria Tolbaru.

?To read an article based on this interview, please click here

Enlargement Commissioner Štefan Füle said that your country's preparations for start of negotiations on a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA), an integral part of the ongoing Association Agreement negotiations with the EU, are in final stage. Could you translate this in less technical terms?

It is a strong indication that we will be able to start negotiation in December. He have potential to fulfil negotiations within a year or a year and a half, [and] it will depend on certain details. Georgia is very committed, we have institutions in place and we are very quick with reforms, we have demonstrated in the past years that we can do it.

How are the talks on the association agreement going?

The talks are going quite smoothly, we hope next year to have a good potential to finish negotiations. We can, but, of course, it does not depend on Georgia.

It’s been indicated that next year, in spring, around March-April, we will start negotiations on visa liberalisation. This is the next logical step envisaged by the Eastern Partnership and Georgia has everything in place ….

Georgia has everything in place, we already have biometric passports, electronic IDs, integrated border management systems. We already have one of the least corrupt police in the world, I think on the 5th place. It is one of the countries with least criminality and our capital the safest in Europe.

What about political corruption, reports show there are some worries regarding that?

This is the silliest thing one could say. Georgia has been declared by Transparency International as the world’s number one corruption-fighting country. And even our opposition cannot deny the fact that in lower and medium level we have no corruption – but how can we have no corruption in lower and medium level if we have corruption in power, if your boss is corrupt? It’s impossible. Plus, Georgia is a small country, 4,7 million. Everybody knows everybody and everybody knows everything. So, if people know their chief is corrupt, they will also be corrupt, it is like a disease spreading from the top. Those who claim that about Georgia cannot support their statement with even one example.

We have lowered the “shadow economy” from 80% to 5%, by demonstrating that we have 10 times bigger budgets this year than seven years ago, considering also that we have lower taxes than before. Where did this money come from? It came from economy, but instead of going to the pockets of high-ranked officials, now it goes to the budget.

We have been affected by the crisis, but last year we had a 6.5% real GDP growth and we would have a double GDP growth this year if it weren’t for the euro crisis and the crisis in the world. Everyone is laughing when they hear this, they think it’s a good achievement. But still, it’s not good enough for us, because we started from a very low point, so we need to go even faster.

Do you think the EU appreciates you enough?

We think, in general, yes, and the commencement of talks on the DCFTA and maybe soon finalising the association agreement demonstrate this. But we could have had this quicker. …

[T]he EU is our strongest hope, we want to be positive, we want to do better, when we see there is not enough … some kind of support. First of all, what we want more and definitely is support in the security field. We see that there is a big room for the EU and the US to put pressure diplomatically and politically on Russia to stop the occupation of Georgian territories, because this problem is dragging us behind very, very severely. It is about the general development of the country. You could imagine how big a burden this is for us: 350,000 … internally displaced persons and in total half a million, counting the refugees.

We could have done much more and we could have done things much quicker if we had resources, we have demonstrated we can do things with resources. Now we are addressing old internally displaced persons. We don’t want to criticise our friends, because we are thankful for their support. What we mostly want is political and diplomatic pressure on Russia and more involvement of the EU on the security field, because right now, Russians do not feel this pressure. They do not care about this occupation much. Yes, the EU is talking to them, but Russians are not taking it seriously. It’s obvious.

But how could you talk about EU integration when you have the Abkhazia and South Ossetia conflict?

In 2008 it was revealed that we had always had a problem with Russia. Russia has always wanted to punish Georgia for its desire to be independent and to be part of the West and recently, [Russian President Dmitry] Medvedev said openly that what he did in 2008 was important in order to stop Georgia and other countries entering NATO.

What about EU membership?

At the moment, it is not relevant; we are not talking about an entry in the medium-term, at least for three, five years.

Once we are more and more integrated it will be more and more difficult for Russia to continue this illegal occupation. And once we become NATO members, Russia will lose its incentive to keep this occupation. They will realise that with these kind of 19th-century methods, it will be impossible to reach any deal with Georgia. We do have a common interest with Russia and we are ready to respect that, but with tanks and occupation they cannot do this. I think that once we enter NATO they will be more constructive and it will be then much easier as far as the EU integration is concerned. The same happened with Poland and the Baltic states – after they became NATO members, Russia started a normalisation of the relationship.

