February 25, 2014
Transcript: Georgia's Euro-Atlantic Future
President and CEO
Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT)
Executive Vice President
The prime minister is so welcome here today at the Atlantic Council, but not only am I saying this; you can see by the crowd, and by the people trying to get in the door, still, to get the available seats, that you're not only a very welcome guest in Washington, but you're also a guest that people are very eager to listen to. (Applause.)
After meeting you earlier this month at the Munich Security Conference, I'm delighted now to be hosting you at the Atlantic Council in Washington.
I also want to welcome your distinguished delegation, including your ambassador to the United States, as well as your foreign minister, economy minister, Euro-Atlantic integration minister, and deputy foreign minister. Welcome to you all. And I must say, the talent that Georgia produces, pound-for-pound, is just remarkable, so thank you so much.
I'm delighted we have so many guests here in the room to listen to your remarks. I also want to welcome our even larger, Mr. Prime Minister, television and online audiences.
And I think you're going to have some peppering via your moderator, Damon Wilson, my executive vice president and our true expert here on Georgia, along with Laura Linderman. We have the great good fortune of having a fluent Georgian speaker on our staff as well, but Damon will moderate the conversation with you later.
The prime minister met President Obama and Vice President Biden today at the White House. Their meeting comes on the heels of tumultuous events in Ukraine, which have underscored that the effort to complete a Europe whole and free is more relevant than ever.
In that context, we're particularly pleased to welcome to the council the leader of Georgia, a country that remains a standout reformer in the wider region, and a country that remains firmly dedicated to a future in the West.
The developments in Ukraine underscore the yearning of citizens across your region, Mr. Prime Minister, for dignity and for the freedom to determine their own destiny. Recent events also remind us that the United States and European leadership and engagement are critical to helping ensure security and prosperity across Europe.
Today is an especially poignant day for marking our conversation, as it is also a national day of mourning in Georgia, marking the day when Tbilisi fell to the Red Army in 1921.
The Atlantic Council takes pride in its role as a strong supporter of an independent and democratic Georgia and of its people's aspirations to be included in the Euro-Atlantic community.
So we're very pleased to host this event today.
Before the prime minister shares his thoughts with us, I'm honored to turn the podium over to a remarkable public servant and a great friend of the Atlantic Council, Senator Chris Murphy, to introduce the Georgian prime minister.
Senator Murphy serves on the Foreign Relations Committee and chairs its subcommittee on Europe. He's been closely involved in monitoring and shaping policy in the region. In fact, the senator has assumed the leadership role on these issues in Congress, having hosted, with much foresight, a Senate hearing last fall on the Eastern Partnership in advance of the European Union's Vilnius Summit, where Georgia initialed, and Ukraine abandoned, an association agreement with the EU.
He also recently traveled to Ukraine at a crucially important time, I believe, in signaling American support for the people of the Maidan, who we will be recognizing at our Freedom Awards in June at the Wroclaw Global Forum in Poland.
We will be recognizing the people of Maidan there. And Senator Murphy is only getting started in the Senate, so we're looking forward to the role that he will play for many years ahead.
So Senator, thank you for your leadership on these issues, and thank you for joining us to introduce the prime minister.
Let me just let those in the audience know – this is a very important thing for people in my position to say at this time in history – spread the message by tweeting, using the hashtag ACGeorgia.
So, Senator, the floor is yours. (Applause.)
SENATOR CHRIS MURPHY (D-CT): Well, thank you very much, Fred. You are right that this is a testament to this wonderful leader to have an overflow crowd here today and potentially thousands more watching online and on television. I want to extend my thanks as well to Damon and Fran and the whole Atlantic Council community for inviting me here to participate in this event and having, really, the honor of introducing the prime minister, who I've gotten to know over the course of the past several months.
When Senator Johnson and I held that subcommittee hearing on the Eastern Partnership Initiative back in November, almost no one could have imagined what has transpired over the last few weeks and last few months in Ukraine.
The Georgian people, probably more so than many of us here in the United States, understand what is driving, and what has driven, those protestors to come out day after day in the snow and cold – why they risked getting arrested, getting beaten up, and why some of them ultimately gave their lives.
Over the last few weeks, Ukrainian flags have been displayed in the Georgian Parliament in a sign of solidarity, and sadly, in fact, two Georgians died on the Maidan.
Georgians too have made great sacrifices for their independence and for their sovereignty, but in Georgia we also see what is possible when people take control of their own future. We've recently seen two peaceful transitions of power following free and fair elections, a maturing democracy, a growing foreign policy agenda, a professional military and police force, a healthy economy and a continued commitment to the reform agenda.
Georgia has also been an invaluable partner of the NATO alliance. Secretary General Rasmussen recently reiterated that Georgia has moved much closer to NATO and that the alliance stands by its commitment made at the Bucharest Summit, something that many of us in the Senate support as well.
