November 22, 2006
Mikhail Saakashvili

Ipek Cem was recently in Tbilisi to interview President Mikhail Saakashvili of Georgia. This young and charismatic President has been leading his country for the past 3 years. In 2003, he was making headlines with his Rose Revolution which challenged the corruption in the previous government. As a result he came to office with a landslide. He is still making headlines, but this time Georgia's reforms and the unease with Russia are capturing the attention of onlookers. Read on to gain more insight into this interesting country and a leader who has been called 'the Kennedy of the Caucuses.'

Ipek Cem: Our guest tonight is President Saakashvili of Georgia. Welcome to the show.

 

Mikhail Saakashvili: Thank you.

 

Ipek Cem: Three years ago the international spot-light was very much on Georgia, and yourself, because of the “Rose Revolution”, and these days, because of the stand off with Russia, we see the same kind of international interest in Georgian affairs. How do you assess the situation today?

 

Mikhail Saakashvili: Well I think if you look at the country in general, we have made huge progress since “Rose Revolution”, three years ago. It is another country. It was a failed state three years ago, now it’s one of the country which is very dynamic. We have a booming economy, changing cities, not only the capital, but all around the place, and a country that has confidence in the future. Now with regard to the current international crisis, yes, there has been this bilateral exchange of, I would rather say, unilateral because Georgia didn’t do anything but to what any other country would do, expel those people who were doing activities that wasn’t fit for their status or for with legislation of our country. I think the reaction in Russia in a way reflects much wider issues than just reaction to this concrete situation, but I think it will go away in a while. We have seen similar out-bursts with other former Soviet satellites like Baltic countries, like Ukraine, like Eastern European countries, so it’s a matter of time, and it’s a matter of patience, and perseverance.

 

Ipek Cem: Your policy has the support of the Georgians, would you say?

 

Mikhail Saakashvili: Well, I mean, we just had local elections, and we got a total landslide. I was pretty impressed with the polls were predicting victory, but you know, we got more than seventy two, seventy five per cent country wide, and we won all the major municipalities which really shows that people feel change and that’s what they voted for, the continuation of change.

 

Ipek Cem: There was first a a trade embargo against certain Georgian products, and then there came a logistical embargo, and then the airways and the roads et cetera. So at this point are you expecting any other moves from Russia?

 

Mikhail Saakashvili: Well, not much is left, frankly, I mean certainly we don’t expect any further escalation, and what is happening now is something that has not only happened towards Georgia. For instance, Estonia had ninety five percent of its trade with Russia, and now it has less than six percent. But it is also a very successful economy. They haven’t started the embargo now, they have started it, most of it even before my presidency when they introduced visa regime. They had some trade restrictions before my presidency. It intensified up to my presidency, because before Georgia was so damaged that you couldn’t damage it even further. Now that the economy develops, I guess that some people decided that this is a good way to make us take back our policy steps and decisions. They have blocked most of our products over the last year. They have blocked our wines and mineral waters here. We had problems with air traffic also in the past, in two thousand and four, two thousand and five. So nothing is really that new, except that it now became an official policy. Before they (claimed that) they were motivated by, you know the debts not paid by Georgian companies, or by bad quality sanitary problems with Georgian wine. Now they are officially saying that ‘yes we are doing this, because it is our policy decision’. But on the other hand also there is the story of how Georgia coped with the restrictions. It is a story of survival and success. So, I mean, we are not happy with these measures, but I don’t think they can get even worse than now, and I don’t expect any catastrophic consequences.

 

Ipek Cem: What are you doing in terms of some of these export products, important products for you, and are important products of Georgia. Are you diversifying your export countries?

 

Mikhail Saakashvili: Absolutely. We basically started diversification, two years ago, and we are exporting more and more to the European Union. We are exporting more and more to other neighbours, and other former states of the USSR, members of the community of independent states (CIS), and we have much more extensive relations with Turkey. We have with European Union GSP plus status, which means there is a certain number of products which we can export to the European Union duty free, and it is widening step by step,. For instance, we dealt with our wine export this year for the European Union. We started to process our other food products so that they are fit for the European market. And we also have trade relations with a number of mid-Western countries. With Turkey, it’s important because the very moment when the Russian embassies stopped to issue visas to Georgians in early this year. Turkish embassy, the Turkish Government announced visa-free travel to Georgia. Turkey gave access to a number of Georgian products to the Turkish market, and now we are working on a free trade agreement and avoiding double taxation. So I can say that the main trading partner today for Georgia, and the rapidly increasing trading partner is Turkey. and so there is always an alternative.

