Address of Georgian President to the European Parliament Committee for Foreign Relations, Human Rights, Common Security and Defense Policy

Mr. Chairman,
Distinguished Members of Parliament,

Europeans are justly proud of their magnificent capital cities which draw and inspire the dreams of people from every corner of the world. Yet, in order to address Europe in its entirety, one must come to Brussels. And I have done exactly that
I’ll make no secret of it that the main focus of my visit to Brussels is to let Europe become better acquainted with its integral Southeastern region, the region to which my country Georgia, and her closest neighbors in the South Caucasus belong.

Today when Eastern Europe, once languishing behind the Iron Curtain is becoming increasingly efficient and westernized, when in anticipation of membership in the European Union the old fears and uncertainties no longer gnaw at its heart, to find real problems, we need to look southeast.

For too long, the vicissitudes of history have conspired to keep this ancient part of Europe – the South Caucasus – isolated from the continent. We learned of European processes mainly through the accounts of others.

But this is behind us now. Today, the nations of the South Caucasus – Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan – are geographically, politically and in all other respects, part of Europe. That is, in all respects save one.

The problems this region faces are radically different from those of the rest of the Continent. Some – a legacy of the past – deep-rooted and archaic, others – a result of a somewhat flawed synthesis of the old and the new. One thing is certain, however. While much of the Continent lives as befits nations of the 21st century, Europe’s southeastern flank suffers from extreme economic weakness and instability largely due to unresolved conflicts. I believe that unless this situation changes, it will be unrealistic to speak of a single, unified Europe.

I am, therefore, grateful for your invitation to address this distinguished committee.  This is the ideal rostrum for sharing thoughts on the future of the South Caucasus and Europe as a whole – the continent which today, as was the case in the past, continues to generate highly advanced ideas and set lifestyle trends for the world.

As I speak of Europe, I primarily mean the European Union. Despite all its rigorous standards and requirements, the EU is far from being homogeneous. The G7 countries here reside side by side with countries whose level of economic and social development is still relatively low. Some of your members broke free from bloody dictatorships and armed civil conflicts as late as the ’70s and ’80s – only a few years prior to obtaining membership.

Still others continued to suffer from flourishing corruption long after they joined the Community. Among the present and prospective candidates are some of the former Eastern bloc countries which were liberated from the yoke of communism only several years ago. There are nations which like my country have enjoyed their newly regained independence only for a decade.

There are also those who are no strangers to separatist-induced armed confrontation, and even attempts at violation of their territorial integrity. Still, the only question with regard to the potential EU membership for any of these countries has been, simply, ” when?” Never has there been any doubt that these countries should become members of the European Union, and that without them the European family of nations would be incomplete.

I want to state unequivocally that the nations of the South Caucasus expect to be regarded in exactly the same way. The South Caucasus is as integral and inalienable to Europe as is the rest of the continent. Its eventual place is together with the other European nations, and that means as part of the European Union.

Perhaps it is not quite appropriate to speak on behalf of the others, but as for Georgia’s future, ever since regaining independence, we have harbored no alternative to membership in the European Union. Justice will not be served if today’s prosperous Europe rejects its kin, part of its civilization only because these nations failed to make it having been exposed to mightier gales of history.

The difference between the Western and Eastern Europe and its Southeastern region  – that is between the more advanced two-thirds and the less advanced one third is enormous. Without bridging this gap, indeed, without bringing these states into the European Union, it is hardly realistic to believe that Europe will ever achieve complete harmony or even the political and economic strength and stability the continent aspires for.

It is in both the short- and long-term interests of Europe to show the same attitude to its constituent region, as was shown to Europe after the Second World War, and as the post-Cold War Europe itself has shown to the countries of Eastern Europe and the other part of Southeast Europe, the Balkans. This would lay the foundation for the full and final integration of the European continent and no dividing lines of any kind could ever be drawn on its map again. Furthermore, in order for Europe to forge a dynamic, long-term partnership with the natural and human resources-rich Central Asia, monolithic stability in the border area between the two is absolutely essential.

