Georgian ambassador: Estonia's experience is important for us
Today (June 17), Estonia and Georgia celebrate the 30th anniversary of their diplomatic relations. ERR News spoke to the Georgian Ambassador to Estonia Archil Karaulashvili about plans to further develop economic relations, EU membership aspirations and Russia's war in Ukraine.
Thirty years ago, Estonia and Georgia re-established their diplomatic relations. The countries are both small with a common, dangerous neighbor on their borders which has shaped their relations.
The nations also share common features in their history. They gained their independence just over 100 years ago, suffered under Soviet occupation and re-established their independence at the start of the 1990s.
But while Estonia moved towards European and NATO membership in 2004, Georgia's aspirations stalled after a week-long war with Russia in 2008. Twenty percent of its territory is still occupied and is referred to as a "creeping annexation" which sees the borderline move in Russia's favor.
Today Estonia is one of Georgia's biggest allies, refusing to recognize the recent so-called elections in the occupied regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, advising Georgia on e-governance and supporting its EU and NATO aspirations.
"Estonia is one of the strongest and most reliable supporters of Georgia's independence, Georgia's territorial integrity and integration into EU structures," Karaulashvili told ERR News last month.
The ambassador said he cannot fault the political ties between the two nations, saying the relationship is of "great value."
"Estonia is not only helping us as a country but it tries to persuade other countries to help us, not only politically and economically, but even at the technical level with experience gained through the same process of getting into the EU and NATO."
But on the economic front, there is still work to be done. "There is a huge gap between reality and possibilities," he said, calling the current situation "miserable."
While some products such as bottled water brand Borjormi and Georgian wines are well-known in Estonia, there is room for development - especially when it comes to services and tourism.
Pre-pandemic, in 2019, "just" 12,000 Estonians visited Georgia, the ambassador said, adding there is "huge potential for development."
"Georgia and Estonia each have what the other does not," he said, while Georgia has mountains and a warm climate, Estonia has green forests.
Direct flights are one of the biggest issues holding back development and ideally, direct flights should be developed between Tallinn, Georgian capital Tbilisi and the Black Sea resort city of Batumi, he said. The closure of airspace over Ukraine does not help the situation and neither does the termination of flights between Tallinn and Kutaisi, which are hoped to resume this year.
As with many other countries, Estonia has helped Georgia develop its e-services but as of yet, the country does not have "even a single unicorn," a company valued at more than US$1 billion.
"This shows how important Estonia's experience is for us," he said.
Georgia planned to apply for European Union membership in 2024 but discussions about enlargement are in the air, it applied in March this year and has submitted the questionnaire required by the European Commission.
Karaulashvili said even applying is "quite a courageous step for us given what Russia has done to Ukraine" and added that it could lead to further aggression from Russia.
The ambassador, who has extensive experience working on Georgia's EU integration, said it is vital the country is awarded candidate status.
"We need a light at the end of the tunnel /.../ it will encourage reforms and counter Russian propaganda," he said.
Russian propaganda propagates a narrative internationally that Georgia is "a failed state" and not good enough to join the EU and NATO, he said. "Our aim is to counter this."
Support for EU membership is high, especially among young and highly educated people. There is "full support for European integration" in the government, public and private sectors, he said.
While the war in Ukraine has sped up discussions about the country's future membership, Karaulashvili believes a "window of opportunity" should also include Georgia not only Ukraine.
"It would not be right to split the trio of association countries," he said, meaning Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova. "Georgia is a victim of the 2008 invasion and war, too, and our territories are still occupied. And most importantly Georgia is a leader in many reforms, as well."
"I know we are not less ready, maybe even more so than others," the diplomat told ERR News.
Speaking about why the country wants to join the EU he said there were pragmatic reasons, such as developing the economy, but also many that are cultural.
"Georgians, we feel that we are a part of European culture and European society, even from very ancient times starting with ancient Greece. These rights, such as democracy, rule of law, are enshrined in Georgian culture and widely supported by society and there is a feeling we belong to this," he said.
"It is like nationality, it is not for others to determine who you are, it is for you to determine who you are."
Response to Ukraine
The Georgian government has been criticized for its perceived weak response to Russia's full-scale war in Ukraine and there have been protests in Tbilisi.
The Estonian media has also been critical and the ambassador said these "misinterpretations" were "ungrounded."
"The whole country, government and society is in support of Ukraine's territorial integrity and in solidarity," he said. "We were in the same position in 2008."
While Georgia has not created its own sanctions against Russia, it is implementing international ones, Karaulashvili said. In addition, Georgia joined the sanctions related to occupied Crimea and the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk republics.
He said the country is in a "difficult situation" owing to the fact that Russia still occupies 20 percent of its territory. The government does not want "new aggressions, a new war to be waged inside our country."
"Unfortunately, Georgia is in a vulnerable security situation," the diplomat said, and added that Georgia is not a member of NATO. The country was denied a membership action plan in 2008.
"That's why we are cautious with these sanctions and have not introduced our own."
He said Georgia is supplying humanitarian aid to Ukraine and has accepted thousands of refugees.
"Ukraine is really fighting for all of us and this is understood in Georgia in the way it is in Estonia," he said.
Editor's note: After this interview took place, a study by the Center for European Policy Studies said that while Georgia has surpassed other countries on economic reform and has "largely eliminated" common corruption, the government has also contradicted "the EU's fundamental values" on the functioning of democratic institutions and the rule of law.
The European Parliament also called on Georgia to uphold the highest standards of democracy, rule of law and press freedom earlier this month.
On Wednesday (June 15), President Emmanuel Macron said Georgia should not be allowed to start the accession process.
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Editor: Helen Wright