 

Ipek Cem: I know that relations with Turkey have always been a good story, and also the energy corridor and the Baku-Tblisi-Ceyhan and Baku-Tblisi Erzurum pipelines  are enhancing this togetherness. What are some of the new initiatives with Turkey?

 

Mikhail Saakashvili: Well, I really, first of all we should realise that how much perceptions have changed in our country, I mean in the Soviet Union, people know very little about Turkey, even if their villages had been next to each other across the border. Of course people could shout to each other. There was very little contact. There was lots of prejudice, and… you know, and people would study in Turkish language, like say my mother who is a professor of Turkic studies would do, and would never see a real Turk in their life, and would maybe, or who never - I’m not talking about travelling to Turkey. It was like going to another planet, you could more easily travel to East Germany, or to Czechoslovakia, as it was then or many other places. Even it was easier to travel to the United States, but it was very difficult to go to Turkey, because there was really an Iron Curtain. So that changed dramatically, as soon as we became independent it was the first one to come to the help of Georgia, as a government, as a state. And then the strategic projects came, like oil pipeline installation, and some others… but this is changing now really. It’s really much more people to people communication, and it’s Turkey’s business coming here. I think a very important project is now Batumi Airport. The Turks have been building two airports.  There is a big terminal, at Tbilisi airport, and they are modernising and for this year there is a new airport in Batumi. However the Batumi airport will be exploited as a joint Turkish-Georgian airport as of the model of Geneva airport. Which means that inhabitants of neighbouring provinces of Artvin, Rize and others who are bordering Georgia can come (to Batumi)… it’s closer for them than to go to Trabzon.  They can enter Georgia free of passport control, and the other control, customs control for the planes, and say fly to Istanbul with internal Turkish tariffs, as well as lots of transit through Istanbul, and to Batumi. I think this is a very important psychologic change and a real change, as well as a lot of Turkish businesses have opened their subsidiaries now in Georgia. We have a now booming textile industry coming to Georgia. We have …. a lot of you know… several new… textile plants opened in Batumi. But also.. We are expecting dozens of them now to come. We have Turkish road construction company. We have Turkish construction companies, in fact most of the big government orders last year were executed by Turkish companies. And this is indication of where we are. I mean that’s why we need double taxation agreement, avoiding double taxation agreement. One should realise that Georgia is a very attractive business environment for a number of points of view. First of all, European Bank of Reconstruction and Development put Georgia as one of three most non-corrupt economies in Europe – this is a major breakthrough. Second, according to the World Bank, we are the number one reformers in the world. That means we went from being a hundred and thirty-seventh in the business environment to being forty-seventh. So we jumped over a hundred positions. And we are moving even further. We have the lowest tax tariffs in Europe, and we have almost no customs tariffs, except for agricultural products we don’t have any customs tariffs any more.  So basically it is a very attractive economy in general terms. And at the same time this is a country which is extremely open and friendly towards Turks, and this is another psychologically very important factor. So having said all that you can see why the interest is so much growing, and why we have much more, you know, routine contacts because Government relations have always been good. They are as good as ever, now. Better than ever. However, you know when I first became President, when I went to Istanbul to meet Turkish business community I heard lots of failure, stories of personal problems, lots of stories of, you know…

 

Ipek Cem: Having to do with regulations?

 

Mikhail Saakashvili: Having to do with corruption of Georgian officials, having to do with taxes, having to do with disorder and absence of law in Georgia. And now I only hear success stories. This is a big change. And that’s what really matters. That’s why it was so important to me, establish Georgia as a business friendly, strong government as well as a non-corrupt economy, and somebody who is very open to the Turks.