The South Caucasus is that very geographic and civilizational interface that bridges Europe and Asia. I will not be saying anything new today, if I reiterate that Europe’s future prosperity, economic security, and energy security greatly depend on the resources and markets of the Caspian and Central Asia.  Nor is China – a modern giant, to be ignored. Who, if not the European Union – the architect of the TRACECA and INOGATE projects, knows better that the future transport and energy security of Europe hinges on the multiple sources and transit routes of hydrocarbons.

Let me assure you that the EU assistance to the Southeasternmost part of the Continent, to facilitate our journey toward a more prosperous, modernized way of life, toward the European Union, will by no means be a one way street. The South Caucasus has much to offer to a Europe of the future.

In addition to the diversity of our natural resources and the striking scenic beauty one beholds from the highest mountains in Europe- the Caucasus range, this region possesses a rich and diverse cultural heritage. As an example, the languages of the three titular nations belong to entirely different language groups, and they use three different scripts.

True, some assert that diversity begets conflict, but you will agree also that when harmonious relations are forged between nations, this diversity can act as an engine for synergy and rapid development.  The South Caucasus is poised to let its diversity become its greatest strength in propelling the region toward full integration with Europe.

Consider yet another factor – the Southeastern Europe is hugely significant geopolitically, as a bridge, or a gateway connecting the West to the resource-rich Central Asia and China. In order to assure that the critically needed hydrocarbons and other important goods can move reliably westward, the bridge must rest firmly on its supporting pillars and the gate must not be shut at whim. The geographic location of the South Caucasus, however, lends it another, less attractive side. Given the realities of Eastern and Central Asia, one cannot rule out that this bridge and the open gate might be used by those engaged in drug trafficking and terrorism.

What ultimately moves via the Caucasus – energy resources and good will or drugs and terror – will depend on when and how conflicts in this region are resolved; how successfully the region will be able to create a genuinely modern, democratic political institutions and transparent corruption-free system of governance at all levels and market economies that will ensure adequate living standards to its citizens. All of these are critical to relieving present tensions and, even more importantly, reversing the present trend of devaluation of democratic ideals.

This trend has gained some strength recently due to economic hardships and the deliberate efforts of all manner of demagogues. Once the EU security area extends into Southeast Europe, the South Caucasus will become an advanced post defending against the threats that I mentioned earlier.

This becomes even more relevant today as the threat of terrorism necessitates new approaches to the security systems not only in Southeast Europe and its adjacent regions, but throughout Europe as well. Georgia is prepared to fully co-operate with all relevant European structures, all forces that have rallied after the tragedy of September 11 to fight terrorism.

It is no accident that it was the United States together with its allies who shouldered the bulk of the global anti-terrorist campaign. Incidentally, Within the framework of this campaign, we are already co-operating closely with the United States and the entire anti-terrorist coalition.

When we speak of joining the European Union, we fully realize that this is not something that will happen overnight. Yet, it may not be as remote a prospect as some think. We will, however, need to discard many clichés along this road. I have already spoken of one of these. Another is the so-called “regional principle”.

As you know all the three states of this part of Southeast Europe have already gained membership in the Council of Europe. During this process of accession, this so-called regional principle was circumvented, allowing Georgia to join the Council earlier than her neighbors. This, however, has not irritated anyone or produced any tensions in the region. To the contrary – the Council of Europe in demonstrating its flexibility has created more incentives for the others to follow suit.

Secondly, Georgia paved the way for Azerbaijan and Armenia, by advocating and supporting their bids for membership. For different reasons the dynamic of development of the countries of this part of Southeast Europe may in the next few years be uneven. Some will advance more rapidly, while others will catch up later.

This is a natural course. At some time Azerbaijan may be in the lead, then Armenia or Georgia. But this must not become an impediment for the more advanced to drawing nearer to the European Union and joining. Believe me, if one country of this part of the Southeast Europe receives an encouraging sign from the European Union, it will create a positive incentive for the others, and will mark the beginning of a promising breakthrough in all directions – including in the resolution of existing conflicts.

