Foreign Minister Maia Panjikidze faced questioning from UNM lawmakers for almost three hours on February 19 during a hearing in which the foreign minister accused UNM of “tainting country’s image” by providing western partners with “false information” over developments in Georgia.
Panjikidze, who was summoned in the legislative body by the UNM parliamentary minority group, was asked multitude of questions on new government’s foreign policy ranging from relations with NATO, EU and Russia to her opinion over PM Ivanishvili’s remarks on foreign policy.
She was asked why before NATO foreign ministerial meeting in early December PM Ivanishvili declined President Saakashvili’s offer to send a joint letter to the Alliance asking for accelerating Georgia’s integration to the alliance.
“A joint letter is not a bad idea and we can discuss [to do] it now,” Panjikidze responded. “At the time, only one month after the elections, when the government was newly formed, such a move was premature because at that point no model of so called cohabitation was yet established and there was no [framework] of relationship between the President and the government. I do not rule out possibility of such joint statement in the future.”
On NATO she also said that planned visit of North Atlantic Council to Georgia would be an important event, which would demonstrate that the country is on its path to integrate in the Alliance; she also said that the NATO military committee, which was originally planning its visit to Georgia in November, was expected to visit the country in autumn. She also said that Georgia was following the plan of reforms to integrate into NATO and expressed hope that these efforts would positively be reflected in decisions of NATO summit in 2014.
“I do not want to give rise to unrealistic expectations in respect of NATO and EU,” she said. “Progress will definitely be noted [at NATO 2014 summit], but we will not make false promises similar to those which were made by the previous authorities.”
In response to these remarks, MP Giorgi Kandelaki said that his understanding was that the government had “no concrete, ambitious plan” in respect of NATO for this year.
“Two serious events are planned this year in respect of NATO – North Atlantic Council will visit Georgia and NATO military committee is expected to visit Georgia in autumn. Defense Minister is now visiting Brussels; then the Justice Minister will also visit Brussels. There are details on which I do not want to speak publicly now,” the Foreign Minister responded.
“I am careful in my wording. I said Georgia’s progress will definitely be noted, but I refrain from speaking about what this progress will be,” she added. “I repeat once again that we should not give rise to false expectations. It was wrong when the previous government was triggering false expectations and we will not repeat this mistake.”
Leader of UNM parliamentary minority group, MP Davit Bakradze, who chaired the hearing, responded that “the previous authorities did not give rise to false expectations; the previous authorities created the process and if not the previous authorities we would have been now as far from NATO and EU as we were back in 2002.” Panjikidze acknowledged that “there was a progress in last nine years”, but also added that “many things could have been done better.”
Asked to give a concrete example of what she called “false expectations” by the previous authorities, Panjikidze named remarks by former Georgian ambassador to the EU, Salome Samadashvili, who, according to Panjikidze, said in September that Georgia would have visa-free travel rules with the EU from January, 2013. Samadashvili said at the time: “We hope that Georgian citizens will be able to travel without visa in Schengen Area member states by the end of 2013.”
During the hearing the Foreign Minister was asked if she agreed with PM Ivanishvili’s remarks made during his visit to Yerevan in January that Armenia was a good example of how a country could have good relations simultaneously with Russia and NATO. Panjikidze responded that by those remarks the PM did not imply that Georgia’s foreign policy course should be similar to the one of Armenia. “I cannot understand why you want to add different interpretation to what was said,” Panjikidze said.
During the hearings the Foreign Minister also said that while aspiring to join the NATO, the government was also trying to mend ties with Russia and these attempts on the initial stage were focused on issues related to trade, involving regaining access to the Russian market for the Georgian products.
She also said that it was the government’s priority to maintain Geneva talks, launched after the August 2008 war, in its current format. During the hearing Panjikidze had to reiterate for number of times that “de-occupation” of Georgia’s breakaway regions was the top priority of the foreign policy.