 

Ipek Cem: Three years ago, when you were first starting out as President, in one of your first interviews you said something like, “I am ready to clean up the mess”. Meaning that Georgia at that point had lots of problems, that you even in you Government had to face them as minister, corruption and other problems. Now looking at your starting point and where you are now, clearly you’ve mentioned the progress you have made, but have you come across some stumbling blocks that you weren’t anticipating?

 

Mikhail Saakashvili: Well I mean… in terms of corruption as I told you now we are also saying that the World Bank Report that in all transitional economies we are the number one fighters in the world of corruption. Number one in terms of speed of progress. This is a huge issue, because this was one of the worst countries in terms of corruption.

 

Ipek Cem: How did you achieve it?

 

Mikhail Saakashvili: Well, I think we have been very radical. We fired the whole traffic police that really sunk a lot of Turkish truck drivers all this time, and now as a result we have five times the increase of truck traffic through Georgia, because nobody else is stopping them. We are very tough on Government officials. We are still very tough on Government officials, not only previous ones, but even today a number of them were arrested for corruption. We dramatically increased the salaries of the officials, we repaired their offices. They sit in much nicer offices you know, and there are much more checks and controls. And if you look at the index of corruption, the Government budget of Georgia has been increased almost nine times for three years. And that’s the index of corruption. Of course the growth of the economy has been less, I mean last year it was a little bit less than ten percent, we expect at least ten percent this year, but the budget has grown almost nine times – nine hundred percent. And that comes from decreased corruption. And that’s how we’ve been worked up. We were tough and we had a systematic approach and we were transparent, and we also mobilised the public for this respite. And so what it really proved is that there are no cultures that are inherently corrupt, there are just the governments that are good or bad. Efficient or inefficient. Of course there are still problems. I mean the old habits die hard, this is a problem. This trade embargo didn’t help, obviously. The existing conflicts, the frozen ones don’t help. This is like a big handicap when you are running somewhere with weights on you legs, but on the other hand we managed to cope with it, and to find some internal force to move forward and to move away, shun the things that we are not totally in control and we are in control and we are in charge.

 

Ipek Cem: I’d like to get to the topic of – two existing topics – South Ossetia and Abkhazhia and your recent UN speech addressed them.  However at the UN Security Council the plea of Georgia to talk, to hold direct talks (to resolve the conflict) was not accepted… So is it going the way you want? Are you getting enough international support for these issues?

 

Mikhail Saakashvili: Obviously, we are getting there. It is very hard because you are dealing with Russian resistance. Russia is an important player, and Russia is for many internal reasons, and for the love as well, that love also causes some unhealthy interest in Georgia, because it was the jewel of the empire. It is resisted for a number of accounts, but it is a matter of time. On the other hand we have raised awareness, we have worked for much closer contacts with our European partners. We have welcomed very much the Turkish role in anything that’s concerning the conflicts, because we saw how constructive the Turkish side was on the issue of Ajaria and with good intentions there. And we would like to continue with this route of peaceful settlement. It is a long term thing. We are, you know, not in a hurry, but you are also talking about small populations. We have twenty thousand ethnic Ossetians in South Ossetia and about forty thousand ethnic Abkhazians in Abkhazia. Abkhazia is not a normal situation. People should be allowed to go back, settle in their houses, decide their own future and have secure conditions for their residence there. And so whatever it takes, whatever international efforts we take, we are willing to undertake. We are working on it. It takes time. It is not easy, but I it should not divert us from the main goals we have development, a good economy, and policies for a peaceful settlement of the existing problems. We inherited those problems. We didn’t create them, and now we need to gradually dissolve them, but we know that we need time, we need patience, we need perseverance, but we also need to have clear direction that  in the end they will be solved. I am sure they will be solved in the right way.

 

Ipek Cem: But the situation is complicated, of course, with the existence of the Russian peace-keeping force, and also the Russian relationship seems to always have some play in the Georgian economic or political life. So how to go about resolving those issues, without resolving other issues with Russia?

