Good morning, thank you for inviting me. I want to thank the organizers. I was here last year, and it was quite interesting. So, I want to thank the GLOBSEC organizers. So, once again, thank you and welcome.
I hope we can make it interesting for the audience again this year. I think we'll be able to. I want to start with a very simple question for you about the war in Ukraine.
It's not simple.
The war is not simple, but the question is. We'll see about the answer. In your view, why did Russia choose to launch a full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year?
Well, thank you very much again. I think this is probably the most challenging time after the II World War, although we had very difficult days back in 2008. Let me remind everyone that the first war was in Georgia. Today, maybe some people forgot that 20 percent of our territory is occupied by Russia. And in 2008, after the war, Russia didn't leave our territory. On the contrary, they stayed, they built two military bases on our soil, on our territory. And this is the result of that devastating war.
And in your view, was that an act of aggression or unprovoked aggression?
Well, I don't want to go into details about that war because we have our own view. I mean, if we were in the government, if this government – our government - was in power, I think we would do everything possible to avoid that war. Georgia is a small nation with only 4 million population with a well-trained, well-equipped, well-experienced army, but still small. So, therefore, I think it's in every government's interest, especially when you're a small country and not a member of EU or NATO, that when you don't have any security guarantees. But that war, I don't want to go into details again, but that was devastating for us and the result is that 20% of our territory is occupied by Russia. And let me also remind everyone that, I think at that time, the world did not pay enough attention to that aggression of Russia. No one imposed sanctions on Russia.
Should they have? Should countries have sanctioned Russia in 2008?
I believe so. Because what's the difference for us? What is the difference? Our war was our war, right? The war that we're seeing now in Ukraine is catastrophic, of course. Thousands of people are dying every day and we don't see any sign that this war will end soon.
If countries should have sanctioned Russia in 2008, by that logic, they were right to do so as well in 2022, right?
I think the world, at that time, didn't think that it was that serious. That war in 2008. But after six years, Russia annexed Crimea. Nobody thought that Russia would have annexed, but they did. This was not a surprise for us, because we experienced 3 wars in the last 3 decades: 2 wars in the 90’s after the collapse of the Soviet Union - in Abkhazia, in Tskhinvali (South Ossetia); then a civil war; then another war in 2008. So I think the world did not take it seriously. Everything continued as usual. For example, today, we are asked about Georgia's economic trade relations with Russia, which we have had with Russia since 2012 and even before. The former government was trying, after the war, to restore economic trade relations. They opened the visa-free regime to Russia after the war. They sold strategic infrastructure assets in the energy sector to Russia - to Russian state-owned companies - after the war. Just for comparison, the EU paid 2.5 trillion dollars to Russia during 2008 and 2022. So this is the reality. But now we are in a different reality. Now we're witnessing this brutal war in Ukraine and as I said, we don't see any efforts or any will from either side that this war should be stopped.
Let me ask you about this economic relationship with Russia. You've pointed to it as an explanation for why Georgia has not joined in international sanctions on Russia. You've said that doing so would destroy the Georgian economy. Doesn't that suggest that the Georgian economy is extremely dependent, maybe overly reliant, on Russia – a country that is growing further away from the group of countries that you wish to grow closer to in the EU. What steps are you taking right now in the short term to become less dependent on the economic relationship with Russia?
It's a good question, but let me also explain to you that the EU, for example, with whom we signed - and I had the privilege to sign - the Association Agreement and DCFTA, is gradually becoming the largest trading partner of Georgia. So it takes time to see new alternatives, new markets. I wouldn't say that Russia is the biggest trading partner. It is significant, but it's not that big. So we're moving towards the EU where, again, as I said, we are looking for new options and so on.
I would like to get to the EU in a second. Can I just ask you to go back to my first question, though, which was why do you think Russia launched that invasion of Ukraine in 2022?
I think everybody knows the reason.
I'm not sure I do. What do you think it is?
I think you know it well and the audience knows it. One of the main reasons was NATO, right? NATO enlargement, right? And many other reasons.
You think that NATO enlargement provoked the war?
Well, I don't want to speculate and I don't want to quote the statements of the Russian government, but one of the reasons was Ukraine's will and determination to become a member of NATO. And we see its consequences.
Okay, I want to ask about the outcome of the war, which you and I were chatting about earlier. From your point of view, what is the ideal outcome of this war?
