In an election season in which Georgia’s NATO aspirations have been hotly debated, Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili insists that his country’s European choice is “irreversible.”
“An overwhelming majority of the people of Georgia consider the goal of joining EU and NATO to be a necessity that will lead to a higher standard of democracy, security, peace, and prosperity in our country and region,” Kvirikashvili said in an interview.
Georgia will hold parliamentary elections on October 8.
“While there are policy differences between many of the political parties running for office, it is remarkable that all major parties are unified in their commitment to further integration with the West,” said Kvirikashvili.
A National Democratic Institute survey conducted earlier this year found strong support among Georgians for their government’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations—68 percent in support of NATO and 71 percent for the European Union.
Nevertheless, in June, Nino Burjanadze, the leader of the Democratic Movement party, said: “Georgia should reject joining any kind of military bloc, be it NATO or any other military alliance. There should be no troops of any foreign country or a bloc on the Georgian soil.”
In response, Davit Usupashvili, the leader of the Republican Party and speaker of the parliament, proposed a bill that would reflect Georgia’s NATO aspirations in its constitution.
Georgia’s quest for NATO membership has made little headway amid concerns among some members of the Alliance that such a move would incite Russia.
Asked about the Russian factor in Georgia’s European aspirations, Kvirikashvili said: “[W]e firmly believe that embracing the European and Euro-Atlantic aspirations of Georgia and other countries of the region will send a strong signal that the re-emergence of spheres of influence and attempts to limit the foreign policy choices of sovereign states are unacceptable in the 21st century.”
In our interview, Kvirikashvili also made the case for the EU to grant visa-free travel to Georgians. He contended that visa liberalization will be a “tangible benefit for our citizens, who overwhelmingly support European integration.”
“It will also serve as a crucial reminder to the people in the occupied territories of the advantages of our European and Euro-Atlantic integration,” he added, referring to Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two provinces that were occupied by Russia following the war with Georgia in 2008. Russian President Vladimir Putin has since signed treaties with both provinces that give Moscow control over their defense as well as their borders.
EU enlargement commissioner, Johannes Hahn, told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty earlier in September that a decision on visa liberalization for Georgia will be made later this year.
Giorgi Kvirikashvili commented on a wide range of topics in an e-mail interview with the New Atlanticist’s Ashish Kumar Sen. Here are excerpts from the interview.
Q: What is the biggest challenge facing Georgia today?
Kvirikashvili: The biggest task we face is remaining a beacon of stability and driver of economic growth in a region where we are surrounded by complex challenges. We have made great progress in recent years with respect to economic development, social cohesion, and democratic consolidation. But there is still work to do. We will never stop working to create a more free and prosperous Georgia.
As a result of Russian aggression in the August 2008 war, 20 percent of our territory remains occupied, and hundreds of thousands of people have been forcefully driven from their homes. We are reminded of their plight every day, and the lessons of August 2008 drive our efforts to build a stronger, more resilient nation.
That’s why we are focused on transforming challenges into opportunities and building a country where all Georgians can thrive.
Q: What does the recently deepened security cooperation with the United States mean for Georgia?
Kvirikashvili: Expanding Georgia’s defense capabilities and military-technical cooperation with the United States is crucial in the context of our security challenges. Secretary [of State John] Kerry’s visit [to Tbilisi in July] was another demonstration of the United States’ tremendous support for Georgia, which has been vital throughout the past twenty-five years since we regained independence. This is especially true in terms of Washington’s staunch support of Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, as well as our strong NATO and EU aspirations.
Secretary Kerry and I signed a Memorandum on Deepening the Defense and Security Partnership between our two nations that is aimed at enhancing Georgia’s self-defense capabilities and resilience. Under this new framework, we will exchange information and work together to counter common threats. It will also enable enhanced cooperation in areas of critical importance for Georgia’s military, including strengthening the long-term sustainability of Georgia’s forces and supporting defense procurement.
The United States has a dedicated friend in Georgia—a stable geopolitical ally and a strategic partner with common values and shared global security priorities. For over a decade, we have served alongside US servicemen in Afghanistan and Iraq. Now, we are focused on territorial defense measures, which are important for Georgia’s security and regional stability. Cooperation with the United States is the key to our success.
Last week, in a strong showing of bipartisan unity, the House of Representatives passed House Resolution 660, conveying America’s support for Georgia’s territorial integrity by a vote of 410 to 6. This bill signifies a powerful statement by the United States in support of Georgia and its sovereignty.
Q: At its Warsaw Summit, NATO urged countries that aspire to join the Alliance, including Georgia, to continue to implement necessary reforms in preparation for membership. Do you believe that post-Warsaw Georgia is any closer to securing NATO membership?
Kvirikashvili: Yes, we do believe we are closer to NATO membership.
The Warsaw Summit demonstrated that Georgia is progressing on its path towards NATO membership in terms of both political and practical cooperation. The allies reconfirmed that Georgia will become a member of NATO in accordance with the Bucharest Summit decision. They underlined that the integration process is moving forward and Georgia has all the practical tools to prepare for membership.
In the context of practical cooperation, the allies agreed to provide additional support and assistance to strengthen Georgia’s self-defense, security, and resilience. These important new decisions include: affiliation of the Joint Training and Evaluation Centre (JTEC) with training and educational activities of the Allied Command Transformation (ACT); a provision of support for the development of Georgia’s air defense and air surveillance; and the establishment of a trust fund for financial support for effective implementation of NATO-Georgia projects.