As I speak of the problems and challenges we face in the region, please do not interpret it as ingratitude and failure to appreciate the critical assistance that the European Union and its individual member states have provided to us from the very first days of our independence. This help has been vital, and thanks to it we have been able to come a long way. Europe is by our side today – not only economically, but politically as well. The entry of the three South Caucasus countries into the Council of Europe, the decisions of the OSCE summits, the Partnership and Co-operation Agreement between us and the European Union, the political dialogue following this Agreement, the work of the Georgia-EU Parliamentary Cooperation Committee, etc. are a graphic proof of this.

The projects underway within the frames of the New Silk Road deserve a special mention. In this regard, the role of the European Union in the political, economic and social development of the region is indeed invaluable. The practical importance of the TRACECA and INOGATE projects has long transcended the boundaries of the Black and Caspian Sea basins.

As alternative transit arteries these projects are of vital significance to the European Union and the countries of Central and Eastern Asia. This is why China in the east and the Mediterranean and Danube basin countries in the west subscribe to TRACECA philosophy and are getting increasingly involved.

The European Union member countries and their companies participate in the transportation of Caspian hydrocarbons to European and world markets via Georgia and Azerbaijan. The smooth and reliable operation of the Baku-Supsa early oil pipeline is in its fourth year now. It will take two to three years before the Baku-Tbilisi-Erzerum natural gas pipeline and the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline become operational.

This will further enhance Georgia’s role as a pivotal link of the Great Silk Road. Today, as energy security has become a key element of political security, EU membership of the South Caucasus, whenever it may become a reality, will undoubtedly prove a major asset for the Community. Let me note here that at the CIS summit in Almaty the presidents supported the idea of developing a common energy security system for the Commonwealth. In this context one is tempted to think of even wider framework, say, of forming an integrated Eurasian energy complex and setting up a task force for this purpose.

Georgia would in every way facilitate the elaboration and advancement of such a proposal.  Having said all this, I am, however, not fully contented with the present status of the New Great Silk Road. To be specific, its north-south axis has been somewhat neglected, while it holds no less promise than the east-west axis, both in economic and political terms – offering a framework within which Russia and Iran, and other Asian countries can fully participate in the beneficial processes underway in this region and become linked to the European Union via Georgia and Armenia.

It must be separately acknowledged that recently, the European Union has given particular attention to assisting Georgia with creating a modern border infrastructure, thus increasing our border protection capabilities. We hope that this crucial and very timely assistance will continue.

We welcome the focus of the European Union on regional security, and its desire to strengthen and expand the role of the European Union in the Southeast part of the continent, which includes participation in conflict resolution.

We are grateful to the European Parliament for its February 28th Resolution on Relations between the European Union and the South Caucasus. This strong emphasis in the European Union’s common foreign and security policy on the South Caucasus, and the importance it places on the three countries of the region with regard to the future of EU enlargement will greatly contribute to the fulfillment of our long-term objectives.

For our part, we express hope that all will be done to expedite the appointment by the European Council of the European Union’s special envoy or a special representative to our region. I would like to express my gratitude for the support provided by the European Parliament reflected in the Resolution On the Visa Regime Imposed by the Russian Federation on Georgia adopted on January 18, 2001. We regard this resolution as a demonstration of strong support to Georgia. As for last year’s October 6 resolution On the Development of Relations between the European Union and the South Caucasus, this resolution is yet another manifestation of the special, growing importance that the European Union attaches to this region.

I would be remiss if I did not touch separately upon one issue which has been of significance for the entire Euro-Atlantic area, and perhaps particularly so for Southeast Europe. Following the end of the Cold war, as the nations of the former Socialist Camp gained independence, they opted for several different orientations.

If the word orientation ought to be understood as espousing similar values and cultivating particularly intense relations with a country or a region, then a multiplicity of these orientations is only natural and should not be regarded as something out of the ordinary. Georgia’s new orientation brings it closer to Europe and the United States.

This, however, should in no way be construed as being aimed against Russia which, I tend to believe, has chosen a similar path of building closest possible ties with the West. Establishing democratic principles in international relations must become the defining feature of our times. First and foremost, this means we must reject the unacceptable legacy of the Cold War and the earlier times.