We're of course here today to discuss this remarkable progress and the challenges that still lay ahead with the new prime minister of Georgia, Irakli Garibashvili. I had the honor of meeting the prime minister in Munich last month and am thrilled to be able to introduce him to all of you today.
The prime minister is a co-founder of the Georgian Dream coalition, previously served as Georgia's interior minister. In this post he instituted a number of important reforms, including ending the abuse against many detainees, destroying extrajudicial surveillance recordings, and prohibiting the surveillance of government critics. He closed two controversial police agencies and introduced skills and performance-based testing of ministry officials.
Since becoming prime minister in November of 2013, the prime minister has shown that he is deeply committed to Georgia's democracy and, importantly, to Euro-Atlantic integration – a subject that I know he and Damon will cover here.
He may be young, but he is very experienced. Under his leadership, I'm sure that Georgia will continue to be a strong partner and a democratic ally of the United States. And I promise him, as we did today at a meeting that we had on the Foreign Relations Committee, that the United States will continue to stand by Georgia as a true friend and support the Georgian people in every way possible as they pursue their goals, including signing an association agreement and comprehensive free trade agreement with the European Union this summer.
And on a personal note, I can also promise him, having had the similar experience as the youngest member of the United States Senate, that eventually, people will stop mistaking you for a staffer. (Laughter.)
I will now turn the stage over to my good friend and our guest here today at the Atlantic Council, Georgia's prime minister. Welcome. (Applause.)
PRIME MINISTER IRAKLI GARIBASHVILI: Well, thank you. Thanks so much.
Your excellencies, esteemed audience, ladies and gentlemen, first of all, I would like to say that I'm very honored and pleased to be here. Before I embark upon my task in elucidating Georgia's domestic and foreign policy priorities, challenges and prospects, let me thank the Atlantic Council, a world-famous center of excellence with outstanding expertise and profound experience, for your consistent interest demonstrated towards my country. Thank you.
And I think that it is symbolic that I deliver my first public speech in the United States at the Atlantic Council. The trans-Atlantic partnership has indeed played an essential role in creating the world as we know it today, the alliance which contributes greatly to the security, stability and better future for all, which has turned the democratic vision of many states into reality and to which the people and the government of Georgia aspire unwaveringly and in perfect unison.
Georgia seeks to be become part of the Euro-Atlantic community, and we made significant progress in past year and half. This progress substantiates our claim for membership in European and Euro-Atlantic institutions. The 2012 parliamentary elections and 2013 presidential elections underlined Georgia's irreversible progress towards democracy and the rule of law. And as we completed a peaceful and orderly transfer of power and successfully managed the process of cohabitation between old and new authorities, the government spares no effort to continue the democratic consolidation of the country, quite an arduous but equally honorable task entrusted by the people of Georgia.
We understand all too well that democracy is an unending living process, one that requires constant monitoring and mending. And we appreciate the wise (counseling ?) of our friends and partners in this regard.
The major direction of democracy consultation speak of – speak for the breadth and width of the recent changes in our country. The constitution was amended to create a more democratic system of checks and balances, redistributing excessive powers previously vested in the executive branch to the parliament. We also eradicated the malicious practice of elite corruption, money laundering and governmental (pressure/oppression ?) on business.
Substantial reforms were implemented in the justice sector to ensure the independence of courts. Owing to these efforts, the court are gradually regaining the trust, the lost trust among the Georgia public. And we understand all too well that independent judiciary is the cornerstone of every democracy, and therefore, we made every effort to ensure judicial reform was the most consistent and rigorous of all reforms undertaken by the government of Georgia.
Georgia made significant steps toward improving human rights situation in the country, including the minority rights. And Georgia media is as free from political pressure as in other democracy, any other democracy, I can proudly say.
We are also doing our best to improve the economy through inclusive growth and especially through improving the business climate of Georgia. We have already attained substantial results, as currently Georgia is known as a country where doing business is very easy, where companies freely operate in a competitive environment and have a strong guarantees of property rights.
The government is finalizing work on the 2020 strategies – it's called twenty twenty – for social economic development to ensure a long-term sustainable and inclusive economic growth, especially against the background of the World Bank focus that Georgia's economy has expected to grow by approximately 6 percent in 2014.
Georgia's economic dynamism will enable us to become the regional hub. And that is my vision, that Georgia has a potential to really become a regional hub for business and investment activities and moving beyond the current role of energy transit corridor between Europe and Central Asia.
And I should emphasize that in the context of its regional settings, Georgia has made a significant geopolitical breakthrough. We managed to consolidate our statehood without sacrificing either our democratic principles or political stability or economic growth. And by successfully (initiating ?) the association agreement with European Union, Georgia gained a higher international standing as a credible partner for our strategic allies, United States and European Union.
The mentioned association agreement, including a free trade area, opened a new chapter in our relations with the European Union. We consider the agreement to be signed in the next few months as a master plan for the Europeanization of our country.
