Saakashvili: Georgia 'should never leave path' of EU integration

By Maria Graczyk, Paul Flueckiger

Georgia remains committed to joining the European Union, said President Mikheil Saakashvili in an exclusive interview with EurActiv Poland. In a conciliatory gesture towards Moscow, the Georgian leader argued that closer ties between his country and the EU could also pave the way for more integration between Russia and the 27-nation bloc.

Mikheil Saakashvili has been the president of Georgia since 2004. His presidency has been marked by sharp tensions with Russia, including a brief war in August 2008 over the breakaway region of South Ossetia.
How does Georgia's path to the European Union look?

Both Georgia and Moldova have been identified by almost all as leading countries in carrying out reforms. This means that our reforms in recent years have been perceived abroad as a success.

Despite the fact that 20% of our territory is occupied and we live in constant danger from the outside, our economy has been growing for years. We expect growth of 7% this year. This is possible because Georgia – according to the World Bank – offers the best conditions to run a business in southeastern Europe.

However, what is most important is that we have embarked on our path to the European Union. In carrying out reforms, we want Georgia to become a better candidate for membership. We do not have this status yet, but it is apparently possible in the future. This is a significant improvement.
Shouldn't Georgia, like Moldova, resolve its territorial problems first?

This is a three-step process. First, we need to become closer to the EU. Second, we must become more attractive to the occupied areas. Third, Russia must become more moderate, but currently nothing indicates that.

We are talking here about a long-term process. However, this means that Georgia should never leave the path of European integration. The more closely Georgia integrates with EU institutions, the more Russia will have to rethink its policy towards Georgia. In the end Russia also wants to belong to Europe, even if in a different way or on different institutional levels. One day Russia will head towards the EU.

What do we need to do first: solve territorial problems or join the EU? This is a very distant prospect and we have seen in Europe countries with open territorial issues become members of the Union. At the same time we do not want to export our internal problems to the EU.
Do you mean Cyprus?

Not only. Germany is a good example of a divided country which managed to join the EU structures. But what I want to emphasise again is that we do not want to export our problems. But if Georgia follows the path of integration it would also be easier for Russia to do so as well.
How does Russia intervene in European ambitions of South Caucasus countries?

Vladimir Putin says openly that he wants to recreate the Soviet Union. He not only speaks, but he also acts upon this. He took part of Georgia. Putin says openly that Russia wants to include South Ossetia and Belarus. He speaks completely openly about that. He says what he thinks.

This is a difficult situation. Russia puts pressure on Ukraine and on us. Pressure on Moldova weakened just a little. However this policy cannot last forever, that is what I hope for. Russia has neither enough resources nor a large enough layer of educated people to continue this policy.

We should rather prepare for the moment in which the Russian people understand that this policy cannot apply anymore. When this happens or when Russian leadership changes, we should intensify our efforts. But I fear that the situation will deteriorate even further before it gets better. On the one hand we prepare for worst-case scenario, but on the other we hope for changes and détente with Russia.
Does the possibility of turning off the gas valve threaten Georgia?

In the case of energy, we are totally independent. Therefore we have the best situation compared to other former Soviet republics. We produce our own electricity and we even export electricity to Russia. We actually received transit fees for the small amounts of gas imported from Russia as it is transported further to our southern neighbour, Armenia. We import oil and gas from Azerbaijan and if we need more we will get it from Turkmenistan.

What Russia has achieved through embargoes, blackmail and pressure is that Georgia is the former Soviet republic least dependent on Russia. However, we are in a difficult situation due to the occupation of our territory and because of the refugees from these areas.
Is it true that, after the end of your term of office in 2013, you are going to become prime minister?

We have very important reforms to be accepted by the parliament by 2013. The president retains considerable power under our new constitution and the prime minister is important but completely dependent on the parliament. This is not so interesting a position for a person who is currently president.