Mikheil Saakashvili: “Georgia is an ancient European nation”

Pressmeddelande   •   Nov 15, 2006 09:27 CET

Speaking to a formal sitting of the European Parliament, Mikheil Saakashvili, the President of Georgia, told MEPs his country was committed to the path of reform, integration with Europe, the peaceful resolution of the issues of South Ossetia and Abkhazia – and to working for better relations with Russia, which he said had imposed an economic blockage on Georgia.

EP President Josep Borrell welcomed Mikheil Saakashvili, President of Georgia, to the Chamber, telling him his name would go down in history in association with Georgia's "Rose Revolution" of three years ago. He had led his people in demanding clean elections, and an end to corruption and maladministration. Mr Borrell raised the issue of Georgia's relations with Russia, saying it was "obvious that Russia was exerting great pressure... We fully support your sovereignty and territorial integrity, while we have also said that the issues of South Ossetia and Abkhazia must be resolved around the negotiating table. We have called on Russia to end acts of harassment against Georgians in Russia, and to end the suspension of transport and postal links. The Commission and Council should help to overcome the impact of these measures."

Mikheil Saakashvili said Strasbourg was particularly important him, since it was here, as in intern at the Council of Europe, that he had first learned about the human rights principles he was now able to help apply in his own country. It was also here that he first met his future wife.

Georgia – an “ancient European nation”

He said Georgians had been Europeans "since the time when Prometheus was chained to our mountains and the Argonauts came to our country in search of the Golden Fleece... we are an ancient European nation." Europe, he said, had always been the first choice for help and moral support in troubled periods.

He was not, he said, requesting that Georgia be admitted to the EU: "Membership is a distant goal - and is not on our agenda today. Rather, it is the principles on which Europe is built that provide the cornerstones for our development... Our European path was chosen by the Georgian people themselves."

Rapid progress since the ‘Rose Revolution’

As the third anniversary of the 'Rose Revolution' approached, Mr Saakashvili said that at the time, Georgia had been a failed state. Survival had been a daily struggle for all but a privileged few, insecurity and disorder prevailed, the security of the country was subsumed to the interests of larger neighbours and there was rampant corruption and endemic injustice.

"Three years on, Georgia has changed beyond recognition. We are reforming our institutions and economy, to bring greater prosperity and stability to our people and our region." He outlined four goals which had been pursued consistently: the restoration of democracy and the rule of law; the eradication of corruption; the creation of revenue for citizens and the protection of territorial integrity.

"We have completely reformed our police forces - Georgian drivers no longer worry about being arbitrarily stopped by traffic police demanding bribes and business owners do not fear random harassment. We have made an irreversible commitment to reform our judicial system (...) we are strengthening the independence and professionalism of our judges and legal professionals, while reducing the powers of the President (...) We are reforming our legal education system (...) and building new prisons which meet the standards of human rights monitors."

He also stressed the "vigorous" oversight of the executive by Parliament and the "liberal free press and vibrant NGO community."

"Perhaps one of my biggest regrets to date is the fact that Georgia still does not have a robust and constructive opposition (...) Nothing would be more dangerous to a fledgling democracy that to artificially manufacture and opposition. I can only hope that Georgia's opposition parties will become more vigorous, as well as more responsible and competent, testing the government, and one day (but not that soon!) prevail in open and fair elections."

Mr Saakashvili said liberal economic reforms, low taxes and progressive labour laws had made Georgia an attractive target for investment, and had in themselves been "the best tool to fight corruption". They had also helped generate revenue to build roads, schools and hospitals. The World Bank had rated Geogia as the most successful reform country in the world - and one of the best places to do business. 2004, he said, was the first time since 1991 that there had been a positive birth rate and migration balance.

"I believe it is fair to state that these steps have allowed us to move closer to Europe - institutionally and culturally (...) I want my country to work with Europe so that Europe knows it has an utterly reliable partner and friend in Georgia."

Troubled relations with Russia

Turning to relations with Russia, he said that "the time of spheres of influence is over," echoing a statement adopted by Parliament. "Each nation must have the possibility to freely decide how and with whom they wish to build their future. We base our strategy on being a secure and reliable partner, not a tame and weak satellite."

Remarking that 2006 was neither 1938 not 1956, he asked "how often can we ask the smaller party to tone down its voice and resist reacting to provocation?" He hoped that when his country, or another European nation, was threatened, would Neville Chamberlain's line about "quarrels in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing" be seen as an adequate response. "I hope that one day Georgians as well as proud representatives of that far-away country, the Czech Republic, will be equals in the European family."

Georgia, he said, was being punished for having aligned itself with the Euro-Atlantic institutions. Russia had closed its market for Georgian good, banning Georgian wine and mineral water, closing postal and transport links, while Gazprom has "announced a non-commercial doubling of the price that Georgia must pay for gas. Taken together, in plain language, the sum of these actions is an economic blockade."

Now, he said, rather than increasing tensions, he wanted to see diplomacy and discussion. He said there was an open invitation to Russia to return to the path of normalcy and harmony through dialogue. But the issue of justice remained a problem: "When children with Georgian last names are expelled from schools, all our children are at risk. When world famous artists, ballerinas, actors and sportsmen are hounded and silenced, we are all silenced. When thousands of citizens are forcible deported from their homes, taken off the streets in handcuffs, we are all deported."

"I, and the people of Georgia are grateful for your expression of support to my country. When we feared isolation, Europe raised the banner of her values. Indeed, this very Parliament has raised the voice of morality in Europe. and we will not forget your solidarity."

He praised those Europeans, and in particular Russian citizens, who had made personal expressions of solidarity with Georgia.

A peaceful solution for South Ossetia and Abkhazia

Regarding South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Mr Saakashvili stressed that Georgia’s intentions were exclusively peaceful. He noted that fewer than 40 000 ethnic Abkhaz lived in Abkhazia and around 20 000 ethnic Ossetians in South Ossetia. He said he understood their genuine concerns. “Over 300 000 ethnic Georgians were ethnically cleansed in the early 1990s as a result of war and violent separatism, along with hundreds of thousands of other nationalities who today cannot return to their homes.”

Georgia, he said, was a multi-ethnic states, and this was a great strength. While it was still a unitary state, this need not lead to conflict or dispute. “Our task is to extend our hand in peace, justice and reconciliation. To try to solve our problems through negotiations and compromise, so that these areas and all the peoples who call them home can share and be blessed by the same prosperity and guarantees of security enjoyed by the rest of Georgia today. Georgia is ready for compromise – we welcome European engagement – and we are ready for lasting peace.”

Following the path of engagement and mutual benefit

He said that with European help, Georgia could overcome the problems caused by the Russian “blockade” notably if free trade with Turkey and then with the EU could be arranged. He had already called for direct talks with Moscow and the leaders of separatist regions to find common ground.

“Today, it has been my privilege to share with you my observations and thoughts on Georgia’s European choice. A choice my people have embraced – and one my government is committed to fulfilling. I believe this path forward – one of engagement and mutual benefit – is finding greater resonance in the capitals of Europe and the European institutions – and this should be encouraged.”

Ref.: 20061113IPR12538
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