Ever-deepening relations with European Union are not the only proof of Georgia's international reputation. By becoming producer rather than consumer of security in various international missions, including Afghanistan, Georgia has demonstrated its readiness and commitment toward principles and values that created and then upheld the Euro-Atlantic community of nations.
Needless to say – needless to say that for Georgians, the United States represents a leader of this community and the entire free world. Since regaining our independence, the United States has been supporting Georgia's statehood, security and democracy. We are very grateful for this. The United States' unwavering support for our sovereignty, territorial integrity, democratic aspirations, European and Euro-Atlantic integration and known recognition efforts played a vital role in Georgia's recent success.
After the 2008 Russia-Georgia war, the U.S. financial support to Georgia continued unabated even during domestic financial constraints, which is duly noted and much appreciated by the Georgian people and by the Georgia government.
We look to the United States as our gateway to the North Atlantic alliance. Our pace or integration with NATO has been as dynamic as ever. We continue advancing toward the membership through the NATO Georgia commission and the annual national program. Georgian troops are deployed to the ISAF mission. Despite heavy losses in Afghanistan, support of the Georgian people has not diminished, and we stay fully committed to continue our contribution to the global security. We will stay in Afghanistan throughout the ISAF, and we will take part in a post-ISAF mission as well. Besides, we are ready to contribute to institution-building in Afghanistan, including through sharing our experience in this regard. Also, our units are undergoing special training now, and we will be – and we'll be available for NATO response force already in 2015 and 2016.
And let me also underline once again that we are proud to be among these international security missions. Six years ago, at the NATO summit in Bucharest, the allies decided that Georgia would become member of NATO. And in Chicago, the alliance underlined the importance of holding free and fair parliamentary and presidential elections in Georgia, the progress already made. And it puts us in a strong position to take next step towards – forward in Georgia's NATO integration.
For Georgia, the upcoming NATO summit in U.K. is the best opportunity to adequately reflect the progress made, in particular when the time has rightly matured for it. It is essential to move forward, and the realistic way to do it is to grant membership action plan to Georgia. We stress on MAP, as it is a single integration mechanism providing concrete framework for the implementation of Bucharest summit decision that Georgia should become member of NATO. And by moving to this (potentially new ?) level, we are ready to patiently continue a gradual step-by-step process of comprehensive reforms.
We make success story, which his admirable for ones and in – and is maybe worrisome for others in the region. With the current dramatic events in Ukraine, it has become increasingly obvious that certain foreign pressures play a destructive role, not on only regional stability but also very existence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of our nations – Georgia, Ukraine, Moldova.
We strongly condemn the use of excessive to subdue free speech, which is – which is completely incompatible with democracy, fundamental human rights and European values. And we also declare our solidarity with the aspirations of the Ukrainian people to build a European nation, a true European nation. It is obvious that unless the European Union gives a clear promise of membership to the successful countries of the Eastern Partnership, this crisis – then this crisis, similar to Ukraine, will happen again and again, and let alone the failure of effective implementation of association agreements. The international community needs to send clearer messages to the large and small countries in the region, a message which will underpin the notion that no third party can influence the aspirations of regional countries striving to fulfill their choices of democratic political systems or foreign alliances.
And this very important historical stage for not only Georgia, but also our entire region. The West should realize that giving up on values in foreign policy may be very costly, not only for small countries like Georgia, but also for the entire international community. We hope that Georgia will get its fair share of support and appreciation for the progress it made, despite harsh foreign pressures.
Sochi Olympic Games – I want to say a few words about this. Games are over, and we expect that Russia may increase political pressure in Georgia before signing the association agreement with the European Union. And in this context, we would highly appreciate the U.S. administration, Congress, think tanks, as well as the NGO and media community supporting us through proper and constant messaging to Russia upholding the European choice of Georgia as a sovereign right enshrined in the OSCE Helsinki Final Act in its European integration process.
Georgia's new government has made various good-will gestures toward Russia since we came into power in 2012 after the parliamentary elections. We recently reiterated the pledge made by the previous government in 2012 not to use force in pursuing the process of Georgia's deoccupation. Georgia had introduced a visa-free regime for the citizens of Russia and agreed to Russia's accession to World Trade Organization. We also decided not to boycott the Sochi Olympic Games. Instead, we offered to Russians cooperation on security matters related to the Olympic Games, and we also appointed a special representative for relations with Russia to create a channel of direct communication with Moscow dealing with the cultural, humanitarian, economic and trade issues.
So I would say that some positive signs of improving the relations are already obvious. The Russian market has become accessible for Georgian wine and agricultural products. Transportation links has restored. Issuing visas for Georgian citizens has become easier. But meantime, however, fundamental disagreements persist.
Russia continues, unfortunately, provocations alongside the occupation line in the Tskhinvali region, in Abkhazia region, including installation of barbed wire fences and embankments. And these physical obstacles violate the fundamental human rights of the local citizens, local population such as access to schools, cultivating land plots, water and irrigation systems and so on. And they also infringe on Georgia's sovereignty and territorial integrity. This is just part of the – Russia's over-arching goal of pressuring Georgia, like a number of other Eastern European states, to refrain from European aspirations.
