President of Georgia

Speech made to the Assembly

Thursday, 24 January 2008

Thank you, Mr. President. Allow me to congratulate you on your election to a very important role.

(The speaker continued in English)

I am honoured to join you here today to further our work together in strengthening democracy, pluralism, and the rule of law. Your gracious invitation will allow me to share in what I am sure will be a thoughtful question and answer session. Let me express my particular gratitude to the co-rapporteurs: Mr Kastriot Islami and Mr Mátyás Eőrsi – both of them played an indispensable role and to all of you who participated in the observer mission and are gathered here to today to express your interest. I am especially grateful that the doors to this Assembly are open at all times, both difficult and more successful ones.

It is during the turbulent latter periods that the wisdom represented by this Assembly is most valuable to an emerging democracy such as ours. The people of Georgia and my government are profoundly committed to building a stable and healthy state based not on personalities but on robust democratic institutions. Like all democracies, ours remains a dynamic work in progress.

A few weeks ago, notwithstanding all the problems that exist, we took an important step forward in Georgia’s democratic development when, for the first time in our history, we held truly competitive presidential elections.

Anyone who has been in Georgia these past two months knows how vibrant our democracy is, as seven presidential candidates loudly and clearly articulated different visions for our future. I am proud that, at a critical turning point in our history, it was the citizens of Georgia who retained the power to decide our country’s course through a vote that overwhelmingly reflected the will of the people.

Today, democracy in Georgia speaks with many voices. I value and welcome these many voices – this democratic chorus on which our future must be built. While our progress in building lasting democratic and electoral institutions is very real, we have highlighted how much further we need to go.

On behalf of my government, I would like to express how grateful we are to our friends and partners – at home and abroad – for your advice and support as we travel the challenging road to democracy. Let me personally assure you that, no matter how difficult and how many sacrifices we must make, we will not deviate. In conducting our presidential election, we opened our doors wide to the democratic world – and Georgia willingly became a test case for democracy in the region and Europe-wide. Of course, whenever one places anything under a microscope, some flaws appear.

Later today you will continue Monday’s discussion on the ways in which we can improve our electoral process – and no doubt there are many. Ours is still a young country. Yet no responsible observer, domestic or international, has asserted that the shortcomings of our electoral process thwarted the will of Georgia’s voters. Our decision to invite more than 1 000 international observers, and to welcome the scrutiny of more than 34 local civil society organisations, reflects the substance of our commitment to ensuring and defending transparency and the efficiency of the democratic process. And although this Assembly resonates with many voices and differing opinions, I feel that I am among friends: for we are united by our common pursuit to build more equitable, more democratic, and more just societies.

The best of friends offer not just praise but constructive advice. With one hand, they point out our weaknesses, while showing us the way forward with the other. They travel this path together with us, because our destiny is a common one. I will be listening carefully for ideas that can help ensure that our parliamentary elections in spring constitute yet another step forward in Georgia’s historic journey of democracy and the rule of law. I will act on those ideas.

With that in mind, I would like to share with you some of the initiatives currently under way in Georgia. Immediately after our presidential election, I reached out to our opposition parties to find ways to give them a more influential and formal role in our major institutions, including cabinet and senior-level positions. Already, important steps have been agreed such as reforming the public television board, and there will be further dialogue on the better composition and efficiency of the central election commission and the election commissions countrywide as well as the enhancement of political pluralism.

We will continue this dialogue, because debate and dissent are essential to democratic life and the fabric of our society. In my own government, today we will announce a new cabinet, with fresh faces, bringing to power new energy, new ideas and new constituencies, which include prominent members of civil society, academic circles and the business community – people who have not be involved in politics before but who represent more strata of society.

Reflecting on the elections, I believe that what mattered most was not who the Georgian people voted for but what they voted for and how. They voted to make the elimination of poverty our society’s top priority. They voted for a path of balanced but resolute reforms, designed to continue reshaping our society. With an equally loud voice, our citizens endorsed Georgia’s commitment to Euro-Atlantic integration; in a plebiscite, almost 80% supported Georgia’s goal for NATO membership. And finally, these elections underscored that we are making progress in building democratic institutions that will endure far longer than any single individual. That is the legacy that my government and I can and must build.

Just four years ago, Georgians joined together to break the chains of hopelessness and stagnation. The far-reaching reforms we pursued opened our society, freed our economy, eliminated gangsterism, empowered the country, and unleashed the talents of our people by attracting new investment and jobs. I would like to thank our friends at the Venice Commission, the Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment and GRECO for working together with us during this transformation.

Let us not forget that, after the Rose Revolution, we inherited a failed state where corruption was the rule, while today it is the exception. Electricity was something to celebrate and blackouts were a fact of life. There were places where whole generations grew up without seeing electricity at all. Today, every citizen of Georgia has a 24-hour supply and we even export electricity to our neighbours. In our universities, accessing higher education was only possible through bribes or personal connections. Today, a universal national exam uses merit to open the door.

Our economy was also stagnating and largely operated in the shadows, with little or no foreign direct investment. Today, despite a full economic embargo from the economic partner that had more than 60% of our traditional export market, Georgia’s economy has grown by 12 percentage points. Ours is the country that the World Bank has named top reformer in 2006, with the 18th most friendly investment and business climate. We used to be behind Nigeria in terms of business freedom. We are now ahead of the Netherlands, Germany, Italy, Greece and many other prominent and very respectable economies. No other country has made such a remarkable transition in such a short period.