Today Georgia is closer to NATO membership than it was three years ago. We have got an annual national reform programme to upgrade our institutions to the NATO level and the NATO-Georgia commission for political consultations on all issues. We are using these instruments effectively and every year we have a significant progress. We are demonstrating performance, so within two-three years after the elections next year, all pre-conditions should be met.

Do you think you will first become a NATO member and then a EU one?

Yes, because EU integration requires many more significant structural changes in the economy and we also have to rise up to the EU legal standards, so it’s a much longer process, but it is our objective.

Do you think that a two-speed Europe would help Georgia integrate much easier in the EU?

We have always tried to stay away from situations in which others considered us as second-class students. We don’t want to go out of Russia’s influence and say goodbye to the bad past where we were always considered the younger brother and join an entity under similar conditions. But these are just speculations yet. EU membership is not an immediate goal for us, although it is our objective. Our place in the family of European free and democratic nations is granted, we are EuropeansWhat will be the technical conditions on this, we will see, something we might accept … like Norway or Switzerland, they are European nations, but not part of the EU, some are part of Schengen, some not – the UK has two opt-outs and you cannot say Great Britain is on a second or third layer. So it will be a choice governed by the conditions the country has to meet and the interests of both sides.

But maybe an EU running at different speeds would lower the bar for your entry?

We are not going to lower the bar for ourselves. Whatever reforms we are doing, we are not doing it for NATO or the EU. We are building a normal, civilised, European, modern country and we are not doing this for the EU. So we will always keep bar high in order to meet high standards. So in terms of the technicality of EU integration, it might help us, but we will seek the strongest type of integration, we will raise the bar high for ourselves, even if the EU will say we can lower it. This process should not be dramatically painful, it should happen smoothly and should not bring negative results for our citizens.

There is already de facto a stage-by-stage integration happening already, with DCFTA and the visa liberalisations are significant steps and represent more than 60% of the integration, these integrate the people and that is the most important part.

We are moving step by step, irritating nobody, being a burden for nobody but taking it step by step and entering the EU when we are fully ready. We are taking the good experiences from other member countries and transforming them and applying them to the reality on the ground in Georgia.

If the EU would propose a fixed EU integration calendar for you, would you forget the conflict with Russia?

I cannot imagine how one could do that; it is impossible to imagine it. How could we? I do not see anyone seriously discussing this in the future. The goal of the nation is to be happy, that is why we also want NATO membership. How could we feel happy and secure if we ignored the interests of half a million of our citizens, if we forget about our country and about what our homeland represents? I do not think that is possible.

The relocated people want and shall go back to their homes. For Georgia bargaining this against EU or NATO membership is out of the question.

What do you think of Russian Prime Minister Putin's idea to build a Eurasian union?

It is a demonstration of Putin’s real intentions. We have been telling our friends from the West – Putin said several years ago that he thought the dissolution of the Soviet Union was the biggest tragedy of the 20th century and he demonstrated through his policy that he is going to restore somehow this entity. And now they have come to the point where they are openly saying this.

So it is time for some politicians in the West to open their eyes and just pay attention to what is going on in Russia. The Eurasian Union would be a modernised Soviet Union. 'To modernise this entity' is the Russian saying for collecting lands and creating new spheres of influence. There is a change in the name, but the substance stays the same. Because the West are not pushing them to act otherwise, they think they can use methods such as blackmailing to drag countries into this so-called union.

Therefore, the West should not be silent. What is happening before the eyes of the West is threatening the West’s interests. Making a democratic area grow, when an area of non-democracy and a totalitarian regime is growing – this is a threat for the peace, stability and security for the West.

Russia’s intentions are very clear, it is a matter of urgency, because it is already happening. The West should be tougher on Russia and engage with Russia. The West should not appease Russia and should not forget about its principles and values. Once the West showed its unity based on common interests and values, Russia would behave properly. But if Russia managed to divide the European and Euro-Atlantic countries, then it could operate and deal with these countries individually. So West should be united and talk to Russia adequately.

This started before the war in August 2008 and we had been saying this. At least know it is time for European leaders to acknowledge the simple reality.

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