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Maia Panjikidze: I am a little surprised about such criticisms towards us

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“W e are deeply concerned by developments this far. Especially troubling were the recent comments from your foreign minister, Ms. Maia Panjikidze, when she declared that former Georgian officials are ‘criminals and guilty.’ Guilt and innocence should be determined by an impartial court, to do otherwise undermines the rule of law,” this is a quote from a letter signed by five US senators which the Prime Minister of Georgia, Bidzina Ivanishvili, received several days ago.

The concern of US Senators Jeanne Shaneen, Joseph Lieberman, James E. Risch, Lindsey O. Graham and John McCain was caused by an interview that the Georgian Foreign Minister, Maia Panjikidze, gave to the international edition of Foreign Policy. In that interview, the Foreign Minister asserted, on the one hand, that the new government is conducting criminal prosecutions against former senior government officials in full observance of transparency and rule of law while, on the other hand, branded those officials, who have yet to be sentenced in court, as criminals and guilty.

In addition to the US senators, Maia Panjikidze was reprimanded by other representatives of the US authorities too. The Financial Times, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Weekly Standard… You know that the press are not fools, Daniel Fried, a senior career US diplomat, told Maia Panjikidze during a meeting at the German Marshall Fund in Washington in early December. Please, take our criticism as advice from a friend. As a partner country, the USA is fully entitled to raise such questions, he continued. If anything, Georgia is in the lead by getting more US foreign aid per capita than the United States has ever provided in its history, Daniel Fried told Maia Panjikidze.

At the German Marshall Fund meeting, which was attended by representatives of the US State Department, international human rights watchdogs, research organizations, universities and embassies, the newly elected government of Georgia was compared to the government of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. Bruce Jackson, the President of the Project on Transitional Democracies and once fierce critic of the Saakashvili government, reproved Ms. Panjikidze that within the first month of coming to power, the new Georgian government has arrested more people than Ukraine’s authoritarian regime did within two years. The arrest of high officials in democratic countries takes, as a rule, between two to three years, the expert said, whereas in Georgia the new government’s investigation took only 20 days to arrest such people.

The Foreign Minister responded the criticism by asking for time: “It is too early to criticize every step. We will have time and opportunity for that later,” she said. At the same time she noted that arrests of former high officials will not impede the integration of Georgia with the West.

Tabula tried to find out the basis for the Foreign Minister’s optimism with regard to the challenges of Georgian foreign policy.

Shortly after the new government started performing its duties, quite critical statements and warnings were voiced by Western institutions as well as the press. They were focused on the arrests of former senior officials and on the pressure placed on self-government bodies and the media. Concerns were expressed by the NATO Secretary General, top EU officials and the USA. What type of talks did you have on those topics during your recent visits to the US and Europe? What have you heard from them and what was your stance?

I heard from them one main message: that no one will interfere in the domestic affairs of Georgia – none of the states, none of the organizations. It is, of course, worrying what is going on here, but trust me, we are no less worried that we have had to do that [the arrests]. By the way, that is the reason why the United National Movement (UNM) lost the [October parliamentary] election and why the Georgian Dream political coalition won it – because there was injustice in the country.

To rectify that situation is the mandate that the Georgian people have given to the Georgian Dream. The top objective of the coalition, the Prime Minister and the government is to improve everything that has either not been done during the last nine years or has been trampled upon – the rule of law, human rights, et cetera.

It has been repeatedly noted that the judiciary is independent and no one is prosecuted on political grounds. That will be proved, and has already been proved, by all those cases which are under investigation and these will, sooner or later, come to an end. What our partners demand and expect from us is that this process is transparent, no selective justice is allowed, that society is informed about what’s going on, and that everything happens according to the law.

It has not yet been 45 days that we have been in government. I understand, of course, that the process has not ended yet; no one knows its results and one can express concern in advance. But over this period of time we have supplied sufficient information to our partners. We will supply more. We have invited them to come and observe the processes, we have nothing to hide. Very soon all doubts will be dispelled because, since the new government has come to power, politically motivated arrests have no longer taken place. In Georgia there has never been a process as transparent as it is now – the law is respected and will be in the future too.