 

Mikhail Saakashvili: Well look. We certainly understand that Russia is an important player. However, if you look at the economy, it wasn’t our choice but we managed to find alternative markets, and we are finding more and more of them. And so we can cope. We are still having good growth. For example, we have Societe General just came in as a direct investor and bought one of the biggest Georgian banks. We have other foreign banks coming in. We have all major hotel networks opening in hotels in Georgia, and building hotels in Georgia now. We have, we built, last year, more hospitals, more schools, more roads than have been done all together for the last twenty five years so the country is progressing. So that’s the response to your question. Yes, there is pressure. It’s not always healthy, but we are managing. Now, conflict is something else, because there, they are present physically, and there is not much we can do, in terms of control and change. We agree that it is a matter of trying to replace them through the process of negotiation and with a genuine international peace keeping force, where any other actors of the region can be helpful, for instance, Turkey, and many others as well. Having, and raising awareness in the world and waiting, but persisting in the direction. The main thing we are wanting to avoid is any kind of confrontation, is any kind of skirmishes, any kind of further tension, because they are not helpful. We are a small country. We don’t need trouble. As simple as that.

 

Ipek Cem: Is there a timetable set for the changing of the peace keeping force?

 

Mikhail Saakashvili: We are in extensive negotiations right now. We have just had the Assistant Secretary of State from the United States. We are working with the Europeans. We have an exchange of letters with Chancellor Merkel recently. And we are working with the European Commissioners as well as the OECD in Europe. It’s a very hard process. I cannot say that it’s going very smoothly, but it’s moving. It’s moving in many ways in the right directions, there are also bad developments, because with regards to Kosovo there is this concern that it becomes independent and that may complicate our conflict. We don’t see any parallels, but there are people who see this. So this is both ways. There are good developments. There is something which is not so good. But no matter what, it’s still that we have this direction and the main thing that we have avoided so far, and will avoid in the future, is confrontation. We don’t need confrontation. We need, right now, development. We need to create good models for this small population that basically is trapped by this conflictual situation. To be part of the success and we want to have success, and that’s what matters at this stage, rather than putting all our stakes on the frozen conflicts and it’s not going to produce good results. We should pay more attention to the development, and those other things will follow with the general development of the country.

 

Ipek Cem: You place a lot of emphasis on the relationship with the US and in fact I was just looking at the pictures in your office, and outside your office, and in the Freedom Square when President George Bush (was in Tblisi), there was an amazing celebration and also in your state visit to the US there was a very warm exchange. Now, how is the role of the US and its friendship with Georgia affecting your other relationships in the sense that you are set on the NATO goal, perhaps even in 2008, and then you are within the European friendship (arrangement)?

 

Mikhail Saakashvili: Well, first of all, I mean, we obviously have a very strong and cordial relationship with the United States, but we are primarily a European country. It is also part of this region. That’s why our policy is still Europe first of all. It’s not US first policy. It’s Europe first policy, because we belong here because it is our natural market, and because our cultural heritage is in Europe and that’s why, for us, the Turkish integration to the European Union is decisive for Georgia. So that’s, we understand that. We all have European flags in our offices, none of us have an American flag.

 

Ipek Cem: Also a lot in Tbilisi, I think…

 

Mikhail Saakashvili: Absolutely, you will find, I mean, petrol stations, supermarkets, it’s a general public view. It’s not just the Government that supports it. Now, having said that, we will stay strong friends with the United States. It’s not just that sometimes it’s helpful, but sometimes it causes some problems, such as the others, sometimes some tension., because sometimes people don’t think in the right way, they think if they are good friends with the US they are just their clients and subsidiaries. This image is not right. We are a small country with small interests. We are not, we don’t always want to be part of this big strategic equation because there it’s easy to loose your own face and your own interests, and if you look in pragmatic terms, for instance, Turkey and Azerbaijan for us are the most important countries in the neighbourhood, as well as the Ukraine is important, as well as other neighbours are important. So it is , we should realise that we are very pragmatic people and we know who is really important for us. And so even with all this stress and emphasis, I mean, when we have problems, say, with energy, we have problems with transportation, we don’t go to Washington, we go to Ankara. And that’s a clear understanding. As a democratic government, we should respond to real challenges, and real challenges are here in the neighbourhood. And real help is here in the neighbourhood. Not overseas, as we know it. Although we certainly benefit from those relationships as well.

 

Ipek Cem: How about the NATO track?

