Georgia: Saakashvili Pressures Brussels For Closer Ties

Radio Free Europe, Czech Republic
April 7 2004

Georgia: Saakashvili Pressures Brussels For Closer Ties
By Ahto Lobjakas

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili used his 6 April visit to EU
headquarters in Brussels to press for quicker integration with the
bloc. He said integration with the European Union is Georgia’s
foremost foreign policy goal, and suggested his country lags only a
few years behind current candidates. EU officials, however, made
clear that talk of membership is highly premature.

Brussels, 7 April 2004 (RFE/RL) — In political terms, Georgia’s new
president was making giant leaps on his maiden visit to EU
headquarters in Brussels.

Six months after the “Rose Revolution” that toppled longtime leader
Eduard Shevardnadze, Saakashvili leads a country that is heavily
dependent on emergency foreign aid.

It was only in January that the EU tentatively indicated that Georgia
and other Caucasus countries might be included in the bloc’s new
neighborhood program.

Yet Saakashvili took his hosts by surprise yesterday when he
suggested Georgia is very close to meeting EU membership criteria.

He told a news conference after meeting the president of the European
Commission, Romano Prodi, that the process may only take a few years.

“I believe that, besides getting the current assistance, we’re also
becoming members of the Wider Europe Initiative. That’s very
important. I believe that if present positive trends in Georgia
remain effective, [then] in the period somewhere between three to
four years we’ll be ready in terms of criteria for EU membership. Of
course, it will take time. Of course, it will take long procedures.
And I’m realistic about that. But I’m also convinced that Georgia
could be in good shape in three to four years if we solve those
problems and consolidate our statehood the way we are doing right
now,” Saakashvili said.

Specifically, Saakashvili said his country lags three or four years
behind Bulgaria. After the EU’s enlargement on 1 May, Bulgaria is the
front-runner in the next wave, set to join in early 2007.

Before meeting Prodi, Saakashvili said in a speech before the foreign
affairs committee of the European Parliament that Georgia is a
country with a “European identity and culture.” He listed reforms
aimed at bolstering the judiciary and law enforcement structures,
rooting out corruption, creating macroeconomic stability and
welcoming foreign investors. He also said Georgia would contribute to
the EU’s stability as a “frontline partner” in the fight against
terrorism and a vital contributor to the bloc’s energy security.

However, these arguments appeared to have made little impression on
Prodi. The commission president stuck to the tough EU line, according
to which the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement signed with
Georgia in 1995 still has a lot of unused potential. Prodi even
refused to indicate whether he would recommend Georgia for inclusion
in the bloc’s new neighborhood scheme.

“We start from the Partnership and Cooperation agreement that gives
us clearly plenty of room to increase our relations and we want to
move ahead in the implementation of the Partnership and Cooperation
agreement. But after the enlargement on 1 May, the commission in the
same month of May intends to make a recommendation on the
relationship of Georgia and Armenia and Azerbaijan to the European
Neighborhood Policy and the [EU] Council [of heads of state and
government] will consider this matter further, I hope, in June,”

Nonetheless, the inclusion of Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan in the
neighborhood project appears to be a foregone conclusion. But EU
officials privately doubt whether the three countries will be able to
make use of the integration opportunities offered by the project.

Prodi yesterday said the EU has given Georgia 10 million euros ($12.2
million) in food aid in recent months, and will shortly add another
3.6 million to support reforms of the judiciary and law enforcement

Saakashvili yesterday said his country would honor “European
standards” of peaceful conduct in dealing with the separatist regions
of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. He said both will be offered autonomy.
At the same time, Saakashvili appealed for the close involvement of
what he termed “major European structures” in both peace processes.

The Georgian president also extended generous praise to his Russian
counterpart Vladimir Putin, who he said had played a very
constructive role in the recent standoff between Tbilisi and the
autonomous republic of Adjaria.

“There are two things,” Saakashvili said. “We have high expectations
for our relations with Russia, [because] they’re accepting the new
rules of the game, and the new rules of the game are that military
presence is no longer acceptable — that they should abide by
international agreements and [that] they should not meddle in the
internal affairs of [their] immediate neighbors — and I think what
Putin demonstrated in Adjaria was [in the first instance] that he
clearly gave the message to the local government leader [who] was no
longer supported by his population, [who] had problems with central
government and [who] had only hopes that President Putin of Russia
would support him, that Russia was no longer willing to grant the
same kind of support as one would have expected in the past, so
that’s quite a change from previous Russian [positions].”

But, added Saakashvili, it is too early to say whether this pattern
of behavior will continue.