Consolidated international support is the only instrument to counter Russian provocations. Georgia appreciates the United States' steadfast position with regard to Russia's destabilizing policy and the prompt public condemnation of the installation of barbed wire fences and other artificial obstacles by the Russian occupation forces along the occupation line in the Tskhinvali and Abkhazia region, and we count on further and undiminished level of support of our friends and partners in the – in these matters.
On our side, the government of Georgia will do everything within our reach to withstand possible foreign coercion, and we simply are not going to compromise our European future because this is our choice. This is the choice of our government, which is backed by the will of Georgian people. And I can also tell you that we made public opinion surveys which proves that over 85 percent of the Georgian population supports the country's European integration.
Therefore, this process has already become irreversible. And we are calling for your support not because we are internally divided or unsure of our aspirations; rather, we call on our Western friends to help us to withstand foreign pressures that threaten to reverse the gains that free world made in our region since the dissolution of the Soviet empire. Today is the 25th of February. Ninety-three years ago the Red Army invaded Tblisi, our capital, and terminated the independent statehood of Democratic Republic of Georgia, reversing the course of history for Georgian people for 70 years. And it is important to make sure that such historic tragedies do not repeat themselves in the 21st century.
In conclusion, let me also allow to express confidence that with our strong will and with the support of close cooperation of our friends and partners, we will proceed with – resolutely with reforms at home, make Georgia's advancement towards European and Euro-Atlantic future irreversible and further reinforce our strategic bonds with the United States. Once again, thank you for your continued interest and attention, and I'm happy to answer to your questions.
Thank you. (Applause.) Thank you. Appreciate it. Thank you.
DAMON WILSON: Mr. Prime Minister, thank you so much for that remarkably powerful address. I think you provided a real sense of clarity on your priorities and on the challenges and opportunities facing your questions.
We have some time now for a little bit of a conversation. I want to pick up on some themes that you raised and then bring in the audience a bit. First of all, let me echo – let me echo Fred's welcome to you and to your delegation that's here. The Atlantic Council does have a history of putting a spotlight on Georgia, and we've done that because we've been delighted to host you, your ministers and many of their predecessors, and we've done that because we believe that Georgia plays a unique role, and really understanding whether this bipartisan vision that has happened here in the United States that stands behind a Europe whole and free, where that really is going. And Georgia is at the crux of that as the future unfolds on this.
It's also because, as you pointed out – I think you mentioned 80 percent support across the population. We're – there are – when you talk to Georgians, you differ on many issues. There are political differences across the spectrum, but there is a dramatic sense of unity on where your future lies among your people, and I think that's a powerful statement.
For our – for our guests following this, we just heard a crystal clear message from the prime minister about your aspiration for a Membership Action Plan at NATO for pursuing this European agreement, I think as you put it, the master plan for Europeanization of Georgian society, and calling on the European Union to actually offer the perspective of candidacy, the perspective of membership for those that succeed with their reforms, clear messages on the international community, sending messages to small and large countries about the ability to determine their own future. This is some rich material.
Let me turn a little bit to your visit to Washington, your meetings that you've had today with President Obama, Vice President Biden, the Strategic Partnership Council with Secretary of State Kerry, as well as your meetings on the Hill with members of Congress. We can't pry into their private conversations, but help us understand what's been at the top of your agenda here in Washington. What does Georgia need, what does Georgia want from the United States? You were specific about concerns about potential Russian pressure and what the international community can do to help you withstand these. You've been clear about your aspirations for NATO. So tell us a little bit about what you've been – what you've been hoping to get out of your visit to Washington.
PRIME MIN. GARIBASHVILI: Well, thank you. First of all, thank you very much for giving me this opportunity to give a speech at the Atlantic Council. It's a pleasure. You mentioned my meeting with the president and with the vice president. First of all, I would like to say that it was a big honor for me to have this opportunity to meet with your president and with your vice president. We discussed many interesting subjects during our meeting. And I got the very clear message from the president that we, the Georgian government, and Georgia, our country, has a continuing support, a very strong support from the White House and from the administration. And I was really happy to hear that personally from the president.
For us, for Georgians, the United States is our number one ally and our number one strategic partners. People – Georgians really love this country, and we love this nation, and we want to strengthen this friendship and relationship. And I came here to reaffirm the existing close ties with the United States. That's my main message. I really want to elevate the existing friendship and relationship to another level. And I think we have the – we have this unique chance to prove that we, the young democracy, we're growing. We already proved that, you know, we're moving forward. And we want to move forward and we're a forward-looking government.
And you mentioned our parliamentary and presidential elections. I think, you know, we've put – Georgia is in a very privileged position because the parliamentary and presidential elections were really unprecedented in the region – not only in the country, but also in the region. I can probably say that we could manage the peaceful transfer of power. And this was completed by the presidential elections. And we also could manage the – (inaudible) – process, which was really difficult for us because we'd never experienced it before. And I think Georgian democracy proved that it's already a mature democracy and we can give example to other members – other states in the region.