 

Mikhail Saakashvili: I think that it’s realistic, but it’s not only up to Georgia. It’s a merit based process, but it all depends on the general equation in Europe, and every time NATO widens further. Every time there was some big political push happening in Europe. And I hope we are going in a good direction. I think that there is this new wave of countries that belong in the trans-Atlantic sphere, I think Turkish help is essential here. Turkey has done a lot in reforming our own armed forces. So, I mean, generally if you look at Turkish – Georgian relations you really see what’s, how can the model of relations be between a former metropoly and a colony, because as you know Georgia was part of the Ottoman Empire, of course it’s not (like the Ottoman Empire), it’s different Turkey, we’re not talking about that, but it’s still...

 

Ipek Cem: Historical...

 

Mikhail Saakashvili: ... Yes there is a historical link. This is a country that genuinely without any immediate gain, or direct, some kind of pragmatic benefit they can expect from it, helped Georgia for all this time. And that’s exactly the kind of relations we would like to see with Russia. Now of course the Russian story is more immediate, they are, they have these ambitions which are still there, but in many ways I mean it is a good model what we have with Turkey now. And that’s why our another access to NATO is through our cooperation with Turks, because if you are talking about the American role here in modernising our military, the Turkish role has been just as important. And that’s why we believe that maybe this whole process is more important than the final accession to NATO, because this is the reform process that leads us there. And those reforms inside are more important to transform the society, than just the formal piece of paper that says we are part of the organisation.

 

Ipek Cem: How do you assess Europe’s enlargement process now? Because in Turkey we are kind of luke-warm about it now… the stages we have to go through.

 

Mikhail Saakashvili: Look. I am also frustrated by the way they approach Turkey, because we believe, we have seen it ourselves how dramatically Turkey has been transformed. How fast it has transformed. We have seen all these Black Sea areas that are neighbouring Georgia. A few years ago they were totally backward, under developed. Now, you go there, you see all these new highways, you see all this new construction, you see lots of new educated people, new universities, new technologies coming and you see that this country, even in these remote parts becoming a very dynamic part of what is really European culture, and European economy. And, you know, the problem is that Turks as well as sometimes Georgians have to fight against prejudices. I mean this is the problem . There are just people that are so prejudiced that no matter what you produce, they just don’t want to notice it. And I think it’s not good. But I think that it’s also changing. I think it’s… there are many countries in Europe who strongly favour Turkish membership, and even in those countries there are some hurdles, you know. A new generation of politicians is emerging. And you know, what is good about this new generation is that they are much less prejudiced, they are much more pragmatic, they are much better educated, they have much more open eyes and wider view of the world. And that’s going to help both of us. Certainly I think Turkey will be the first to join the European Union, and I hope so, and Georgia should benefit from it. And now it’s like vice versa. For instance, we want to trade freely with Turkey, but Turkey is a member of Customs Union and they need permission from Brussels to sign a free trade agreement with Georgia. So this integration should not divide us. On the contrary: it should unite us. That’s why we went to Brussels now and tell them to help us please solve this position.

 

Ipek Cem: Are they helping you?

 

Mikhail Saakashvili: It’s not even helping. Don’t stop Turkey from doing this, because we both want it. It’s a complicated issue, but basically, yes, it’s a matter of time. It’s a matter of time, and I understand the impatience. I would be very impatient myself, quite frustrated to see all these hurdles, but, you know, that’s how we should live with it, but we should not give up. That’s obvious, because if somebody would benefit from Turkey it’s much more the rest of Europe… Turkey will benefit, obviously, but Europe will dramatically benefit from Turkish membership, and we know it, from our perspective.

 

Ipek Cem: That’s our thought as well, that we will benefit Europe as much as Europe benefits us. You have a different way, I’ve been hearing and reading about you. You have a very young cabinet as well. And you are a reformer as well. Clearly you think fast, you act fast. How is this model, this new way working? It’s very different from what was here before and what this region is accustomed to.

