May 26 is Georgian Independence Day, a country with much in common with Estonia, even as the two nations' fortunes have taken somewhat different paths since the collapse of the Soviet Union thirty years ago. ERR News caught up with Georgia's ambassador to Estonia, Mr. Archil Karaulashvili to give us a sense of the importance of the country's national day, issues facing its move towards full Euro-Atlantic partnership, Estonian-Georgian relations, and just how did Georgia get to have such a strong international Rugby team.
Estonians took a very strong interest in Georgia during the 2008 invasion, and in supporting the country, to the extent of even displaying Georgian flags on their car, clothes etc. Were you touched by this support?
At the outset, let me thank you for the interview. I also take this opportunity to thank everyone who congratulated us on the Independence Day of Georgia. From my side, I would like to extend congratulation to all my compatriots, especially the Georgian diaspora represented in Estonia.
Definitely, we were touched by your support. At that difficult time, each Georgian citizen felt the huge solidarity shown by Estonian people and politicians alike, along with other friends and partners from Europe and the U.S.
This support had not only symbolic meaning but made it possible to stop Russia's military aggression against Georgia. Unfortunately, a significant part of Georgian territory remains occupied by Russia up until now, and we very much appreciate that Estonia keeps supporting Georgia's sovereignty and territorial integrity.
What is your personal background? How did you join the diplomatic corps and what changes have happened in that time?
I have devoted significant part of my professional life to Georgia's EU-integration related issues.
Prior to my current assignment, I was the Director General for European Integration at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Georgia and previously – the First Deputy Minister on European and Euro-Atlantic Integration of Georgia. I actively participated in the EU-Georgia Association Agreement negotiations.
Based on my professional experience, I have developed special dedication and personal attachment to the EU integration-related topics. I am glad that my activities in Estonia are also in support of Georgia's European and Euro-Atlantic integration.
What is the state of play with Georgia-Estonia relations like today?
Estonia is one of the most faithful and trustworthy partners of Georgia. Bilateral cooperation encompasses a wide range of areas, including politics, economy, tourism, security, culture and education.
Person-to-person contacts are intensive. Estonia's support towards Georgia's European and Euro-Atlantic integration, including through sharing its experience in the EU-related reforms, is truly exemplary. At the same time, I believe that more could be done to even further enhance our partnership.
What common ground is there with Georgia and Estonia's foreign policy objectives?
Georgia and Estonia have mostly similar foreign policy objectives which are based on shared values and interests. Georgia wishes to become part of the modern, democratic, civilized world through European and Euro-Atlantic integration – the objective that Estonia has long achieved.
When speaking about shared values and interests, it is worth noting that more than 80 percent of the Georgian population supports Georgia's future membership into the EU and NATO.
Of course, one of our foremost priorities is defending our sovereignty and territorial integrity. Georgia will never accept the occupation of its territories.
The common priorities also include contribution to peace, security and stability worldwide. To this end, military personnel from both countries have been jointly participating in different international peacekeeping operations, namely in Mali and Afghanistan.
How is Estonia helping Georgia (and vice versa) in meeting these objectives?
Estonia is one of the most vocal and consistent supporters of Georgia both in political and practical terms.
It strongly supports Georgia's integration into the EU and NATO. In addition, over many years, Georgia has been a priority country for the Estonian Development Cooperation program.
Numerous projects have been implementing under the program, aimed at supporting development of different sectors in Georgia such as education, IT, small and medium businesses, institutional capacity, etc.
Our countries have fruitful cooperation also within international organizations where they actively support each other's initiatives. We are grateful that Estonia uses every possible platform to keep international community focused on issues of vital importance to Georgia, especially in relation to the territorial integrity of my country.
Estonia's efforts in the capacity of a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council (UNSC) is a good example of this support.
Estonia and Georgia were both under Soviet occupation. What are the main ways in which it means the two countries have an understanding of each other?
Unfortunately, both countries were the victims of the occupation and faced heavy Soviet legacy afterwards. The political, economic and social transformation has not been easy.
While Estonia transformed itself successfully in all those dimensions, Georgia is still going through this process. Due to the very legacy, Estonia understands best the challenges Georgia is facing and helps to overcome them efficiently by sharing its own experiences. This is one of the reasons why Estonia is an invaluable partner for us.
We had a common past entailing existential threats to our countries but I hope that we will also have a common future already as partners in the EU and NATO.
How was Georgia's drive for independence in the early 1990s under Eduard Shevardnadze similar to Estonia's? How was it different?
Our countries both ardently strived to restore independence from the Soviet Union.
Like Estonia, Georgia was one of the first countries to hold nationwide referendum in March 1991, followed by the declaration of independence on 9 April the same year.
The role of the first President of Georgia, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, who had been one of the most prominent leaders of the National-Liberation movement of Georgia, needs to be particularly emphasized.
