Ladies and gentlemen,
I would like to thank the Atlantic Council of the United States for this opportunity to speak to a distinguished group of policy-makers, businessmen, experts, and above all, very good friends of Georgia. This Institution serves a very noble cause of keeping alive the values of Trans-Atlantic partnership that helped to maintain peace, and promote universal democratic values for decades.
Euro-Atlantic integration has been and firmly remains Georgia’s foreign policy priority. We believe that our national security and lasting regional peace can be achieved only through our strategic partnership with the United States, and through our integration into NATO.
In recent years, both security and democratic values have been endangered in our region. Russian aggression first against Georgia and now against Ukraine left no doubt about Russia’s intention of carving out a sphere of influence in the post-Soviet space. Western passivity in the face of Russian aggression not only encourages Moscow, but also discourages the regional countries. It is impossible to “appease” Russia by striking geopolitical deals with Moscow, because tomorrow these agreements would be quickly forgotten by the Kremlin if necessary. Also, so-called “frozen conflicts” provide only temporary peace that will inevitably turn into greater problems later on. These conflicts do not resolve by themselves without the active political and diplomatic engagement from the West.
Georgia chose a cautious, yet very principled foreign policy, and, in the past few years, made a steady progress toward democratization. Not only did we manage to escape Russia’s diktat, but also created a viable state with evolving democratic institutions. Our relationship with Russia remains our greatest foreign and security challenge. The Georgian Government continuously demonstrated its goodwill to persuade Russia to fulfill the August 2008 agreement and withdraw from Georgia’s occupied territories – Abkhazia and Tskhinvali/South Ossetia.
We have been conducting principled negotiations with Russians in Geneva, as well as talking to them through Prime Minister’s special representative. We also established a visa-free travel regime for Russian citizens. Despite our best efforts, Russians grabbed more territories, erected barbed wire fences, and signed the so-called cooperation agreements with de-facto authorities in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. These “agreements” establish a definitive policy of creeping annexation of these lands by Russia. Despite these provocative actions, Georgian Government remained truthful to strategic patience. However, as history has taught us, it is an illusion to count on Russia’s goodwill in resolving conflicts. Our main tools for winning is building democracy and the rule of law.
Indeed, Georgia has been and remains a champion of liberty and democracy in the region. Peaceful power transition three years ago gave a fresh start to democratic reforms. Our Government established a genuine system of political checks and balances and ensured that the law-enforcement, judicial, and penitentiary systems were effective, independent, transparent, and, also, truly depoliticized. We have achieved a lot, but there is still more to accomplish. One of the most important promises that we made was restoration of justice. This meant not only correction of misdeeds of the previous Government, or investigation of some of most atrocious of their crimes, but also empowering larger, previously disadvantaged segments of the population. Our emphasis on the protection of private property rights created new opportunities for Georgian and international business community.
Media freedom remains one of our greatest achievements. The Government does not control any media outlets, including the state-funded Georgian Public Broadcaster. In the last few days, we have witnessed a legal dispute over the ownership of the Rustavi 2 TV company. There are attempts to cast this dispute as political. I assure you that everything will be done to ensure that there is no interference in the broadcasting policy of any media company. Let me reiterate that even the most biased broadcasting policy can bring much less harm to the country than our partners’ questions with respect to media freedom in Georgia. Democratic transformation is a continuous process. Practice shows that this process does not end even after joining NATO or the European Union. Therefore, even in case of questions about the ongoing democratic process in Georgia, this should not become an impediment or a conditionality for Georgia’s integration with Euro-Atlantic structures.
Our Government is committed to free entrepreneurship and free trade. According to the World Bank’s new report on Governance, since 2012, Georgia made very impressive progress, jumping dozens of places in the World Bank ranking in terms of regulatory quality; voice and accountability; rule of law; political stability and government effectiveness; and control of corruption. These improved practices helped us to retain economic growth and political stability in a very volatile regional environment, when double crises in Ukraine and the Middle East drained our region of international investments and seriously shook the economic and monetary credibility of regional countries. Once again, Georgian people’s huge and bold investment in democracy paid off and gave our Government mandate to continue with political and economic reforms.
We are committed to these reforms, and we need strong support from the West, first of all, from the United States to keep our good work going. Above all, Georgia needs reassurance. Despite all the hardship, disappointment, fatalities of our soldiers in military missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, and previous failed expectations of Membership Action Plan for NATO, our public remained committed to the Euro-Atlantic course. Our people registered very high preference for Georgia’s membership of both NATO and the EU, according to various authoritative surveys. Yet, this tendency cannot be taken for granted, as in the absence of solid commitment to Georgia from the West, our electorate may begin to question the benefits of Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic choice.
Let me say that the Western approach to regional conflicts has been sporadic and incremental. As soon as any regional conflict lost its intensity, it would be relegated to the backburner. So, for instance, occupation of Georgia’s lands has been hardly revoked as the crisis in Ukraine evolved. And Ukraine may not be the last conflict in the region. Therefore, what we need is not an incremental approach to each crisis, but a comprehensive strategy to contain and roll back extremism, aggression, and authoritarianism. It is impossible to maintain a status quo, let alone democratic transformation, only relying on resolve and perseverance of individual countries, such as Georgia.
Together with our Western allies, first of all the United States, we should work to ensure that Georgia gets its due at NATO’s Warsaw Summit next year. We have demonstrated both political and technical readiness for advancing to the next stage of integration with NATO. Now the ball is in the West’s court, and we are ready to discuss creative approaches to advancing Georgia along the path to NATO. We believe, the United States is our key ally in this endeavor.
Another big issues for Georgia is exploring the opportunity of free trade with the United States. President Obama declared in 2012 that it was time to start the High Level Trade Dialogue on trade and investments with Georgia. We believe, we should start talking about a free trade agreement with the United States. Such an agreement would be mutually beneficial. Needless to say, it would help Georgia economically, but also strengthen the rule of law in our country. An American-Georgian free trade agreement would also demonstrate to regional countries that democratic reforms pay off and such reforms may have very tangible economic benefits. A free trade agreement with Georgia would open opportunities for American businesses to explore regional markets of the Caucasus and Central Asia. For the record, currently Georgia enjoys working or prospective free trade regimes with the European Union, China, Turkey, and most regional states, and we hope to reach out to the United States too. Georgia is making every effort to become a regional hub for trade and investments. Recently we held a Silk Road forum, demonstrating the immense opportunities for Georgia’s role in regional trade, transportation, and development.
Finally, I would like to underline the importance of the political support from the United States for Georgia. Since the first days of our independence, America was our greatest partner and ally. You helped us to survive harsh times, strengthen our statehood, and assisted us in developing our democratic institutions. Now, I believe, is time to take our partnership to the new level, and make Georgian-American relations the backbone of regional stability and democratization.