I am a little surprised about such criticisms towards us; the entire past year was an example of the opposite to what they now expect from us. Last year, by the way, after the visit of Mrs. Hillary Clinton in early May, 127 supporters of the Georgian Dream were arrested. In total, 190 people were arrested over the entire pre-election period. Thousands of people lost their jobs on political grounds. Amongst them was my husband, who is a biochemist. One must admit that that is not a political profession; he is not and has never has been a Georgian Dream member.

This is notwithstanding some 70 members of our coalition who, having made contributions and financially supported the Georgian Dream, lost all their property because of that. That is an example of selective justice, political pressure and persecution of the opposition, and of what is not happening today.

During your visit to Washington, one of your missions, as the Prime Minister stated, was to provide information to media and government members. However, since then, a group of US senators has expressed yet more concern in a letter to Bidzina Ivanishvili. Does that not mean that your, your ministry’s and the new government’s efforts to convince the United States have proven unsuccessful? In other words, they have not changed their stance that events unfolding in Georgia remain a matter of concern.

I would not agree with you on that. Out of those senators, I met only one in Washington. Besides, I also met many other senators, Congressmen and more importantly, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. I have not heard anything like that from them. Hence, I can assume that those senators have not received exhaustive information about the reality of what is happening in Georgia, or that their sources have not been interested in providing them with the real information.

Anywhere I had meetings I talked extensively about what I have just told you. Moreover, I met with the foreign ministers of 12 states during the NATO ministerial meeting in Brussels in early December. I also met with 10 foreign ministers in Dublin at the OSCE ministerial meeting, also in early December. I talked to the NATO Secretary General and all senior OSCE officials. Over the period of those 10 days, when I travelled to the USA and Europe, I had some 40 meetings. Out of those people I met, the signature of only one person, [US Senator] Mr. McCain, appeared on that letter which was sent from America.

Consequently, I believe that my visits were very successful and I brought my message across to those people who were interested in Georgia.

There is one thing to remember, however, as I’ve said, the process has not been completed yet. That concern [of Georgia’s Western partners] sounds more like a warning urging us to observe the law, et cetera. We give our guarantee of that and, at the end of the process, it will be seen that we have kept our word and have done everything in the way that our country and our partners deserve. I am sure that with this process we will restore justice in Georgia, strengthen the judiciary and, eventually, establish a democracy of which our partners will also be proud.

I would like to ask about NATO integration. There is an opinion that the processes ongoing in Georgia have impeded that process. An argument in support of this is that the Chief of Joint Staff of the Armed Forces of Georgia was arrested days before a planned visit of the NATO Military Committee, which was subsequently postponed. Also, another argument is that the NATO ministerial meeting ended without noting any progress in terms of Georgia’s NATO integration. When the Prime Minister of Georgia met with Anders Fogh Rasmussen, Ivanishvili said that the NATO Secretary General had assured him that Georgia’s progress would be reflected in some form during the ministerial meeting. However, today we see that that has not happened. What was the reason for that?

We started taking over the NATO affair before all that [the arrests] started. You know that nothing happens unexpectedly there [in NATO]. It was known well before the [NATO] ministerial meeting that no adoption of a communiqué or a statement was planned there.

At that time, no one was detained and we knew in the very first days of coming to power that the December ministerial meeting would not award us with either a MAP [Membership Action Plan] nor anything “more than a MAP,” [as Saakashvili claimed to have received after the 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest]. If anyone says that the award of a MAP was planned at the ministerial meeting and that we failed to receive it, then that is a patent lie.

Following the ministerial meeting, a meeting of the Georgia-NATO Commission was held which was attended by foreign ministers of NATO member states. I made a speech there about the existing state of affairs, the attitude of the new government and its future plans. After that, 15 other foreign ministers expressed their opinions. All of them were very positive. By that time, we had already shown positive examples of cohabitation when a new candidate for the position of the Chief of Joint Staff was agreed upon [between Defense Minister and President]. Those 15 ministers expressed all this in their speeches. That is what we have achieved at the NATO ministerial in December.

Moreover, I participated in an ISAF session. You know that the decision to send a second battalion to Afghanistan was taken in October, that is, after the parliamentary elections. That means that the new government continues the work in that direction. We promised our partners that after 2014, Georgia will stay in Afghanistan, in a form on which we will agree with the USA and NATO. That was perceived extremely positively by our partners. I believe that the addressees of their praise are primarily those Georgian soldiers who impeccably perform their military duty.