The allies have underlined that both the existing and new initiatives are helping Georgia, an aspirant country, progress in its preparations towards membership.
And, in an event that sent a powerful message, just two months after the summit on September 7 and 8, the North Atlantic Council (NAC) visited Georgia to discuss the practical way to implement the Warsaw decisions. It was the Council’s fourth visit to our country.
Q: What are Georgia’s immediate priorities in terms of implementation of reforms?
Kvirikashvili: Domestically, our biggest priority is implementing our Four Point Reform Agenda to further modernize our country in a way that benefits all Georgians and creates new jobs.
This plan prioritizes further tax liberalization to foster a growth friendly tax system, aligning Georgia’s tax system with the Estonian Taxation Model. This model provides an exemption from the profit tax for all businesses that don’t distribute profit. The new rules will come into force in January 2017.
We also plan to accelerate the development of major highways to integrate them into the regional transportation network. This will bolster Georgia’s role on the new “Silk Road” and distinguish it as a prime tourist destination.
Tourism is one of the important engines of Georgia’s economy and a big job creator. The number of tourists from all over the world to Georgia is increasing nearly every year. Our hotels are heavily booked and new hotels are a key feature of Georgia’s infrastructure development.
We are also focused on reforming our education system to improve instruction in secondary schools and higher education in order to bridge the gap between professional supply and demand.
Finally, by fostering open governance we seek to further increase private sector involvement in the legislative process and modernize the delivery of public services.
Q: Are you concerned that Russia wields a veto over Georgia’s NATO membership? Why is it important for the Alliance to avoid such pressure?
Kvirikashvili: The decision that Georgia will become a member of NATO was taken at the Bucharest Summit and has been reconfirmed by the subsequent decisions. Therefore, it’s not a question of “whether” but “when” will Georgia became a member.
As it was underlined by the [NATO] Secretary General [Jens Stoltenberg] during the NAC’s recent visit to Georgia, NATO has a fundamental principle that every sovereign nation has the right to decide its own path, including what kind of security arrangements or military alliance it enters. The decision on Georgia’s membership will be taken solely by the Alliance members based on the merits of Georgia and how it can contribute to security of the Alliance.
NATO membership is the sovereign choice of the Georgian people and the ultimate goal of our government. We are determined to do our very best to achieve this objective. At the same time, we understand that we have a challenging road ahead and we are ready to follow every step to accomplish this goal.
At the same time, we firmly believe that embracing the European and Euro-Atlantic aspirations of Georgia and other countries of the region will send a strong signal that the re-emergence of spheres of influence and attempts to limit the foreign policy choices of sovereign states are unacceptable in the 21st century. Georgia’s membership in NATO will widen the zone of security and stability in Europe, thus serving common interests of both the allies and Georgia. Georgia has proven its political determination and ability to contribute to common security and stability. We have demonstrated that we are not looking just for the security guarantees, but stand ready to share the burden of collective security.
Furthermore, our membership will have a stabilizing effect on the region, which would positively influence regional security. Georgia’s success on its path to European and Euro-Atlantic integration will be a powerful testimony that democratic transformation and respect for independent foreign policy choices are possible in our region.
Q: In the run-up to the October elections, some political leaders in Georgia have suggested that Georgia officially reject joining NATO. Are pro-Western leaders in Georgia being hurt by delays on securing NATO membership and visa-free EU travel?
Kvirikashvili: Georgia’s European choice is irreversible. An overwhelming majority of the people of Georgia consider the goal of joining EU and NATO to be a necessity that will lead to a higher standard of democracy, security, peace, and prosperity in our country and region.
Our people have supported the government in carrying out an ambitious reform agenda. Visa liberalization will be a tangible benefit for our citizens, who overwhelmingly support European integration. It will also serve as a crucial reminder to the people in the occupied territories of the advantages of our European and Euro-Atlantic integration.
Georgia will hold parliamentary elections on October 8. While there are policy differences between many of the political parties running for office, it is remarkable that all major parties are unified in their commitment to further integration with the West. Prior to the Warsaw Summit, all major political parties signed a joint appeal to NATO member states to support Georgia’s European-Atlantic aspirations. In addition, over twenty NGOs have formed a Coalition for Euro-Atlantic Georgia. In the past few years, we have successfully conducted free and fair presidential and local elections, and we will complete the circle with the parliamentary elections.
The project of European integration is ongoing and it is not complete without Georgia. With respect to democracy promotion, development, peace-building and liberalization, the project of European integration is unmatched.
Georgia has gained many economic, political, and security benefits from pursuing the European and Euro-Atlantic integration path. The Georgian people are patient and clear-eyed about the timing, and I am confident they will continue to support pro-Western political leaders. In the final analysis, Georgia benefits both from the journey and the destination.
Q: What steps is Georgia taking to address German concerns regarding organized crime—a concern that has held up visa-free EU travel for Georgians?
Kvirikashvili: Georgia remains a committed, capable, and reliable partner for the EU in the fight against organized crime. To address crime, Germany and Georgia have intensified cooperation over the last two years—with concrete results to show. Crime rates of Georgian citizens living in Germany are among the lowest of all migrant groups residing in the country, and liberalizing short-term travel between Georgia and Germany poses no risk of increased criminal activities.
In recent years, Georgia has cracked down on organized crime domestically as well. We will continue to build and expand our relationship with Germany and other international law enforcement authorities to combat these issues and prevent any risks of networks operating abroad.
Ashish Kumar Sen is the deputy director of communications at the Atlantic Council. You can follow him on Twitter @AshishSen.