By initialing the association agreement, as I mentioned in my speech, we made Georgia's European integration irreversible. And when I say irreversible I'm – you know, I'm confident because I know that people are behind us. I told you that 85 percent of the Georgian population supports the country's European integration process. And it gives us more energy, more power and it encourages us to move forward. And we made it very clear that, you know, nothing will take us back to the past. We want to transform our country into a real democracy – into a real, European democratic stable and reliable state.
Therefore, I think it is extremely important to be able to have this meeting with your president – with your vice president and in general to have this – to have this trip. And I think this trip is already a great success.
MR. WILSON: Mr. Prime Minister, let me pick up on another reason why your visit's taken on significance in Washington and what's happening, in the region, as you said, in Ukraine in particular. It's interesting, we have Ambassador Norland with us today. It's very clear that the administration made an effort to reach out to Georgia. You're here this week. The Moldovan prime minister will be here shortly. That's there's attention – paying attention to the countries in the eastern partnership that step forward at this summit in November to move forward with the association agreement.
That's what triggered many of the protests that have been unfolding dramatically in Ukraine – remarkable, historic developments unfolding while you were even flying here. Give us your perspective on what this means for the region. What does this reaction in Ukraine, the developments with President Yaunkovych, now presumably somewhere in Crimea, how does this reverberate across the region for those countries, particularly Georgia, Moldova, those countries that did take the step forward?
PRIME MIN. GARIBASHVILI: Well, thank you. Of course, this – it's a very sensitive subject. First of all, I wanted to say that Ukraine is a very important country for us. We have a very emotional relationship with them because we have a long history. Ukraine is a partner country, is a friend country to us. And we're extremely concerned about the recent developments in this country. As you said, you know, things are changing so quickly that we can't even follow.
I think, you know, the Ukraine and the Ukrainian people – I very much hope and I really want this to happen – they will continue – I mean, they will go back to their European choice. I mean, we've seen a lot of, I would say, dramatic developments in this country. Many people died during the manifestations. And we don't want all this to be continued. We want this to be stopped. And I think the Ukrainian people should have, you know, the right to decide where to go – go to the past or go to the – to the, I mean, towards Europe. And I think that's up to them. They should decide whether, you know, going forward or going to the past.
So as for your question regarding, you know, this situation, I think this will have an implication on the wider region. Of course, it's not – it is important, especially for Georgia. I want to say that the new government, the new administration of Georgia, has changed in our attitude toward Russia since we came to power. We changed our rhetoric, you remember that the previous government has a – had a very radical approach towards that. And we tried to improve our relationship with them. We tried to normalize our relationship with them. And we made a number of constructive steps towards Russia.
But we were facing a number of provocations along the occupation line. They already – Russia's already installed 50 kilometers of barbed wire fences along the occupation line. And it continues. Just two days ago – well, yesterday right after the Sochi Olympic Games, they continued. The resumed the installation of barbed wire fences. Therefore, I think, you know, we're watching closely with Ukraine because it is important to see what's going to happen there.
And I think that the international community should be proactive. And the Europe – European Union and the international community in general should be – you know, should – you know, should take decisions, you know, quickly. That's my vision and I think that we should wait and see how things will develop in this country.
MR. WILSON: Sir, let me – let me turn – I don't want to monopolize the conversation. I'm going to ask one more question then turn to the audience. I see a lot of hands already.
PRIME MIN. GARIBASHVILI: Of course.
MR. WILSON: Your viability as a candidate for NATO and the European Union, as you well know, is premised on your reforms at home and what you're doing at home. When we first met you had just taken the reins as minister of interior in the government and were focused on much of what Georgian Dream was elected on – a sense of how – sort of elected on a wave of discontent.
So talk to us a little bit as your – particularly as you're facing, your country is facing local elections coming up, how are you dealing with these internal reforms and particularly the issues of rule of law and justice issues? When we were asking for questions to come in online today about your visit, many relate to the political situation and the run-up to the local elections, the cases that are taking place against many former government officials. What role do you see the national movement playing in Georgian politics in the future?
PRIME MIN. GARIBASHVILI: Yes. Well, it's a good question. And thank you for giving me this question. I want to explain to you very briefly that transparency, due process and rule of law guide us in all these matters, in all these cases. Everything we do, we do transparently. And we make sure that we – the due process is guaranteed and rule of law is respected.
And besides that, I can tell you proudly that all these trials are absolutely transparent. We have international monitors, international, you know, NGOs and many people who can attend and who can really go into details and see these files. And besides that, we have European Union's special advisor in human rights, Mr. Thomas Hammarberg, who's also – is watching very carefully all these, you know, cases. And we're taking advice from him.