The postponed visit of the NATO Military Committee will take place next year. More importantly, a visit of the North Atlantic Council [NAC] will also take place, probably in March. That means that General Secretary Rasmussen and all the ambassadors [to NATO] will arrive in Georgia. You are aware that NATO has two components – political and military. The visit of NAC, together with the Military Committee, will be very important. Both visits have been agreed and both NATO delegations have been invited by Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili.

Negotiations with the EU are underway on a whole package of issues – on association, free trade, visa liberalization. What is the status of these negotiations? What results can we expect and when?

There are three such meetings left to be held – in January, March and May 2013 and, by the May meeting we shall have everything agreed. That must be done in order to sign the Association Agreement, which contains the agreement on the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement, before the Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius, scheduled for November 2013.

By May 2013 we must succeed in moving onto a second stage of visa liberalization. There are two things in this respect – approximation of a legislative base, which requires much work; and then, the second phase, which concerns the implementation of whatever we agree upon.

All that must be, at the very least, initialed by the time the Vilnius Summit is held. The European perspective must open up for Georgia there. That is our aim and we perform absolutely everything towards that end.

Is it known when the Prime Minister’s visit to the United States will be held?

A specific date is not known, but that will probably happen during 2013. I cannot tell you exactly. Everything depends on what the agenda in Georgia will be.

The Georgian Prime Minister’s Special Representative for Relations with Russia, Zurab Abashidze, is holding the first meeting with the Russian side today [14 December]. That is taking place after Russia actually thwarted a scheduled round of the Geneva talks. Will a new format – the negotiations of the Special representative with Russia without mediators – jeopardize the Geneva format? Russia can always stage such a demarche and shift the focus to bilateral negotiations. Is such a scenario possible?

It is not possible, I think. We have always said that the Geneva format is inviolable because it is quite a well-established and long-term format. As you know, the latest round was the 22nd meeting. It is an absolutely different format [to bilateral negotiations], involving discussions on very concrete issues and with the participation of international organizations and the United States of America.

Our objective was to open an additional channel, in parallel with the Geneva talks, in our relations with Russia, this time around in the form of a direct dialogue; we sought to establish such a format where no third party participates and where negotiations are created for the resolution of very specific objectives.

We will not jeopardize the Geneva process by any means. On the contrary, we want it to bring about concrete results. There were attempts to scrap the format, but to date it has survived and has not been abolished. We cannot say that this format has brought about anything very concrete but, in any case, its abolition is not planned.

I am sure that our message to open up another channel by appointing Mr. Zurab Abashidze has been perceived correctly by Russia and they have positively reacted to this, regardless of the fact that their initial reaction was not adequate and our expectations were higher. At the very least, the first meeting is being held.

Mr. Zurab Abashidze has said that Georgia is going into the first meeting without any preconditions. Russia, however, has made several statements. Amongst them is the statement by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov that talks about the occupied territories will be very damaging for the prospects of the restoration of Russia-Georgia relations. There was also a statement by Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev that Georgia must recognize new realities of the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. On the other hand, one of the declared priorities of the new government is opening the Russian market for Georgian products. Do you not think that Georgia is in the disadvantaged position of a requester – with the objective of securing access to the market – while Russia has made its demands?

No, not at all. I see you have been closely watching the statements made by Russia and I am sure you have watched the statements made by us just as closely. I have repeatedly said that there are "red lines" [which cannot be crossed] and those "red lines" are the restoration of the territorial integrity of Georgia and the free choice of Georgia to join that alliance and that union, which are needed for the development of the country. Those are NATO and European Union. Georgia will join no other union or alliance.

Of course, there always exist some conditions before negotiations. But our position is crystal clear; one cannot express it any clearer. I am sure that this position has reached the government of Russia. Nevertheless, the meeting has been held.

The first meeting will not bring any tangible result. Some technical issues will be discussed there. For the future, however, there are several concrete topics on the agenda. You are aware that the Prime Minister [Bidzina Ivanishvili] noted that access to the Russian market is a very interesting issue for us; we associate that with the revival of our economy, the creation of new jobs and many other positive aspects.