I want to talk about Georgia's situation, because we respect everyone. We support Ukraine. We support Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial Integrity. We want to see that peace is restored and Ukraine's territorial Integrity is restored very soon, but I want to talk about my country first. I understand your point and I understand that you're concerned about Ukraine and everybody is concerned, but we are concerned about ourselves first, because we have Russian troops on our soil. I'd rather talk about the ideal - let's say - scenario for Georgia on how we solve this problem and how we address the occupation, which nobody was talking about before and after the war in 2008.
I think it's quite disappointing for us. Again, I want to repeat that no sanctions were imposed on Russia. Nothing! Everybody continued business as usual and therefore my end goal and the end goal of every Georgian and the end goal of our government is to achieve the de-occupation by peaceful means. In 2012, when we came to power, we introduced a new approach. We call it strategic patience. Georgia has a direct border with Russia. It's almost 600 kilometers. We are at the crossroads of east and west, north and south. Again, this is a big challenge for us, although on the one hand, this occupation puts our country at enormous risks and challenges. On the other hand, what Georgia managed to achieve is a secured peace and stability. If you look at our modern history, since we regained our independence in the 90’s, this is the only uninterrupted peaceful period in Georgia under every ruler under every government. Since the 90's we had wars and we were losing territories. This is the only period when Georgia did not have any war, any escalation and any conflict or did not lose any territory.
It’s an interesting point.
But on the other hand… Let me just finish… We managed to sign the Association Agreement with a DCFTA, received a visa-free travel arrangement and got a European Perspective I think this is a miracle! It's a good experience. It's a good example. We are creating a good precedent of how to navigate through this turbulent situation and – basically - how to survive.
As a small country against a great power.
Not a member of NATO, although we want to be a part of it, or an EU, but we try to navigate through this difficult situation.
It is a tough situation. One of the things that you've tried to do in this navigation is you have this bid to join the EU and I want to talk about that a little bit. The European Commission gave Georgia 12 priorities to work on. It's a long list and includes ensuring the independence of state institutions, judicial reform, bolstering anti-corruption efforts and one of them was de-oligarchization, which means and I'm quoting “eliminating the excessive influence of vested interests in economic, political and public life”. What specific steps are you taking to make progress on that one?
Thank you for this [question]. Let me respond very quickly about where we are in terms of implementation of all these recommendations. Once Georgia was given this list of 12 priorities, we started immediately and started work on this process and by June everything will be finalized.
A month from now?
Yes, everything will be finalized, except one recommendation, which is the so-called depolarization or end of polarization and I want to talk about that.
Sure, that's a tough one.
Since you asked about de-oligarchization, we took an experience from Ukraine. As you know, Ukraine adopted the similar law I think 2 years ago or something like that. So, I think, no other country or not many countries had experience in doing that. So, we took an example from Ukraine and we sent it [draft law] to the Venice Commission. We received the feedback from the Venice Commission and I think we're moving in the right direction. Although, we heard some criticism on why Georgia needs that law. We don't understand why we don't need that law anymore. If it was needed a year ago, why is it not needed now?
Just to be specific, which law are you talking about?
The law on de-oligarchization. The reason is for example one of the main, let's say we call that person - I don't want to talk about Georgian politics here, but since you asked a real oligarch - former minister of defense for example - just for information…
I thought you were thinking about someone else, but that's okay go ahead…
I don't know who you mean then…
I'm referring to the leader of your former Prime Minister, who…
And why do you think that he's an oligarch?
Well, he's been called that many times. Is this not accurate?
But I can also call you an oligarch. Are you?
You could, but it could be a hard case to make.
That's right, but that's why I think once we adopt this law, everything will be kind of clear and we will demystify all these accusations and groundless arguments and facts. Since you asked about the role of the founder of our party – Mr. Ivanishvili –did lots of charity for Georgia and I'll explain it to you; the person who made this change in our country in 2012; who changed the brutal dictatorial - I would say - regime of Saakashvili, because during Saakashvili’s rule - I'm sure you know it - but there was no sign of democracy; people were tortured, killed, raped and murdered in prisons, in the streets, everywhere! More than 300 000 citizens were prosecuted; there was no freedom; free media; there was no real justice; no rule of law; nothing! We made dramatic changes in the last 10 years and this change is - I would call it a dramatic - huge change like a day and night.