Therefore, I think nobody stands above the law. I made it very clear, and I'd like to repeat, that nobody's privileged. And that's not the country that I want – I want to build with my government and with my team. Once I said, and I want to repeat, that when I leave the office – maybe in five years, or maybe later or earlier, nobody knows – I want to – I want to be responsible. I want to, you know, be accountable for what I'm doing now.
And if after five years or after 10 years the new government will find out that I committed a crime, I should be responsible for it. But we're talking about the serious crimes and grave crimes. And I can guarantee you that none of these cases are politically motivated. I'll tell you an example. We're treating everyone, and especially our team members, equally.
When I was the minister of interior, I arrested – I arrested my first deputy. And he was, and he is, very close to me, you know, because we won the elections together. He was one of the leaders. But when he violated law, we had to do it. Otherwise, we knew we would tell people that we are privileged. And we are not privileged. And I don't want to be privileged because I'm elected by the people. I'm elected because I have to serve my country and I have to serve my people. And I have to stay accountable. And I have to stay responsible for everything what I'm doing. That's my position on this. But I can guarantee that none of these cases will be politically motivated. Everybody is welcome to attend these trials and see what's going on.
But when it comes to serious crimes, grave crimes, we cannot be, you know, passive. We have to respond to people, because people elected us. They expressed, you know, a trust towards us. And we could already manage the expectation last year. And people, I can tell you that, were, you know, frustrated, because – I don't want to speak about the past. Please, you know, understand me correctly: I'm here to speak about the future. We are a future-oriented government. We are a forward-looking government, and I don't want to spend time on these prosecutions, but if the prosecutor's office is interested in certain cases, that's – you know, that's their job. And one of the biggest achievements of our government is that today we have a free court. We made judiciary reforms, and I think that – and I can quote the chairman of the Supreme Court – that the court today is as free as ever. That's the achievement of our government. So let the judge decide whether this or that person is guilty. That's not my job. (Applause.)
MR. WILSON: Thank you, Mr. Prime Minister.
Now let me turn to the audience, and I'll begin with, please, the microphone right here at the front. I'll take a couple of questions for you. Let me take a couple of questions.
PRIME MIN. GARIBASHVILI: Of course.
MR. WILSON: Please, for the audience and for those watching, please state your name, your affiliation, and ask a succinct question, if you don't mind.
Q: Yes. Thank you very, very much, Mr. Prime Minister. This has been wonderful. And thank you for making Atlantic Council the site of your first speech in the United States.
PRIME MIN. GARIBASHVILI: Thank you.
Q: I'm Elaine Sarao. I'm the Executive Director of Foreign Aid Through Education – FATE – and my question is: What key, critical areas would you see as being important for the economic development of Georgia to continue its growth and stability in conjunction with NATO? Thank you very much.
MR. WILSON: All right. Let me pick up another one right here – this woman on the side, please.
Q: Thank you very much. Leeleel Gasparyan (ph), Armenian National Committee (of Armenia ?). My question is like this: As a result of the discriminatory policy of the previous authorities of Georgia, the Samtskhe-Javakheti region in Georgia is in bad economic situation today. To correct this, I want just to ask, would you agree to have a portion of the international, in this case U.S., international aid it receives be earmarked clearly for the social-economic development of this region? Thank you.
MR. WILSON: Thank you. I'll let you take these two sort of economically related development issues.
PRIME MIN. GARIBASHVILI: Perfect. Well, thank you for this question. I want to talk about the economic plans of our government, so thank you for giving me this opportunity.
Well, the economy is my biggest challenge, because the economy needs to be developed in our country, and that is the biggest challenge. We made structural reforms and the results are just starting to be felt in our country. In November, we had 8.1 percent growth, and in December we had 8.4 percent. In January we had 8 percent growth, and this year our focus is that we're going to have from 5 to 6 percent growth. According to the World Bank, our GDP growth will be 6.3 percent.
And I can tell that one of the main disadvantages of the Georgian economy was the lack of capital availability, and we're launching the Sovereign Wealth Fund this month, which will ensure the long-term capital availability. Besides that, we're going to invest in bringing investors from the region, and not only from the region, but also from Europe. I personally am engaged in bringing more and more investors. I was in Israel, by the way, several weeks ago, where I met a number of prominent Israel businesses who are interested in getting – you know, bringing investors and investments in Georgia, and particularly in the agricultural and energy sector, because, you know, regions are in a very difficult situation. People are starving and people are in – you know, live in poverty, and our main mission is to create more jobs. And I think agriculture is the sector that needs to be developed as soon as possible, because that will create more jobs.
We're also focusing on building logistic centers in Georgia, because I mentioned in my speech that we see Georgia as a regional hub, and Georgia needs to get back the historic role, which is the historic Silk Road role, and the beauty and the attractiveness of Georgia is its geographical location.
And when I said that we initialed the association agreement, a part of which is the DCFTA, which is the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area, and we're going to have free trade agreement with European Union, Georgia will have an access to 900 million market, in total, which means 500 million market, I mean European market, and 400 million CIS countries and Turkey.