To dispel any possible concerns over the recent negative trends that appeared in the relations between Georgia and Russia, I want to state unequivocally from this platform that today – as was in the initial years of our independence – Georgia continues to regard our friendship, partnership and equal relations with Russia to be a cornerstone of our country’s stable and peaceful development.

This relationship must be based on the application of the same standards and approaches in addressing the common challenges facing our two countries, consideration of each other’s interests in the areas where our interests converge, and recognition of the right of our countries to independently choose their paths of development, and make alliances that do not infringe on the legitimate interests of the other side. In all of this, Georgia has never given Russia any reason to doubt her good-neighborly disposition.

Even in such sensitive matters as the Chechen conflict, suspicions are being steadily dispelled. I believe that Russia is becoming more appreciative of the fact that the problem Chechnya presents to them is of the same order as the Abkhaz problem is to Georgia; that the past abetting of separatists in Abkhazia and engaging mercenaries from the North Caucasus in military action against the Georgian State has in fact backfired against Russia; that the Chechen war poses no less of a threat to Georgia’s national security than it does to Russia’s; that in fact the Pankisi Gorge problem was created by the war in Chechnya and not vice versa as some try to present it.

Some politicians in Russia were disappointed that Georgia disagreed to permit Russian troops to strike Chechens from Georgian territory, or to participate in a joint military operation with the Russians. They must understand that we Georgians attach special importance to our relations with the peoples of the Caucasus, and treat them with extreme delicacy.

Notwithstanding the numerous brutal crimes that Chechen mercenaries had committed in Abkhazia, we recognized the necessity of forgiveness to break the cycle of violence. Some two years ago thousands fleeing the hostilities in Chechnya sought refuge in the Pankisi Gorge.

Strange as it may sound, these people were actually permitted to cross into our territory unimpeded by the Russian troops themselves. Among the women, children, and elderly were some men. Now we must consider that local ethnic Chechens, known in Georgia as Kystins, have lived peaceably in the Pankisi Gorge for over a century. It is only natural that the refugees from Chechnya sought shelter here among their kin. Some of these refugees may even have committed serious crimes, but clarifying these matters is beyond our current capabilities. We, therefore, propose that Russians repatriate their citizens and establish for themselves just who did what. Incidentally, co-operation in this area has already begun. I want to thank the United States for their help aimed at defusing this complicated situation.

Whether or not we for our part have grounds for discontent with regard to Russia you are free to judge for yourselves. Suffice it to recall Russia’s role in the outbreak and development of the Abkhaz conflict; and the completely incomprehensible, to say the least, imposition of a discriminatory visa regime on Georgia.

In the recent days this was compounded by the loud clamor emanating from Russia’s political circles and the media, to which Russia’s legislative body also added its voice. Utterly absurd calls against Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity were made. It is apparent that these incompetent politicians have failed to learn any lessons whatsoever over the past ten years.

They have failed to learn that inciting lawlessness in another country eventually boomerangs on your own. Supporting separatism in Abkhazia has already backfired against Russia in the form of the Chechen war. Now they insist on continuing this disastrous experiment by calling for the legal recognition of Abkhazia and the former South Ossetia – a step that might prove calamitous to multiethnic Russia.

And all this bacchanalia broke out simply because the United States is helping us in such a critical area to our nation building as developing modern, capable armed forces. Some disgruntled Russian political figures assert that they knew nothing of the American military assistance to Georgia. This is, simply, a lie. Turkey, Germany, UK, France, Greece, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Romania and our other friends have assisted Georgia for years now in building our national armed forces.

The United States has provided us critical help in creating our border guards. Now the United States is assisting our armed forces with necessary equipment and training. But have we ever rejected similar help from Russia? Georgia is the only country among the former Soviet Republics from which Russia withdrew all mutually owned soviet era military assets save several rusty tanks.