Some of your citizens have been less than happy about some of the more recent changes though. So, we saw huge protests. For example, about this foreign agents registration law. I'm curious about that law and I want to ask you about it, because I know your party has now withdrawn it. I think transparency is obviously very important for democracy. It's good to know when there are foreign sources of funding. The question - I think - a lot of people had is why would it be necessary to label an organization that takes a certain percentage of their funding or over a certain percentage of their funding – 20% I think - as an agent of foreign influence? What's the point of that?
What's the point of talking about something, which has already been solved? This law was not adopted. We closed the chapter. So, I would suggest that we'd rather focus on more serious stuff. This was an initiative. I think many other countries also expressed their will including the European Parliament, which also considers adopting a similar law, but I don't want to go into details. I don’t want to speculate on that, but there was this initiative and we withdrew it. This topic is over. It's closed, but I want to talk about something more serious, which is the next step on our European path. So, as we mentioned, you know we are working on the implementation of these 12 priorities as Ukraine and Moldova were given the candidate status and Georgia was not. As we explained many times, this was a bonus for Moldova and Ukraine and we're very happy for them.
Why do you think Georgia was denied?
We would better ask this to our European friends.
I know what they tell us, but I'm wondering what you think.
I think this was unfair. This was really unjustified, because what kind of message for example are we sending to Russia? We are kind of abandoning a country, which is 2=3 times ahead of Moldova and Ukraine? If we are talking about merit-based approach or if we were talking about reforms, performance and this and that, Georgia was and still is 2-3 times ahead of both countries - Associated Trio - so we'd rather ask the same question to our European friends: Why didn't they give the status of Georgia? We heard no explanation, no arguments, no serious arguments.
Well, I think you're right about these 12 priorities. Do you think those were not serious?
Listen my friend, Moldova and Ukraine were also given these priorities, but they were given the status in advance. That's the difference. That's why we didn't understand why. The only explanation we heard was that Ukraine is at war. We were also at war in 2008 and 20% of our territory is occupied by Russia. So, what's the point? Moldova is in a difficult situation. So, there's no rationale. I would say so: if Georgia does not get the status at the end of this year, this will be a huge mistake. I would say so.
What would Georgia do if that happens?
Georgia will continue moving forward with our reforms, developing this and that, but I think in this geopolitically complex environment, not granting EU Candidacy status to Georgia, which is the top performer out of this Associated Trio, will be a huge mistake – a geopolitical mistake.
I'd like to open up to the audience. Everyone can use the app to ask a question, if you'd like. You may also ask a question by raising your hand and I will call on you. Again, I'd like to ask people who really know Georgia well to push the Prime Minister. You have an opportunity to ask him something that I haven't asked and I would ask you to identify yourself. Please ask a question; no speeches. We don't have that much time. I'm going to start with Mr. Robin Shepherd in the front row here. Please Robin, the floor is yours.
Thank you, Justin. Thank you, Prime Minister. The first time I went to Georgia was in 1988 as a student and every time I've been to Tbilisi I've always gone back and told people what a magical place it is so. Thank you for your presence here in Bratislava. My question is in reference to the sanctions towards Russia. It seemed to me that what you were saying was that because the West - apart from an initial flurry after 2008 - didn't really engage in serious sanction regimes against Russia over Abkhazia and South Ossetia, why should Georgia essentially sacrifice its own economy in Ukraine? Is that really the underlying reason or is it much simpler than that? Are you simply afraid of the consequences from Russia?
Thank you for this question. I think it's both and it's quite complex. Georgia's economy is too small and Georgia's trade with Russia is less than 1 billion dollars. EU paid last year 1 billion Euros every day to Russia so Russia received about 300 billion dollars from the West last year, while the trade turnover between Russia and Georgia was only 1 billion. So, our impact - hypothetically speaking - with Georgia imposing economic sanctions on Russia and its impact on Russia's economy would be 0.3%, while on our economy this would be significant. So, when we discussed this situation, we said we would fully align with international financial sanctions and we're doing this. US State Department, EU institutions, everybody acknowledge that Georgia fully complies with the international financial sanctions, but when it comes to economic trade relations, this is something else. The EU does not stop its trade relations; US the same; other countries as well. So, why should Georgia be an exemption?
Right, so you've sort of walked a middle path, in other words.