When PM Bidzina Ivanishvili said during his visit to Armenia in January that his government was ready to consider possibility of reopening railway with Russia via breakaway Abkhazia, he was slammed by the UNM and President Saakashvili.
On this issue of Abkhaz railway Panjikidze said that it was an idea “worth discussing”, but no concrete step was yet taken by the government.
“Concrete steps will only be taken if after these discussions it turns out that restoration of the railway is beneficial for Georgia,” the Foreign Minister said.
On relations with the EU, the Foreign Minister said that the most immediate goal was to complete negotiations on Association Agreement, also including deep and comprehensive free trade agreement, before the Eastern Partnership summit in Vilnius in November.
During the recent round of talks with the EU in January, Panjikidze said, “about 85% of the text has actually been agreed”.
Working on the text of Association Agreement is expected to be over in March, instead of initially planned May, Panjikidze said.
“That’s quite real,” she said and added that preparing text earlier than scheduled would give more time to national parliaments of EU-member states more time to give go-ahead to the agreement.
Panjikidze said that there were two “serious issues” which Tbilisi was trying to also include in the Association Agreement. “That’s the issue on which I do not want to speak publicly,” she said.
Panjikidze also said that there was a progress in visa liberalization dialogue with the EU. She said that EU Commissioner for Home Affairs Cecilia Malmström, whose visit was postponed for “number of times for reasons beyond our control”, would arrive in Tbilisi this Sunday to present the Visa Liberalisation Action Plan – a set of detailed requirements that a country should meet in order to be granted by the EU short-term visa-free regime.
UNM lawmakers asked the Foreign Minister about her opinion on a draft of 14-point document, which the Georgian Dream parliamentary majority offered as a basis for a potential joint document with the UNM which would lay out joint vision on country’s foreign policy priorities.
In particular, Panjikidze was asked about those points of the document, which UNM disagrees on, among them the one which says that Georgia should not seek to play a role in “ongoing confrontation on a global and regional scale” and instead should seek to be “politically attractive by its peacekeeping nature” and another point which says that “it is in the interests of Georgia that its factor to no longer be in the list of differences between the West and Russia.” UNM lawmakers say that this point is unacceptable because it implies removing Georgia from the agenda of relations between the West and Russia.
Panjikidze responded that it was only a draft document, subject to further debates and possible reviews, which was offered by Georgian Dream lawmaker Tedo Japaridze, who chairs the parliamentary committee for foreign affairs.
The Foreign Minister said that even MP Japaridze thought that some points of the document could be amended. She also said that in general desire not to be a reason for confrontation between the West and Russia in itself implied resolving Georgia’s problems with Russia.
“There might be points which you disagree with and there might be points which I disagree with,” the Foreign Minister said, adding that it was only the draft open to further discussions and debates.
During the hearings the Foreign Minister accused UNM of trying “misleading” Georgia’s western partners about developments in Georgia, which at times, she said, was resulting in groundless criticism of the new authorities.
“We respect everyone who expresses concern over certain issues and we listen carefully them, but we have a reasonable suspicion that very often information they possess is very superficial and often their assessments are biased, which are based on biased information,” Panjikidze said. “These are deliberate efforts to taint Georgia’s image when you circulate false information. I know sources, Mr. Kandelaki [referring to UNM lawmaker] is sending out thousands of emails every day.”
UNM MP Giorgi Gabashvili asked sarcastically the Foreign Minister: “Have you obtained those copies of emails from Irakli [Garibashvili]?” The UNM MP was referring the Interior Minister, suggesting that UNM MPs email communication was monitored by the Interior Ministry.
“I have copies from those people to whom you are sending these emails,” Panjikidze responded smiling. She then continued: “You are sending out false information… and by doing so you are misleading those who you manage to mislead”.
UNM lawmakers responded that it was alarming the way how the government was perceiving “friendly criticism from western friends” and instead of trying to address those problems the authorities were blaming opponents for allegedly providing false information to western partners.