This harsh measure was taken against Georgia alone. The other soviet republics retained whatever equipment and weaponary they had in their territories. Is it any wonder we need military assistance? We have very real internal problems and to resolve them by peaceful means it is imperative that we have a strong, disciplined and well-equipped army. I believe that for a country that aspires to integrate itself with the Euro-Atlantic area, such a requirement should not come as a surprise to anyone.

Many of the problematic issues in the Georgian-Russian relations were clarified during the meetings between President Putin and myself, first in Moscow and most recently in Almaty, where everything was done to ensure that President Putin had full and accurate appreciation of the situation. I want to note with satisfaction that he approached controversial issues with his characteristic pragmatism and a keen sense of the zeitgeist.

He stated that as an independent nation, Georgia has every right to choose the security model that best serves her interests. This statement had to an extent quelled the frenzy within Moscow’s most vocal political circles. My recent meetings with the Russian President have convinced me that we are gradually finding a common language and establishing an ever closer rapport. In other words, we are cultivating the kind of personal relationships which have often become a deciding factor in politics.

It was a set of similarly close and trustful relations among policymakers in the 80s that made possible German reunification; the withdrawal of the Soviet troops from Europe and Afghanistan; and finally the melting of the seemingly unmeltable ice of the Cold War. President Putin is well aware of how significant it is to fight sources that foster terrorism, including aggressive separatism.

He was among the first to join the global anti-terrorist coalition, has publicly and strongly declared that Georgian-American military co-operation does not in any way conflict with Russian interests. He firmly believes that a strong, undivided Georgia is as much in Russia’s vital interest as is an undivided and stable Russia to the interests of Georgia.

This is further attested to by Russia’s recent support in the UN Security Council of the document on the settlement of the Abkhaz conflict which was prepared by the Group of Friends and the special representative of the UN Secretary General. This made possible the adoption of a very important new UN Security Council resolution setting out the framework for future negotiations between Tbilisi and Sukhumi.

I am confident that Russia will demonstrate the same consistency in implementing the decisions of the OSCE Istanbul Summit and the commitments it has undertaken to withdraw Russian military bases from Georgia.

Perhaps you are aware that recently, some of those forcibly displaced from Abkhazia, victims of the separatist regime’s policy of ethnic cleansing, became active in the Abkhaz conflict zone. The present leadership of Abkhazia continues to prevent them from returning to their homes, pursuing the policy of ethnic cleansing to this day.
Georgia does not want to see a new surge of violence and bloodshed. Yet, the international community on the one hand keeps assuring the refugees and the displaced of their right to voluntarily and unconditionally return to their homes with dignity, while failing to act resolutely to enforce this right. Over the past eight years these people have lost faith in everyone and everything save themselves.

This is a force to be reckoned with, numbering nearly 300,000 people. The one thing that can avert potentially tragic spontaneous action on their part is a decisive step taken by the international community which will compel the separatist leadership in Sukhumi to accept the Security Council recommendations and renew the negotiations within the framework set forth by the United Nations.

I take this opportunity to thank you for the strong support expressed in the 12th March Declaration by the Presidency on behalf of the European Union concerning the legitimacy of the so-called “Parliamentary elections” in Abkhazia. The Declaration was also backed by the countries associated with the EU and practically all European nations.

As for the peace-keeping contingent deployed in the Abkhaz conflict zone under the CIS aegis, originally they indeed assumed the duty of guaranteeing the observance of the cease-fire, but today they so obstinately fail to fulfil the CIS mandate to facilitate the return of the displaced people, that they are increasingly perceived as a party to the conflict, rather than a neutral force.

They have exhausted their function under the present mandate. Therefore, the decision of the Georgian parliament not to extend this mandate in its current form is logical. We believe that the mandate of the peacekeeping operation should be expanded to include a wider territory of the conflict zone. Moreover, it should stipulate not only the responsibility of separating the forces, but also providing security to the returnees.

Nor do we regard Georgia’s close partnership with NATO to be an impediment in our relations with Russia. Following the unfair division of the Soviet military assets, we now are forced to fill the gap between our current level of arming and the ceiling provided for in the CFE treaty. This is done in line with NATO standards, and with the help of NATO experts, so that the country will be ready for membership in the Alliance when the situation is conducive to this both domestically and internationally.

