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EU-Georgia Association Agreement leads to deep political association and economic integration

Interview - January 14, 2015

Ambassador of Georgia to the EU, H.E. Natalie Sabanadze, sat down with The Worldfolio to discuss her country’s economic and democratic advancements as well as the direction it is taking with the potential signing of an association agreement with the EU on the horizon.


As Georgia has been defined a rising light in the region, what are in your opinion the specific drivers that have been pushing the economy forward and what is your outlook for 2015?

I think that we have a very positive outlook for 2015. One of our main achievements in 2014 was to sign the Association Agreement with the EU, which also contains the part of the Comprehensive Free Trade Area Agreement (CFTA). This agreement will provide Georgia with a lot of opportunities, as it opens up the biggest market for our country's products and services. We hope that over time it will also help Georgia to transform its economy and bring it closer to European standards. These standards are not easy to meet, but once we do, foreign investors will have more confidence in our country. The European parliament ratified the agreement yesterday with the President of Georgia present in Strasbourg during the ratification process. This is not only a milestone for our country but also a concrete step towards political approximation and economical integration into the EU. The upcoming years for Georgia will be defined by the implementation of this agreement, which will allow us to use the transformative power that the EU has, which it has so effectively exercised during the accession process of Eastern and Central European countries. Georgia does not have the accession plan as such, but those same Eastern and Central European countries also started with the signing of an association agreement. This is a comprehensive first and important step that we hope will ultimately lead to complete European integration and for Georgia to become a sustainable European democracy.

What has changed for Georgia during the last decade and how does your country differentiate itself in the region today?

Georgia has undergone remarkable structural reforms over the past ten years. Like most of the post-Soviet countries, our country was notoriously corrupt. Nevertheless, our government took on the fight with corruption and eventually defeated it. This victory over corruption was undoubtedly a big success story that led to the formation of efficient public services and a full-fledged modern administration. Today, Georgia’s public service halls, a national trademark that we are trying to export to other countries, have become one of our most important attractions. It represents a service hall where all public services are available, from passport registration, driver license application, property listing, how to start a business etc. In other words, it is a one-stop-shop where all sorts of administrative paperwork can be taken care of within minutes. As a matter of fact, Georgia has had one of the highest rankings when it comes to ease of doing business and combatting corruption. We are very proud to have a business-friendly environment with a simple taxation system. And even though Georgia is a small market, we do have potential, economic growth and many interesting areas for investors. Furthermore, our strategic location on a transit route, considered to be an energy corridor, is what really sets Georgia apart. Consequently we are aiming to position ourselves as a hub for communications, energy and building transit infrastructure. We have started to build deep sea port on the Black Sea coast, which have aroused the interest of international investors. Considering that we cover our local needs with hydropower and electricity and that only seventeen to twenty percent of the potential has been used so far, hydropower has also big potential in Georgia. As it is environmentally friendly, we are promoting it as a source of export.

When it comes to consolidating Georgia's democracy, much has been done over the past two years. Georgia held parliamentary, presidential and municipal elections that were considered as free and fair by international observers. A peaceful transfer of power has taken place as a result of these elections and the country has moved towards a more balanced system of governance with stronger parliament. Another priority has been the reform of judiciary, which has been going on successfully and which has led to the strengthening of independence of judiciary, including the separation of prosecutor's office from the Ministry of Justice.

Given the firm direction of Georgia towards the west and the major efforts of your country to put an institutional framework into place, what do you consider to be the challenges that your country might be facing in order to move forward towards a sustainable and long lasting democracy?

First of all, moving towards a sustainable democracy takes time and we need support from outside; none of the other post communism countries have managed to do it all by themselves. I believe that what we have already done, i.e. implementing the reforms without association and without any membership perspective has been quite remarkable. Now that we do have signed the association agreement, we will continue our reforms and continue to tackle those areas that still need to be improved. For example, as I already noted the justice sector reform is one of our top priorities. Having a well functioning and trustworthy system of courts is fundamental, not only for our citizens and the protection of their rights, but also for investor confidence and our country´s economic opportunities.

Secondly, Georgia finds itself in the middle of a difficult region. We don’t have diplomatic relations with Russia and since the 2008 war; twenty percent of our territories are occupied by the Russian Federation. This is a very big challenge, as Russia’s interests, which the country tries to defend by all means, go against the western values and perspective pursued by Georgia, Ukraine and other associated partners. Since there is an alternative kind of integration project being developed by Russia, the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), we need to be even more dedicated to moving forward in the direction we have chosen and ready to defend this choice. Russia’s project is a far less attractive for countries like ours. In addition, we maintain that we do have the right to go in the direction we believe is best for us. And given Russia’s response, I believe it is very important that the international community supports our choice and our right to choose freely. That is the reason why European membership is not just a political and a security move; it is really a choice of what kind of State we are aiming to build.

As a Georgian national living abroad, how do you think your country and the broader region are perceived in Europe?

Unfortunately, when you hear news about Georgia or the region it tends to be bad news; this is just the way it is. From my office in Brussels I mainly work on political issues, and in terms of consolidating and improving relations with the EU there is a lot on my agenda. Georgia’s relations with the EU are strong and my main objective is to bring both parties closer together. My counterparts in the European capital know Georgia and there is no need to explain to them, but things are different for the general public that does not know Georgia very well from the first-hand experience and tends to be influenced by often negative news coverage. This is also why I think that a publication like the one you are proposing for Newsweek is very important, since it will introduce a different view of my country. For instance, Georgia has always had a great tourism potential and the number of tourists is now growing steadily. However, there is still a lot to explore about Georgia. My country has an old history, is very diverse, offers beautiful landscapes and has many options for tourists, such as sea, mountains, trekking, skiing, etc. I know that Western Europeans are keen to travel and explore areas off the beaten track. What is more, spending time in Georgia is very pleasant. The climate is nice, the atmosphere relaxed, restaurants are great, and everyday life is very relaxing. Furthermore, the living standards of an average citizen have also risen, especially because of those reforms I talked about earlier. Georgia is not a rich country and there is a lot to do in terms of tackling poverty and unemployment, but we are doing what we can to improve life for all. This editorial feature will help improve perception and contribute to a hopefully bigger flow or tourists to Georgia.

What are your specific objectives as Ambassador of Georgia to the EU?

An Ambassador does not really set the objectives; they are the objectives of the nation. Nevertheless, if I would have had one objective, then it was precisely the signing of the association agreement. Today I will assist through every channel at my disposal to contribute to its implementation. Politically speaking, I have to deal with possible pressures from Russia and try to get the EU on board to support us. I also wish I could witness Georgia becoming member of the EU but I don’t think it will happen under my term.

Could you please elaborate about yourself and your career path before becoming Ambassador?

This is actually the first time I work for the Georgian Ministry. I left Georgia when I was 18, just after the collapse of the Soviet Union. I studied in the United States after being granted a scholarship from the US government. I did my BA in International Relations in the US, then went back to Georgia and worked at the US Embassy for one year. I then left to the UK to do my Masters at London School of Economics and PhD at Oxford University. After completing my studies, I worked at the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities in The Hague. After spending eight years in The Hague I accepted an offer from the then Foreign Minister to come to Brussels and lead our mission to the EU. I have been Ambassador for one year and a half now.