Mr. President, Dear Donald;
Ladies and Gentlemen;
I too welcome you to Georgia for this 16th “Georgia’s European way” conference. This conference takes a renewed importance because of the exceptionally high level participation for which we thank you all. But also because it takes place at a major turning point for Georgia and for the EU: the time has come to set a new course in our relations after a successful decade of Partnership.
I welcome you first as the President not of a pro-European nation, but of a proud European nation. A country whose culture and civilization are distinctly European: the home of Medea in Ancient mythology; the cradle of winemaking; a Christian nation since the 4th century. A country who pioneered women’s rights by being ruled by a female king in the 12th century and by giving women the right to vote in its first parliamentary elections in 1918. It is only natural that it has now a female President.
Our values, culture and history all are European. Our politics are distinctly European. Our population 80% of which supports the objective of joining the European Union and that is steadily in the past fifteen years without any change, without Euroscepticism. In the current context that is spread in Europe, Georgia has become a kind of exception as one of the staunchest and enthusiastic advocate of the European Union. For all the domestic differences and there are some, all major political parties share and promote European integration. This deeply entrenched aspiration was enshrined in the new Constitution we adopted last year.
Since 1990, Georgia has gone through many difficult episodes. Rebuilding a State since regaining independence after 70 years of Soviet rule. Recovering from the 2008 war which led to the occupation of 20% of our territory and living with that wound open. Overcoming the challenges associated with the gradual establishment of democracy. Yet throughout this challenging period, one feature has gone unaltered: our steadfast commitment to rejoining our European family.
In the past two decades, Georgia has made significant progress thanks to you on its pathway to Europe. Fifteen years ago, we joined the European neighborhood policy. Ten years ago, we became part of the Eastern Partnership. Five years ago we signed an Association Agreement. We now benefit from closer links than ever through a free trade agreement, visa free access and major economic assistance, trade and integration. Our economic links have grown year after year with the EU becoming our first trading partner overtaking both Turkey and Russia.
As a result of this decade of Partnership, never has Georgia been so close to EU. This process of ever closer links with the EU has brought immense benefits to the country and to our population. Georgia has become over this past fifteen years more democratic and more prosperous. Our democratic culture has matured through a series of firsts: a first peaceful transfer of power; a first parliament without a constitutional majority; a first presidential runoff. Our institutions have been strengthened: Parliament’s powers have been decisively bolstered to avoid any return to one-man rule; media pluralism has never been stronger; a series of reforms have reinforced the rule of law for both individuals and businesses.
Where we are today is testimony to the determination of the Georgian people and readiness and support of our European partners. But, Georgia’s ambition does not stop here and is very clear: it is to go even further on the path towards membership. As President, my model is very clear. It is President Freiberga of Latvia: having fled Soviet occupation to Canada, she came back from political emigration to get her country into the European Union and the Atlantic Alliance. I do not want anything less for Georgia. We will never shy away from those goals from Euro-Atlantic integration.
While we are ambitious for ourselves, we also want Europe to succeed and consolidate. As partners, we understand that Europe is going through its own challenges from Brexit negotiations, the rise of Euroscepticism and the migration issue to name a few. All point to the need for Europe to also reform itself. And it is evident that European public opinion currently prioritizes domestic reforms over new accessions.
Because Georgia is eager for Europe to succeed, we can remain little bit patient. But in return, we need to remain collectively bold and ambitious. Keeping the positive momentum is crucial when defining the new course of partnership. As your success story, we aspire to be innovative. We are small enough to be a testing ground.
But as we enter this new phase of partnership we cannot stop, we cannot even slow down. We have to deepen the current partnership and we have to move towards and even closer relationship. And it should be based on full Georgian participation in more European policies, more Georgian inclusion in European trade and economics, more European democracy in Georgia. We should look together at new opportunities as we intend to knock on every door, to open every door, and by the time we have finished opening all the new doors, you will discover that Georgia has become a member.
In other words, in line with our motto - “More Georgia in Europe, more Europe in Georgia”, we should focus on a few directions:
First, closer human links. Georgia should be allowed to fully integrate various European policies that will provide tangible evidence to the citizens that we are getting even closer, even deeper. We should be allowed a full participation, full membership into programs and policies that are related to culture and education. There is not one good reason, why Georgia should not be a full member of European cultural sphere, Europe’s educational sphere.
- We have been one of the most active users of “Erasmus” and we have to get full participation in the program that will follow “Erasmus”.
- We have joined the Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education, and we look forward to joining the European Quality Assurance in vocational training and training network education.
- We are part of “Creative Europe”, and we will be the guest of the “Europalia” festival in 2022. Georgia aspires to be accepted as full member of Europe’s cultural sphere, and for that very good signal, very tangible signal would be to already start thinking which Georgian city should become in the future the European cultural capital.
The visa-free regime has been a great achievement that has changed the human relationship between Georgia and Europe. We will continue to work to meet the challenges of asylum seekers and we know how important it is for our European partners. Circular migration is our top priority as an answer, and we are working on initial agreements with our European partners in order to develop qualified professional workforce, and we will need Europe’s support and facilitation in that direction.