This certainly implies a very close collaboration between NATO and Georgia at this stage. Hardly can NATO-Georgian cooperation pose any threat to Russia. This is especially true since Russia herself has a special relationship with NATO. Recently, top Russian officials even speculated on the possibility of joining the Alliance. To be sure, in today’s increasingly integrating Europe no one should have to provide excuses for cultivating close relationship with the NATO.

When I speak of our desire to join the European Union, I am fully aware that to do so we must first carry out profound political and economic reforms in our country. The problems are many – conflicts, hundreds of thousands of forcibly displaced people, social problems, especially ones concerning the state of our senior citizens; the protracted fiscal crisis which is often equated erroneously with the economic one. This is not so, however, Georgia’s macroeconomic indicators are a clear proof of this. Last year the GDP grew by 4.5%.

The inflation rate was 3.5%, the lowest figure in the past ten years. The currency exchange rate fluctuates within the acceptable range. All this indicates that the economy is improving steadily and domestic production is gaining strength. We have, however, faced major difficulties in executing our budget over the recent years, which has seriously undermined the Government’s ability to address many of the important tasks it faces.
These include raising salaries for our teachers, doctors, the military, police and other law enforcement structures. Among the causes for this situation, corruption is the most obvious. Corruption can undermine the newly established democratic institutions, and imperil Georgia’s prospects as a democratic nation. We know that if we fail to defeat corruption, Georgia will for a long time depart from the civilized path of development.

The Anti-Corruption Council has been functioning for a year now and I am fully aware of the tough challenges that the Council’s young staff are facing and the many obstacles they have to overcome. The most difficult battle, however, will be in effecting an attitudinal shift, in other words in removing the perception that had taken root in the past, which portrays the state as an enemy, rather than as a partner. This attitude was fostered by the centuries of occupation by other countries and the Georgian people are only now developing the consciousness of belonging to a state of their own making.

The work of the Anti-Corruption Council has already created the backbone on which further actions must be based. The Presidential decree of the 15th of March of last year launched the implementation of the National Anti-Corruption Program. A number of senior officials have been discharged from office, a comprehensive plan of the structural reforms of the executive branch has been developed whose implementation will start already this year.

In the fight against corruption we place particular importance on the reform of the power ministries and law-enforcement bodies, the outcome of this reform will be critical to defeating the highly-resistant virus of corruption. A special commission is currently working on the guidelines of this reform and the concrete ways of its implementation.

Despite the overwhelming odds, democratic transformation in Georgia has been fairly successful. The Georgian people have been able to build a free, democratic state, put in place relevant institutions and develop a vibrant civil society. The value of freedom has proven so important to our people that the slightest suspicion of infringement upon it prompted massive street protests last October, which resulted in the change of the Parliament’s leadership and dissolution of the entire Government. Those events demonstrated that democratic values have become irreversibly established in the minds of our people, and they are prepared to defend them. These values are perhaps most apparent in our media.

The Georgian media freely offer the public a wide spectrum of coverage on problematic issues of the Georgian reality – often constructively and openly, sometimes spitefully and with stinging acrimony, criticizing anything and anyone, including your obedient servant. There are times when I even wonder if I am the sole object of their criticism.

I console myself, however, with the notion that this is inevitable during the formative years of free media. As in any new democracy, people in Georgia who were once oppressed and long deprived of the freedom to express their ideas have naturally accumulated a lot to say. Plus we are trying to vent everything at one go. But, I promise we will mature and along with the country’s other indicators, the Georgian media too will meet the high standards exemplified by the European Union.

Distinguished Members of the Parliament,

I may have spoken too long, but please forgive me. This is the first speech of the Georgian President in the European Parliament and like our media; I too have accumulated much to say. My aim was to show Georgia as it is – not overlooking its problems, failures – turbulent at times, but always with unwavering faith that its natural and rightful place is here, among you. I know this day will come. I know also that my people will weather every storm on this passage.

I thank you for your attention.

March 18, 2002