And Georgia becomes more and more an attractive destination for investors. We offer, you know, low prices, low costs – low energy costs, low labor costs – low crime, low corruption. And besides that, I can proudly say that Georgia is number eight in doing business criteria, according to the World Bank. Therefore, I think, as I mentioned in my speech, we already elaborated a national strategy for country's long-term development, and it's called 2020, how country should develop the economy.
And we have to make sure that we have a sustainable growth. That's why it is so important for Georgia to sign the DCFTA free trade agreement with European Union, which will enable us to have sustainable growth. And this will enable us to increase exports onto the European market – and by the way, last year we increased exports by 65 percent – and therefore, I think the economy – if we continue to be on the right track – in maybe three or five years will be in a much better situation.
As for your question regarding Samtskhe-Javakheti, I can guarantee you that not only Samtskhe-Javakheti, but also other regions are in a difficult situation. So we have a plan to develop all regions and without making any separations and any discrimination. So please be assured that I treat Samtskhe-Javakheti as other regions. So Samtskhe-Javakheti is my region. I mean, the whole country is my region, so I mean it's – I don't separate it from other regions at all; on the contrary.
MR. WILSON: Mr. Prime Minister, we have a few minutes left. I want to collect another round of questions. Let me start over here, maybe with Ariel, Ariel Cohen, and come back to the center.
Q: "Gamarjoba" – (inaudible). Good afternoon. Ariel Cohen, the Heritage Foundation.
Georgia, as well as Ukraine, are in a difficult situation because of the disagreements, conflicts, and past history with Russia. Do you think the United States is doing all we can do? Is there anything additional that we can do? And what is your opinion of our coordination with our European allies of developing a coherent strategy between Washington, Brussels, and European capitals, on protecting sovereignty, territorial integrity and democracy – first in Georgia, and second, in view of what's going on today in Ukraine, in Ukraine. "Didi madloba."
MR. DAMON: Thank you, Ariel.
And this gentleman here? We'll take a couple.
Q: Thank you, Mr. Prime Minister, for your speech. I'm Arsen Kharatyan from Voice of America. I wonder how it feels to be the second-youngest leader of the world, but –
PRIME MIN. GARIBASHVILI: Who is the first?
Q: This is – yeah, Kim Jong-un came later. (Laughter.)
PRIME MIN. GARIBASHVILI: Thank you.
Q: No comparison there.
MR. DAMON: No comparison. No comparison.
Q: No comparison whatsoever.
Q: Anyhow, my question is with regards to your meetings with the President Obama today.
In 2012, when Mr. Saakashvili visited Washington, Mr. Obama said that there might be a possibility for a free trade agreement between Georgia and the U.S. Has there been a mentioning of a possibility for a free trade agreement, and would that be a positive political move in support of your aspirations with the European agreement?
And then a quick question about the domestic issues. Your predecessor, Mr. Saakashvili, is in the U.S. And he left the country abruptly.
PRIME MIN. GARIBASHVILI: What is he doing here?
Q: He's obviously teaching in academia. But is he welcomed back to Georgia? He doesn't seem to have –
PRIME MIN. GARIBASHVILI: He's a – you know, he's a citizen of Georgia, so why not? I mean, he's welcome to come to Georgia. I mean, but that's his – he left the country after the presidential elections but of course he's welcome to come back. And I can't promise that people are missing him – (laughter) – but, you know, he can come back. Of course he can. He still has a valid Georgian passport. Therefore he can travel without any problems.
As for your first question regarding the free trade agreement, yes, I can tell you that President Obama raised this issue with me, and actually the president suggested that we have to strengthen our trading economy cooperation. And there's a huge gap, so that he encouraged me to speak about this. By the way, I'm meeting with Mr. Froman in two days and we're going to discuss these possibilities. So yes, it is on our top priorities at least.
As for the – I think there was another question.
MR. DAMON: A question about –
PRIME MIN. GARIBASHVILI: Yes.
MR. DAMON: – Russia's pressuring of the U.S.
PRIME MIN. GARIBASHVILI: Well, I think our friend, the United States, is doing everything in order to protect the interests of our country. And I think – and we're extremely grateful for the United States, for its long and continuing support. We very much appreciate the U.S. support for Georgia.
So as for the – I don't want to – you mentioned Europe, right? You mentioned about how – if Europe –
Q: Its coordination between –
PRIME MIN. GARIBASHVILI: Coordination between –
Q: – policy with Georgian –
PRIME MIN. GARIBASHVILI: Yes. Well, I think Europe became more proactive, especially last month after Ukraine – after the crisis in Ukraine. I wish things, you know – well, I don't want to – you know, I don't want to speak about others; I'd rather concentrate on Georgia. But I think Europe and the United States are doing their best in order to support Georgia and other democratic states.
MR. DAMON: So, Mr. Prime Minister, we're about to hit the witching hour. I'll take one last question then add something to that, with this woman right here, please.
