Georgia’s PM Bidzina Ivanishvili addresses Parliamentary Assembly of Council of Europe in Strasbourg on April 23. Photo: PM’s press office
Georgia’s PM Bidzina Ivanishvili addressed the Parliamentary Assembly of Council of Europe (PACE) in Strasbourg on April 23 and said that despite of “a rough beginning”, six months after his government took the office the country had now “turned the corner.”
It was Ivanishvili’s first public speech in international fora, which was then followed by question and answer session with lawmakers from Council of Europe member states. PM’s address to the PACE came three months after President Saakashvili also spoke from the same rostrum in January.
In his speech Ivanishvili said that under the rule of President Saakashvili’s UNM party “practically all fields were controlled by the ruling elite in Georgia” and the constitution was “abused, being practically tailored to one man’s ambitions.”
“Elite corruption made no room whatsoever for businesses to develop; human rights were ignored; pressure was exerted upon not only those holding different views, but their families and acquaintances as well. The media was almost fully under control,” he said.
“We will continue that small part of the reforms from the previous government, instituted during its first years in power, which has been for the benefit of the country, but we are obliged to also replace those institutions, which have turned into authoritarian structures in recent years, with a modern, democratic institutions,” he said.
He said that his government launched “restoration of justice”, which, as he put it, would “heal the wounds, relieve anger and restore a sense of self-respect to our citizens.”
“That implies putting before justice representatives of previous government for committed crimes with full observance of due process; it also implies keeping the thousands of those loyal civil servants who have been in service since the previous government,” Ivanishvili said.
He said that his government was sparing no efforts to ensure that “our policies are fully transparent” and open to scrutiny from media and civil society, including international ones.
Ivanishvili said that upon his request “EU has seconded” to Georgia the Council of Europe’s former commissioner on human rights, Thomas Hammarberg, as “a special advisor for legal and constitutional reforms and human rights”. He also noted that OSCE was monitoring court proceedings of those cases in which former high level officials face criminal charges.
He said that six months after coming into power, the Georgian Dream coalition “has already achieved significant successes.” Citing recent polls, Ivanishvili said that his government was enjoying public support.
He said that his government was making “steady progress towards Euro-Atlantic integration and there have even been a few small steps forward in relations with Russia.”
“Perhaps most encouraging is the fact that after a rough beginning, we are starting to apply lessons from the European Union on how to build consensus with former adversaries,” he said.
“I am confident that Georgia has already turned the corner,” Ivanishvili added.
Relations with Russia
In his speech Ivanishvili said that although the Europe achieved a lot in building peace, “threat of warfare has not been overcome completely.”
“Small countries, in particular, continue to suffer from aggression. The clear example to that is my home country,” he said.
“Twenty percent of our territory was occupied by Russia in 2008,” he said. “Unfortunately, there are other conflicts that endanger the peace in our region. I have to say that the Caucasus is yet not a zone of peace.”
Ivanishvili reiterated “western foreign policy course and integration into EU and NATO represent our strategic choice that has no alternative.”
“This choice does not belong to any particular political group; this choice was made by the Georgian people long ago,” he said.
He said that mending ties with Russia was his “big dream”
Ivanishvili said that dialogue, which Georgia should have with Russia, “is a huge challenge.”
He said that his government’s approach towards Russia was “pragmatic” and the policies in this respect would be “correct, but principled”.
“We both have our own red lines, which neither of us intends to cross,” he said and reiterated non-use of force pledge made by President Saakashvili in 2010, adding that the similar pledge was also included in a bipartisan resolution on Georgia’s pro-western foreign policy course, adopted by the Parliament in March, 2013.
He then stressed that newly started dialogue between Tbilisi and Moscow, led from the Georgian side by PM’s special envoy Zurab Abashidze, “should not create an impression, that Georgia is dealing with this problem on its own and no longer is in need of European partners support.” He also stressed importance of Geneva talks, launched after the August 2008 war, and involvement of international mediators in these discussions.
“We are realistic about Georgia's capabilities,” Ivanishvili continued. “We acknowledge that Georgia is a small, regional power in a volatile neighborhood. No sustainable future can be built by demonstrating military power. But there can be no progress towards peace in the region if Georgia is expected to abandon its legitimate interests, especially territorial integrity and the right of its citizens to return to their own homes.”
Many of those questions asked by PACE members after Ivanishvili’s speech, were related to relations with Russia.
“It is my big dream to mend ties with Russia. We have no illusions that it will happen fast; going into deadlock was easy, but going out of it not and we realize it very well. But we will definitely mend our relations with our huge neighbor step-by-step, with correct, diplomatic and only with peaceful remarks and actions,” Ivanishvili said.