The subsequent political leaders followed the path of statehood building. However, my country, unlike Estonia, was soon embroiled into the turmoil of civil wars, instigated first by the Soviet special forces.
These civil wars hampered Georgia's development process and the prospects to achieve foreign policy goals in due course. It has continuously been a target of occupation of our territories and hybrid warfare from the Russian Federation aiming to destabilize the country and keep it in the sphere of influence.
Despite this, Georgia, step by step, has laid the extensive groundwork for building free and democratic state and has had remarkable achievements in this regard. Determination and dedication allowed overcoming obstacles as a state and as a society. I believe in the future accomplishments, since the foundation for this has already been built.
What are some of the milestones of Georgia's more recent history? Of course, May 26 is independence day, what does that also mean?
In every Georgian's heart, May 26 is associated with independent and democratic state embracing European values. The Democratic Republic of Georgia, in 1918-1921, was outstanding in terms of democratic approaches and the progressive constitution.
The constitution guaranteed the civic and political freedoms, the rights of women as well as religious and ethnic minorities, to name few highlights. Georgia at that time became one of the pioneer countries, where women had the right to vote and stand for election. It is noteworthy that even the current constitution of Georgia rests on the basic principles of the 1921 constitution.
During the Soviet occupation, Georgians never lost the national self-consciousness and were resistant to Soviet authorities' attempts of diminishing their rights and advancing assimilation.
A vivid example of this is the 1978 mass demonstrations in Tbilisi in response to the Soviet government's intention to change the status of Georgian language as of the state language in Georgia. The demonstrations succeeded and the language retained its previous status.
The past three decades i.e. 30 years of independence, together with difficulties, marked significant achievements as well. As a result of consistent work and far-reaching reforms, today Georgia is a democratic state that has Association Agreement including the DCFTA (Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement) and visa-free regime with the EU that all together is indeed the most important milestone in the recent history of Georgia.
During the Soviet era, Georgia and the Caucasus in general were popular tourist destinations for Estonians. Have these links been maintained? Are there plans – at least if the pandemic goes away – to improve tourism links, in both directions?
The interest of Estonians towards Georgia as of an attractive tourist destination is still there and is ever-increasing.
The statistics of recent years prove the dynamically growing tourism exchanges between our countries.
Estonian tourists are attracted by Georgia's rich cultural heritage, historical monuments, polyphonic singing, traditional dances, culinary, beauty of nature, excellent climate and well-known Georgian hospitality.
Direct budget flights between Tallinn and Kutaisi played encouraging role in rising the number of visitors.
Unfortunately, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, 2020 was an exception to this positive trend. There is willingness in Georgia to renew tourism, while keeping the health safety standards at the highest possible level, and we expect the travel opportunities to be widened already this year.
The tourism sector has been supported by the government of Georgia to maintain its capacities. Tourism opportunities in Georgia are developing rapidly and are oriented on different directions such as art and culture, climate and balneology (the study of natural mineral waters - ed.). The sea and mountain resorts of Georgia are waiting for Estonian tourists.
As of now, citizens of Estonia traveling by air to Georgia, may enter the country without self-isolation requirement if they present the document confirming the full course of any COVID-19 vaccination at the border checkpoints of Georgia.
Those who have not been vaccinated, must present PCR-examination certificate conducted during 72 hours prior to travel to Georgia; on the 3rd day of their stay, they have to undergo another PCR-examination and if the result is negative again, they can freely move and travel throughout the country.
Georgia is part of the EU's Eastern Partnership along with Ukraine and several other countries, mostly which were occupied by the former Soviet Union. What are the prospects for Georgia's Euro-Atlantic integration? How is Estonia helping with that? Will Georgia ever become an EU member state? Or join NATO?
Georgia is consistently following the path of both European and Euro-Atlantic integration. The objective to become a member of the EU and NATO has even been reflected in the Constitution of Georgia.
The integration process into NATO has progressed significantly. Dynamic and substance-driven relations led to Georgia becoming NATO's aspirant country which already has all practical tools to prepare for membership in the alliance. At the Bucharest Summit in 2008, the allies made an important decision on Georgia – they explicitly stated that "Georgia will become a member of NATO".
The EU-Georgia relations have never been so close as we witness them today. The relations in recent years have been characterized by historically unprecedented dynamism, effectively underpinned by the Association Agreement. Being part of the EaP helps to further bring Georgia closer to the EU. Georgia has expressed its political commitment to officially submit membership application in 2024.
Does Georgia pay a lot of attention to Estonia's e-state and digital solutions? If so, how have these been implemented in Georgia. Are there digital solutions or related things which Estonia could learn from Georgia.