 

Mikhail Saakashvili: It is very different, and that is why we have got some of our foreign political problems. Because some people obviously see it as a challenge to political culture that was in post Soviet space, in post Soviet Union. And so too the culture of corruption, culture of backwardness, culture of always looking for others to fall over and not having your own decisions and you own say. You know people see all their, you know like, just you know, we are puppets of other countries. They don’t realise how psychology works here. Here we are people that are first of all self-made. We… Our people brought us to power, but we weren’t brought in by financial means, we weren’t brought in by some powerful parents or somebody, we voted and came in ourselves. So we are self-made. We believe in our own country, in our own force, in our own self-sufficiency politically, and we believe in the open economy and open exchange. So that’s what is important for us. This is a very well educated Government that is also as idealistic as the people who created modern Turkey. I mean this is the point. This energy. The ideals. The vision. I mean there are lots of parallels. I just traveling with Turkish friends in Batumi, in the summer and we drove into a youth camp, by accident – I didn’t plan to go there, a youth camp with boy scouts and there were lots of young people… hundreds of them… and this Turkish friends…. they spoke with the young people and they had already met with some members of my Government and they said ‘ You know it’s exactly like Turkey during (the time of) Mustafa Kemal, it’s exactly the same kind of energy, the same kind of expectations. And you know I know exactly how Turkey was (back then). When you go to the Mustafa Kemal Atatürk museum in Ankara, and you see the map how they sliced Turkey. I mean the big powers at that moment. Nobody asked Turkish opinion, and how Turkey regained itself. And this is for me…. not only this, the reforms, obviously, reforms that sometimes went against the existing culture, but in the end they formed the culture. Not following current politicians, but believing in your vision. Following them, and not listening to anybody except your own principles, except your own cautiousness, and except your own vision for your countries future. Considering the past European examples, obviously we cannot invent something entirely new. That’s why we believe we are in a good way, now. No matter what are the challenges. You know, that’s why I openly express my admiration for Atatürk, not because of what he did for Turkey, but for what I want to do for my country. And that’s our common vision for what I want to do with this generation of politicians here.

 

Ipek Cem: Yes, people found that you have a big collection of Atatürk’s speeches and books, and you mentioned it in Ankara when you first went there. So are you feeling… do you feel a little bit like a ‘founding father’ of your state?

 

Mikhail Saakashvili: Well we are all founding fathers. Obviously we are a small country. But you know Mustafa Kemal was founding a territory, not just a region, founding Turkey there were less than ten million people living in the territory from which he established the country. And so we are less than five million now, but I am sure first of all that our population will grow, our role will grow. Size is not important. The point is here that we certainly are creating a new model in this part of the world. Nobody believed that democracy would work in this part of the world. You know, it was a kind of imitation of democracy, but it was not real democracy. Nobody believed that an honest government could emerge here. But it has. We are an honest Government. Nobody believed we could become number one reformers in the world because there are so many other countries in the world. Some people are saying we are Singapore and Hong Kong fifty years from now. So yes, there are many promising developments.  There are also many challenges, but that is how real nations are born. They go through all these problems, but we also see so much hope now, so much encouragement, so many expectations. You know you go to Ajaria, there is an amusement park that has more than two hundred million dollars investment …and fifty hotels. But suddenly in a swamp where nobody expected anything to emerge there is a two hundred million dollar amusement park. I mean this is an amazing miracle. And you know the point here is that these things really happen when you have a good system. And it is just only the beginning. It’s going to mushroom like we would like it to do.

 

Ipek Cem: You were a very young politician and you became President very young. You still are very young – three years into your office. What are your next steps since you have so much time?

 

Mikhail Saakashvili: You know. As you said we have to form our country. That’s the biggest reward one can do. There can be nothing higher than this. So there can be many presidents after me and there will be, many leaders, many governments, people. But this privilege that my generation has will never replicate itself, because it’s now up to us. Without being, you know, very messianic, or ambitious, but it’s the reality. We need to carry this process through. Make this nation building process. And this is the ideology. People ask “What is your ideology”, this is the ideology, (it is) nation building . And this is how every normal small or big nation emerges. And they become a good part of the international community. First you need to be self-confident yourself and become part of the wider community. That is how we see ourselves.

 

Ipek Cem: OK. And on this note I would like to thank you very much for this interview.

 

Mikhail Saakashvili: It’s very nice to have you here.

 

This transcript was typed from a transcription unit recording and not copied from an original script. Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, NTV networks and Ipek Cem cannot vouch for its accuracy.