We need also to deepen our economic integration beyond and deeper into the free-trade agreement in order for our economy to become even more heavily interlinked with Europe.
For that we have to further integrate Georgia into EU policies related to energy, transport, communications, regional development and security in line with our unilateral Road Map.
We also need and that has been said already and that is very important, a specific financial mechanism which will be based on our Association agreement and based on our merits and achievements. It is needed to support the last and the most challenging wave of the reforms as well know all the countries that have gone before us on the path towards membership.
We need also to adjust our economy with the view to aligning ourselves with EU’s single market rules and philosophy in the end should be to remove non-tariff trade barriers to structurally integrate our economy with Europe’s.
When looking at the future, we also have to think outside the box. As I made clear, we understand the realities that inform the political decision to award countries candidate status. But it would be difficult, on the other hand, for Georgians to understand stalling or slowing our movement towards the EU. After all, the accession process, and you all know that, has been Europe’s most effective foreign policy tool to nudge countries closer and further democratic reforms. You cannot renounce this tool. One idea outside of the box could be for Georgia to start accession chapter negotiations on an “ad hoc basis”. Such a pragmatic, non-institutional, non-political decision would be very significative and very important. It would anchor Georgia to Europe, prevent any form of disillusionment or skepticism from taking hold, while giving EU time, short time, to come around.
But this process is also based on Georgia delivering its part. For its part, we will continue our path to strengthen our democratic credentials. As the President I will guarantee that we continue our process in three essential directions. First, we will need to implement much three needed institutional reforms which will require political support and practical assistance from the EU and its Member States. Those three directions are:
- The fourth wave of reforms of judicial system, which is essential to further increase the confidence of the Georgian people in an independent court system and further strengthen the rule of law;
- Public administration reform, which is needed to ensure a highly professional and stable civil service;
- And our anti-corruption strategy will ensure higher transparency and accountability of governmental institutions.
Secondly, we will continue to promote political dialogue and unity in the political space which has been my motto since I was elected. In this regard, the decision of the ruling party, in answer to public demands, to move to a fully proportional system in the 2020 elections will mark a landmark. It will make Parliament more representative by ensuring the inclusion of broader parts of the society in politics. And it will certainly help to overcome the Soviet legacy of one party - one-person rule, as it may well result, at one point in time, in the country getting its first coalition government. In any case Georgia will begin to institutionally resemble any other European parliamentary democracy.
Third, we will strive to implement most if not all of the OSCE's recommendations to refine the electoral process ahead of the 2020 elections. Each election must see progress and strive to meet the European threshold.
Unfortunately, our European destiny cannot fully ignore geography.
On August 8th , we will mark the 11th anniversary of the war which has resulted in occupation of 20% of our territory. If this was meant to move us away from our European path, the resilience of Georgia has been our strategic response.
While Abkhazia and South Ossetia no longer make world headlines, it remains an open wound for every single citizen of Georgia. This is an issue that cannot nor will go away. The popular demonstrations that took place on June 20th were a natural expression of what has been brewing for a decade: on the one hand, popular outrage against the illegal occupation of a sovereign Nation; on the other, frustration with the lack of political progress towards reunification.
While we are thankful for the decisions Europe has made to bring us closer, the message of the Georgian people is that it also expects more support and engagement from Europe when it comes to addressing occupation. Reaffirmations of support for our territorial integrity are welcome and necessary. But they are not enough as youthful protests have made clear. Unsolved conflicts sow the seeds for long- term instability.
Georgia is a peaceful nation which never in its history invaded a foreign country. Georgians have continued to host millions of Russian tourists with our traditional hospitality and tolerance and in full safety despite and since the 2008 war. Our unwavering choice is for a peaceful and diplomatic resolution to the issue of occupation as made clear by our peace plan "steps towards a better future".
Democratic, peaceful, stable despite everything and European that is what we are as a country. Recent renewed tensions with Russia also demonstrate that unsolved conflicts and status quo is neither politically acceptable nor conducive to long-term stability.
My call for de-escalation, my suggestions to reinvigorate Geneva talks with a political dimension, my conviction that Europe has to be more engaged to support our choice for peaceful issue to occupation are the answer to the challenge that we are facing. Georgia does not need to look for pseudo historic arguments to justify itself, because it does not have to justify itself.
Georgia has never breached international law. Georgia has never violated international principles or any countries sovereignty of borders. Our peace plan is in action. I was here in Batumi in 2005, watching the first boat leaving with a Russian equipment following the negotiations that were carried on the withdrawal of military bases. I am convinced if we all avoid mistakes, if we all engage together, if we avoid any form of escalation, that we will all witness the departure of the Russian military bases from Gudauta or from the Tskhinvali region.
Stability in a region, stability in the Black Sea is for Europe as precious as it is to Georgia and to all our neighbors. We all have to work for it. You need our stability and all the region needs our stability. We need your political support, mediation, involvement, call it what you want, to reunify our country. You need our enthusiasm to inspire your people and give Europe a new spirit. We need your support to go through this last phase of challenging democratic and economic reforms, to get where we want to be, together with you, fully in Europe.