Estonia's achievements in the IT are amazing. Today your country takes one of the leading positions in this field that makes Estonian experience valuable not only for Georgia but all the countries across the world. Estonia actively supports Georgia also in cyber-security issues. At the same time, the potential of cooperation is huge and we can do more to move our partnership to a higher level.
How long is your term in Estonia? What are some of the impressions you have had of the country so far and what will you take back with you from that?
I have had special attitude towards Estonia since my childhood. It started at the age of 10 when I read a book about history of the Estonian people, the heroic fight for motherland and independence that impressed me a lot.
Furthermore, during Soviet times, my family had close friendship with an Estonian family who had been deported to Georgia for some period of time and later returned to Estonia.
These warm bonds and feeling have been even strengthened during my stay here as ambassador. The term usually lasts four years and it is indeed a great honor for me to represent Georgia in such a friendly country as Estonia is.
I see Estonians as motivated, goal-oriented, hard-working society, driven by ideals of freedom, human rights and democracy.
These are the values that unite Georgians and Estonians and due to the very reason, I feel like I'm at home in Estonia.
The Georgian language is famous for having a very different writing system from those European languages which use the Latin alphabet. Does this make it harder, or easier, for foreigners to learn? Do you think it is harder, or easier than Estonian?
We Georgians are proud of our language and alphabet, which are truly unique. In fact, its uniqueness led UNESCO to include the three writing systems of the Georgian alphabet into its representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
Foreigners say that Georgian is a difficult language. But if you learn alphabet, you can be perfect in spelling, as each sound has its corresponding letter.
What are some other famous Georgians from the present day, or from history, who you would like to see become more famous internationally than they are now?
Georgians have had many talented people throughout history, be it statesmen, writers, poets, public figures in cultural field, sportsmen, etc.
I cannot distinguish between them but I wish the world knew more about Georgian poetry. Here I must mention Shota Rustaveli, a medieval Georgian poet and the author of the Knight in the Panther's Skin, written in the 12th century. Rustaveli was then followed by many respectable Georgian poets.
There are at least a couple of, very good, Georgian restaurants in Tallinn, probably more. What type of food do you recommend people should try? Would you like to see more importing of Georgian wine into Estonia and elsewhere?
There are certainly more than two Georgian restaurants in Tallinn. Interestingly, their number grew even during the Covid-19 pandemic, which shows the popularity of Georgian cuisine in Estonia.
There are countless numbers of delicious types of Georgian food worth trying.
Georgian wine has no less popularity with Estonians, and of course, we would welcome seeing more Georgian wine appear on the market.
What about other business links between Georgia and Estonia? How good are these and could they be improved?
The existing level of trade and economic cooperation is rather limited while the potential is much bigger. I hope that Covid-19 pandemic situation will soon allow restoring business ties and that new transport and infrastructure projects both in Georgia and Estonia as well as the wider region of Europe will create new opportunities for strengthening relations and enhancing trade between our countries.
We already spoke about the fields of tourism and information technologies, also having significant potential.
Many of our readers might not know this, but Georgia has an international rugby team which is nearly in the top 10 internationally and has played in several world cups. How did rugby come to Georgia and become popular? What other sports are popular?
Thank you for this question. Rugby is one of my favorite sports and the Georgian national team is indeed one of the strongest in the world.
Rugby has a lot of similarities with the Georgian game "Lelo" which was played in the middle ages.
Thus we believe that the tradition of playing Rugby dates back to those times. Other team sports such as basketball or water polo are also developing well in Georgia.
Our national football team is becoming stronger as well. Besides, many Georgian individual sportsmen have had great achievements in different international competitions.
Is Georgia quite a religious country, compared with Estonia?
Traditionally religion has played an important role in social and cultural life of Georgians and in consolidation of the society.
Orthodox Christianity continues to have a special place in present-day Georgians' lives but, at the same time, Georgia remains a multi-confessional state and the freedom of belief and religion is guaranteed by the Constitution.
I hear there is quite a nice and friendly group of ambassadors in Tallinn, at least from most countries who are represented here. Do you agree, and how do events, functions etc. work now, particularly with the coronavirus restrictions.
Due to the pandemic, the diplomatic corps has been experiencing hard times everywhere in the world. We have had a lack of physical meetings and interaction which is a significant part of our professional duties. I fully agree with that those meetings there are, are very friendly, and with improvement of the Covid-19 situation, I look forward to reviving contacts with my friends and colleagues serving in Tallinn.
Did the coronavirus pandemic hit Georgia hard, or not?
The first wave of Covid-19 was handled successfully but the second and third waves have unfortunately had greater impact both on health of the citizens and economic development of Georgia.
Currently, the situation is manageable but challenges remain. As vaccination is gaining strength in the country, we hope the improvement and normal life will come soon.
With thanks to Mariam Lebanidze.
Editor: Andrew Whyte