“You know that we already have some progress in respect of trade and cultural relations. As far as restoration of territorial integrity is concerned, I have no illusion that it will be a fast process, but through right steps we will definitely achieve the result,” he added.
When Polish MP Zbigniew Girzyński told Ivanishvili “you don’t like President Saakashvili, but I think you like the President of Russia Mr. Putin very much” and asked him “do you think Putin is responsible for ethnic cleansing of Georgia in 2008?.. Do you want to defend the independence of Georgia together with Mr. President Saakashvili?” Ivanishvili responded that politics should not be based on personal affections.
“Head of the government should first and foremost love own country and should try to call each thing by its right name,” Ivanishvili continued. “I am grateful to our Polish friends… whose [support] is highly appreciated by us.”
“Saakashvili has his own share of mistakes in this process [referring to August 2008 war]. First of all we should seek accountability from our own authorities for mistakes that were done and we will do it. If not Saakashvili’s huge mistakes, it would have been very difficult for Russia to carry out this aggression.”
“As far as your rhetoric is concerned,” Ivanishvili continued addressing MP Girzyński, “you want me to engage in this kind of rhetoric which is in style of Saakashvili; I don’t want to do that, because this kind of rhetoric by Saakashvili resulted into what my country received. We are now trying to rectify huge mistakes diplomatically and we will do our best to be correct in our remarks and actions and I assure you that we will be able to mend ties with Russia.”
When asking how Georgian new government’s intention to mend ties with Russia reconciles with Tbilisi’s policy of restoring its territorial integrity, a Russian MP Tamerlan Aguzarov also told PM that “knowing that Abkhazians and South Ossetians do not want to be in Georgia, Saakashvili unleashed aggression in August 2008 against South Ossetia.”
“I want to remind to the audience that over the past 20 years there were many mistakes made by the Georgian authorities as well in respect of our brothers Abkhazians and Ossetians; mistakes were from both sides,” Ivanishvili responded. “Time is required to heal the wounds. Our goal is not to repeat the same mistakes and not to even think about using force.”
He said that key to resolving these conflicts was within Georgia. “Georgia’s economy should be revived, democracy developed; Georgia should become interesting for Ossetians and Abkhazians, for Europe and for Russia,” Ivanishvili said. “Only after this we can judge about who wants what. Now when there are lots of questions in respect to all the sides, making right conclusion will be very difficult.”
Head of the Russian delegation to PACE, Alexei Pushkov, asked PM what he thought about allowing Abkhaz and South Ossetian representatives, regardless of status of these two entities, to speak before PACE. In his question MP Pushkov also mentioned decision of PACE to allow two lawmakers from Kosovo to participate in PACE committee meetings.
“Abkhazia and South Ossetia are parts of Georgia, so Ossetians and Abkhazians will of course be able to participate in the work [of PACE] as members of our [Georgian] delegation,” PM Ivanishvili said and then added in response to mentioning of Kosovo in this context: “As you are aware, Kosovo was itself inviting international monitors and was completely open for cooperation, which regrettably is not the case [with respect of Abkhazia and South Ossetia] and we have no [international] monitoring in Abkhazia and South Ossetia; so in this regard these [regions] are unfortunately closed... So I can’t see such perspective.”
Asked by an Armenian MP about his position on restoration of railway via Abkhazia, which would help to link Armenia with Russia via Georgia, PM Ivanishvili responded: “Resolving hastily of this issue won’t be easy, because many questions exist and there are lots of interests involved; the issue is related to conflicts, our relations with Russia, as well as our relations with our brothers, Abkhazians.”
“It [restoration of rail link] will occur, but it requires time and it should happen with protection of rights of all the stakeholders,” he said. “It’s not an easy process; it will happen, but it will take time, because this issue is very much linked with the politics.”
In his speech Ivanishvili said that reform of the judiciary “is the cornerstone” for insuring genuine democratic processes and mentioned planned reform of High Council of Justice in this context, saying that the plan reflect recommendations from the Council of Europe’s advisory body for legal affairs, Venice Commission, as well as proposals from the judiciary itself.
“I believe Georgia really has a chance of establishing a truly independent judicial system, free from the executive branch or from any other type of political influence. It is the goal of the government not to miss this chance,” Ivanishvili said.
When a British MP Edward Leigh from the European Democrat Group (EDG) asked why his government “did not follow recommendation of the Venice Commission not to prematurely terminate” authority of members of High Council of Justice, Ivanishvili responded: “I think that you have one-sided information.”