It has also been repeatedly said that a very favorable environment has been created for Russian business here and they [Russian companies] own a number of very important businesses in Georgia. Georgian businesses, on the other hand, are not provided with such

conditions in Russia. That means there is potential for cooperation in that area and, when such common interests exist, I am sure one can negotiate.

That’s why it was said that the Special Representative will conduct negotiations on economic and cultural issues and will, at the initial stage, be authorized to negotiate on these issues alone. One must necessarily take into account the humanitarian factor of people-to-people relationships too. You know that many of our compatriots live in Russia. We have unilaterally abolished the visa regime with Russia, but these people-to-people relationships will not be restored without reciprocity from the other side. I do not think that Russia is prepared to start talking about the abolition of the visa regime straight away, but some type of liberalization can be expected in this area too.

Two concrete topics have been voiced by Russia. That is, the resumption of regular flights and the return of Georgian products to the Russian market. Therefore, I am not ruling out negotiations on these two topics. And I would also add the humanitarian topic of the issue of travel visas. I do not expect that they will be resolved soon, but think that these three topics will all be raised during negotiations.

In one of his pre-election interviews, Bidzina Ivanishvili said that there is no need to repeatedly remind the West about the topic of occupation by “calling on” them to support us, believing that those oral statements of support from the West are not fully effective. Considering that the negotiations have just begun, can we assume that Tbilisi will change its policy by softening its rhetoric?

I will reiterate once again that the "red lines" are very clear. Nothing can change that; so long as the Georgian territories are occupied that will be issue number one. What Mr. Bidzina [Ivanishvili] implied back then, was that it is unfortunate that the topic of Georgia has become a bone of contention between various countries.

You know that the entire civilized world supports Georgia’s territorial integrity and sovereignty. Given its actions, that cannot be said about Russia. Consequently, that is an issue between the US and Russia, between various European countries and Russia, upon which they cannot agree. It would be good for Georgia to become a place of cooperation, not confrontation. And that is something on which everyone must work. Of course, much depends on Russia.

What is the situation with Georgia’s ambassadors? You said that very many ambassadors must be replaced, but you have failed to achieve agreement with the President of Georgia. What is the aim of such a rotation of ambassadors?

I have never said that very many ambassadors must be replaced. I want you to know that only two persons have left this ministry, in addition to the deputy ministers, some of whom did not themselves want to stay.

This Ministry, where I myself worked for 16 years, has many professionals. I value them very much and will make good on the promise that Mr. Bidzina Ivanishvili made during the election campaign – that public servants will have much better conditions than they had before. They will never be forced to fulfill an assignment by any political party. In this entity, I am the guarantor of that.

As regards the replacement of ambassadors, some 10 or 12 new ambassadors out of more than 60 heads of mission, makes up less than one fourth. Basically, that will affect those ambassadors who, as I have said, have forgotten that they are ambassadors of Georgia and not of the United National Movement. This process is continuing with some impediments. I hope by the time this issue of your magazine is released, the problem will have been solved. That also refers to those ambassadors who have themselves declared that they do not intend to cooperate with the new government. I will name only two of them – the ambassadors to the United States and the UN, [Temur] Iakobashvili and [Alexander] Lomaia, who themselves wrote on their facebook walls that they did not intend to stay. Nevertheless, they still hold their positions, which is surprising for me, personally.

And finally, I would like to inquire about the information which has been reported regarding collecting personal data of the employees of the diplomatic services. Data that contained information about their property status, the members of their families and the like. Information regarding the consumption of alcohol and tobacco was also included. Why has that become necessary?

Information about either property status or family members has not been collected. There were talks about compiling a directory for internal use in order to enable any person to establish normal contact with others inside the ministry. I have worked for 16 years in this system and that has happened systematically; questionnaires were sent out to update, at the very least, people’s contact details. That now includes e-mails and facebook accounts also. That questionnaire is a standard form which contains much less information than a questionnaire a person fills out when applying for a visa in any embassy.

That information has not been updated for quite a while now. Indeed, I am not interested in the property status of any employee, their personal affairs and, even less so, in whether or not they smoke… Moreover, employees had the right not to fill in the answers to any questions which they did not want to.

 

 

 

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