Q: Mr. Prime Minister –
MR. DAMON: Please with the mic. Please, just for our audience that's listening in.
Q: Thank you so much for being here today. It's an honor to be in the same room with you.
PRIME MIN. GARIBASHVILI: Thank you.
Q: On my first trip to Georgia several years ago I immediately fell in love with the people –
PRIME MIN. GARIBASHVILI: Thank you.
Q: – with the culture, with the food, with the wine.
PRIME MIN. GARIBASHVILI: I appreciate it. Thank you.
Q: And I – you may know the expression in the United States: We love New York. I came away with a clear idea for a tourism slogan for Georgia, which is: Who knew? It's a very well-kept secret in the United States. And as I think tourism breeds familiarity and paves the way for good business relations, I wonder what plans you have for promoting – further promoting tourism in Georgia.
PRIME MIN. GARIBASHVILI: Thanks so much.
MR. DAMON: All right, and then we'll do a final one right here please, sir.
Q: Thank you very much. Temur Basilia, former prime – deputy prime minister of Georgia.
PRIME MIN. GARIBASHVILI: Wow, you see? (Laughter.) We have former –
Q: Mr. Prime Minister, welcome to Washington, D.C. When your government came to power, Georgian people, and particularly those who we are being politically persecuted by the previous regime, we are full of optimism that these people would be able to obtain justice. You may know that a number of individuals and their families who experienced politically motivated persecution immigrated to the United States and thankfully found a new home in this great country.
While there are many challenges facing Georgia, one of the most important ones is to fix the mistakes of the previous regime and to give victims of persecution a chance to rebuild their lives. There have been talks about different ways to address these issues, and my question is what is the timeframe and mechanism? What will be put in place for those individuals to obtain justice? Thank you very much.
MR. DAMON: All right, let's close out with these two final questions, Mr. Prime Minister, and then I'll add a word.
PRIME MIN. GARIBASHVILI: Great. Well, your first question regarding tourism, I forgot to mention that, and thank you for raising this. Tourism is another top priority for us. When speaking about the economy and developing our economy, it's part of this.
By the way, last year tourism was – tourism and the number of tourists reached a record number. I think tourism increased by 25 percent and this year we're going to develop new hotels. We're starting launching new projects and we're going to build three-, four- and five-star hotels. We're going to – actually we're going to build three five-star hotels in the capital. And I think, you know, by developing agriculture and other sectors, tourism will be part of this package. So thank you for mentioning this. It's a great – it's a great pleasure. Thank you.
Q: Thank you.
PRIME MIN. GARIBASHVILI: And now, going back to that question, prosecutions, well, we're extremely concerned. I know that many people had to leave the country during the previous regime when they were going after people, you know, and all these – many of these, you know, prosecutions and arrests were politically motivated, unfortunately.
Well, I think that we have to study each case individually because I'm not in a position to give you an answer right now, but I think – you know, I'll take care of your case, sir, and I'll instruct the relevant big challenge of my administration. And I think we're doing our best in order to manage the expectation of people and to give them answers. So we're doing our best in order to regulate this, in order to solve their problems as soon as possible.
MR. DAMON: Mr. Prime Minister, let me just wrap us up here. We've hit the witching hour but just – you may have said Georgia is a well-hidden secret. It's our – one of our goals of the Atlantic Council is to insure that Georgia is not a secret. We've put quite a bit of a spotlight and attention on your country, for obvious reasons: the importance of what's playing out in the region.
On the two issues we've talked about, we've been doing a lot of work on trade and investment, particularly the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. One of our proposals and one of our ideas has been about how we make a commitment upfront that this would be extended to those countries that breach association agreements with the EU like Georgia, another opportunity for U.S. leadership on this, as well as quite a bit of work on the future path for NATO and NATO enlargement. So we'll be continuing these conversations in the weeks ahead, with direct implications for Georgia.
But let me thank you on behalf of the council for coming to the Atlantic Council to give your first speech. You were delighted – we couldn't agree with you more about the symbolism of coming to the Atlantic Council, but I think even more important than the symbolism, thank you for coming here with a clear message, an important message, a pretty powerful message –
PRIME MIN. GARIBASHVILI: Thank you.
MR. DAMON: – about your country's priorities going forward, your country's unyielding consistent commitment to joining the Atlantic community. We here at the Atlantic Council, we represent a team, a mission, a group of folks that believe in U.S. leadership and engagement and working with our closest allies and partners. And I think in many respects your speech was a clarion call for that message.
So if you could join me in thanking the prime minister for coming here to the Atlantic Council. (Applause.)
PRIME MIN. GARIBASHVILI: Thank you.
MR. DAMON: And welcome to Washington.
PRIME MIN. GARIBASHVILI: I appreciate it.
MR. DAMON: Thank you so much.
PRIME MIN. GARIBASHVILI: Thank you – appreciate it.
MR. DAMON: Thank you so much.
PRIME MIN. GARIBASHVILI: Thank you. Thank you.