“The opposition [UNM party] still manages to disseminate false information in Europe,” he said. “The fact is absolute opposite to that [claim that government ignored Venice Commission’s recommendation]. We have taken Venice Commission’s recommendations into consideration by almost 100 percent, possibly by 99 percent… So you do not have information.”
He said that HCoJ reform plan was welcomed by local civil society as well and also endorsed by Chairman of Supreme Court. “The only person who disagrees with this reform is Saakashvili, who is now trying to veto [this bill],” Ivanishvili said.
Few hours after PM’s speech, President’s administration announced that Saakashvili vetoed bill on reforming of the High Council of Justice. The Georgian Dream parliamentary majority has enough votes in the Parliament to override the presidential veto.
Many of the questions asked by PACE members to PM Ivanishvili were about cohabitation of his government with President Saakashvili and his UNM party.
“I assure you that cohabitation has no problem on the part of the government,” Ivanishvili said and put the blame for tense cohabitation on President Saakashvili.
He said that UNM was speaking “on language of lies”, which, Ivanishvili said, aimed at misleading western audience; he also said that UNM’s such tactic was backfiring and “fueling aggression” of Georgian society against the UNM.
He, however, also said that “there are many talented people in the opposition” with whom he was willing to cooperate.
Ivanishvili ruled out selective application of justice and strongly dismissed allegations about politically-motivated prosecution of former government representatives. He urged not to, as he put it, “mix” cohabitation with the process of “restoration of justice.”
He also said that Georgia was facing multiple problems and he wanted to overcome those challenges in cooperation with the UNM rather than wasting time on wrangling with the opposition.
A Swedish MP Marietta de Pourbaix-Lundin from the group of European People’s Party (EPP) told Ivanishvili that when EPP and some members of the European Parliament criticized him, the PM dismissed this criticism as “shameful”; she asked the PM what he would answer to her if she agrees with criticism voiced by EPP.
Ivanishvili responded, that some of the remarks of EPP representatives “were often based on one-sided information disseminated by representatives of the previous government”; he said that UNM was “very skillful” in disseminating “false information”.
“I have already met many representatives of EPP and I express my respect towards this largest group and its leadership. I think that in the future there will be no misunderstandings, which were a result of one-sided information, and we will actively cooperate with all the European parties, including with EPP,” Ivanishvili said.
When a German MP Viola von Cramon-Taubadel from the Socialist Group said that she had recently visited Georgia and had positive impressions about developments there, PM Ivanishvili said that what the current government did in six months “is possible to see” and invited those interested with Georgia to visit the country to observe developments “with your own eyes”.
Question on Magnitsky
Ivanishvili was also asked about his opinion on Magnitsky list, as well as on imprisonment of former Ukrainian prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko and “authoritarian regime” in Belarus.
Responding to this question PM said: “I am aware of these problems; I am aware of the Magnitsky problem and I also know about developments in Ukraine, but I know much better what was going on in my own country and what is the situation now.”
“Human rights were totally violated under [Georgia’s] previous government,” Ivanishvili continued. “As far as other countries are concerned – Russia or Ukraine, I would try to remain on topic around my own country as we still have no right to criticize other countries in this regard, because in our own country human rights were being totally violated. I assure you that under the new government justice will be restored in this regard and everything will be done to be like Europe.”
Responding to several questions on ethnic minority rights in Georgia, Ivanishvili said that his government was committed to integration of minority groups. He said that the main problem in this regard was lack of Georgian-language skills among ethnic minorities. He also said that although there were problems, but he did not think there were, as he put it, “total problems” in respect of ethnic minorities in Georgia.
Responding to a question if his government had an action plan on implementing 2010 recommendations from the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers on combating discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, Ivanishvili said that the Georgian authorities “are working on the law against discrimination, which will be passed in the near future.”
He said that his government would have “adequate reaction” to the cases of violation of rights of “sexual or any other minorities.”
A Turkish MP complained to the Georgian PM about slow pace of repatriation of Meskhetians back to Georgia – survivors or descendants of a Muslim population who were deported by Joseph Stalin from southern Georgia in 1944. Repatriation of Meskhetians was among Georgia’s commitments undertaken when joining Council of Europe in 1999.
PM responded: “We are going to maximally accelerate the process.”
“I assure you that within next two years everyone [referring to Meskhetians] who want it and where objective ground [for repatriation] exists, will be able to gain Georgian citizenship. We will definitely fulfill our commitment before the Council of Europe,” Ivanishvili said.