That's right. I mean, this is one of the reasons. Another reason is of course that we were quite disappointed that nobody took the invasion of Georgia seriously in 2008. So, that's the reason.
I'm gonna go for another question. Gentleman with his hand up at the end of the row, here. Please tell us who you are and ask a brief question
Hello, this is Shota Gvineria, a citizen of Georgia. That's the best status I can use today in this room I guess. Mr Prime Minister, hello. Out of my 357 questions that I have, I will choose one. Since this criminal and terrorist war started by Russia in Ukraine in 2022, you have been accelerating relations with Russia and increasing dependency of Georgia on Russia on one hand, which by design and in my understanding excludes credible and reliable partnership with the European Union and NATO. So, my question is: have you considered the consequences of Russia losing this war in Ukraine on Georgia, given the current circumstances where we are all now today. Thank you very much!
Thank you for this question, Shota. By the way, for the audience I want to tell you who this person is. He's an opposition; part of the opposition. He was a member of our government - I think - a couple of years ago. So, isn't it a bit awkward when he travels from Georgia, comes to Brussels, to ask me this provocative question? I think everybody here understands that Georgia chose a very reasonable, pragmatic and quite unique path. On the one hand, we try to navigate through this difficult situation; on the other hand, we're advancing on our EU path and we are delivering concrete results, tangible results. If anybody in our country - any government - delivers something concrete and something tangible on our European integration path this is us - this is the Georgian Dream Government - who delivered the most - the maximum we could. So, this is the reality. So, we'd better focus together with the government and opposition. We should be united. We should be united and we shouldn't be spreading this kind of fake news and disinformation as if we are accelerating relations with Russia and this and that. This is not in the interest of our country. So this is - of course - up to this gentleman to choose, but for the audience I want to explain that we're doing everything according to Georgia's national interest; we're protecting; we're defending our own country; we are safeguarding our peace, stability and prosperity. This is it and at the same time we're advancing on our European path.
Okay, we have a question here in the front row. Ma'am, if you just wait for the microphone. Please keep it short. We just have a couple of minutes. Thank you.
I'm a French journalist. You mentioned polarization as an EU condition you didn't agree with. I think we just had an example of this polarization. So, please, could you tell us more about that? For what reason do you disagree with it and so?
Thank you very much. So, if we want to avoid for the next GLOBSEC Summit this kind of polarization or this kind of questions, give us the status and this will end the polarization in Georgia.
A good short question and a good short answer
Let's get one last question here from the gentleman. Please tell us who you are and ask a brief question.
Thanks very much. Joshua Soft from the United States. Mr. Prime Minister, you mentioned the foreign agent law and your confusion as to why candidate status wasn't granted. I wonder if we could revisit that because the US State Department sanctioned 4 judges in Georgia right after that happened and issued some of the strongest condemnations of Georgia in the wake of that potential law. Do you think that the EU or the US concerns over Georgia's commitment to the rule of law and an independent judiciary, might be part of the reason candidate status has not been granted?
Thank you, sir. First of all, the United States is our Number One strategic partner. We are extremely grateful for everything the United States has done for Georgia, for strengthening Georgia's democracy and development. On the other hand, let me also remind everyone and the author of this question that before our government the court system was basically a detachment to the prosecutor's office. I want to explain to you very shortly what it meant. So, the number of cases sent to the Strasbourg Court of Human Rights were thousands - 4 or 5 thousand - during Saakashvili’s government. Just for comparison, this year only 150 cases were sent to Strasbourg. According to all the surveys, which were done by the international organizations, the trust towards the Georgian court system is above the average European level. It is 52-55 percent and more. According to the Rule of Law Index, for example, and this is the ranking which is done by the international organizations - by you ladies and gentlemen - Georgia is ranked first among not only in our region, but among Eastern European and Central Asian countries.
Sorry, what ranking is that? Who did that?
Rule of Law Index; this is a global index. You can Google it. Georgia is ahead of 11 EU countries and 13 NATO countries. Also for information, where we are in terms of good governance and openness and transparency, corruption perception index, for example, but let me just mention the budget transparency index. We're number one in the world. So, the question I don't want to go into details, but we had many discussions with our American friends and I think we will clarify this issue. But one thing I want to mention is that rule of law and transparency is our key priority. We're advancing. We made a huge progress and - of course - we'll continue doing so.