We used to be one of the most corrupt countries in Europe. Now, according to the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, we are Europe’s third least corrupt economy, based on a survey among foreign countries operating in Georgia and, according to the World Bank, we are No. 1 among traditional economies in the fight against corruption. We have laid the foundation for a liberal and sustainable democracy.

During my second term, we will focus on making these changes irreversible and even more inclusive.

Yet, during the election that just passed, both my government and I were truly humbled to learn that, despite our successes, we have not achieved enough. I worked hard during the campaign to understand the hopes and needs of our citizens throughout the country. I travelled to every town and village I saw modern roads that have replaced dirt paths. Schools and hospitals have blossomed across the land, and areas once torn by tension are now thriving. But I would be misleading you if I did not share another Georgia that I saw.

I saw too many families struggling to live on meagre incomes. I saw too many people denied education, health care and the opportunity to better their lot and the lot of their children. Over the past four years, even if poverty has decreased by almost half in Georgia – more than 52% were previously living below the poverty line – 22% or 23% are still living below that line, which is a very painful experience for those people, especially with a developing economy and rising prices. Over the past four years, our priority was freeing our workers and entrepreneurs and our farmers and businesses so they could begin to modernise and compete in a global economy.

Over the next five years, our priority will be to ensure that the benefits of that liberation reach every family in Georgia. Once, our great challenge was to build a Georgia without corruption and with responsible leadership. Now, our great challenge is to build a Georgia without poverty – to ensure that the benefits of our reforms reach every household and person who are today deprived of the benefits of economic reforms and improvements. These are the tasks that our new government will tackle with renewed focus and vigour.

Meeting those challenges will require strong political will, but political will alone is not enough. The fight to establish equality must be built not on the shifting sands of politics, but on the bedrock of human rights and the rule of law. So hand in hand with eliminating poverty, my government will dedicate itself to ensuring that our courts serve our citizens more efficiently and impartially, that due process prevails, and that civil and human rights become non-negotiable.

Nowhere is that more necessary than in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, where systematic abuse of human rights continues today. The victims of ethnic cleansing in Abkhazia – more than 400 000 people have been involved in one of the most immoral, drastic, brutal and, alas, forgotten ethnic cleansings of the end of the 20th century – have not had their plight handled properly. They have been denied the basic human right to return to their native homes, and furthermore, their property rights continue to be abused and ignored.

Those who still inhabit these largely depopulated territories live in a climate of constant fear and oppression. Ending human rights abuses and bringing lasting peace to these regions is a challenge not only for Georgia but for the international community as a whole. Every day without progress is another day of human suffering – these are not frozen conflicts, as they are frequently called, but real places with real people who need urgent help right now from you and the whole democratic world.

What about the children who are denied the right to learn their own language and are harassed for doing so? That happens every day in Abkhazia. How about those who are threatened and terrorised just because they want to vote in elections, as happened during my presidential vote? Unfortunately, that did not find its way into the report. Several thousand people were crossing the rivers, and some of them lost their lives in trying to reach the rest of Georgia. Most were shot at. That happened only a few days ago, not 10 years ago. How about people who are deprived of elementary rights even to communicate, make phone calls, write letters or to know about the plight of their relatives and family members?

The way forward must be based on political negotiation that ensures Georgia’s territorial integrity and respects fundamental human rights, including the multi-ethnic society, diversity and tapestry that Georgia is. That is not our weakness; it is our strength that we have traditionally been a very diverse society.

Almost three years ago in this hall I presented a plan for South Ossetia. Let me reiterate that Georgia offers modern European solutions to both of these conflicts – solutions that simultaneously guarantee the integrity of the state and the political rights of the regions, including broad self-governance and protection of human freedoms for every citizen of Georgia regardless of ethnic origin. This outcome is achievable, especially if we multiply our efforts.

In the next five years, we will measure our success not only by what we achieve in our country, but by the bonds we build with our neighbours and allies. Secure borders should serve as bridges, not barriers – bridges to the north, south, east and west. Georgia is for ever yoked to Europe. We are joined by a common and unbreakable bond – one based on culture, our shared history and identity, and on a common set of values that has at its heart the celebration of peace and the establishment of fair and prosperous societies. Together with our partners in the European Union, we will continue to strengthen those historic ties.

I heard the voice of the Georgian people when they expressed their overwhelming desire to enter NATO – and so too has the community of shared values that makes up this great Organisation. Together with you and our partners, we will do our utmost to complete the process. But let me be clear: fulfilling the dreams and desires of the people of Georgia does not mean disregarding the concerns and interests of our neighbours.

Four years ago, when I was first sworn in, I made a gesture and extended my hand in friendship and co-operation to our neighbours and colleagues in Russia. I have repeated that, and I strongly believe in it. The path of transformation is not an easy one. We hope that, with our friends in Russia, we can walk down this path of change together in a spirit of mutual respect, camaraderie and shared gains.

Today in our region, we are constructing exciting new projects, weaving together peoples and economies in ways never before thought possible. With our friends and partners in Ukraine, Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan and further east in central Asia, we are building an open, new economy from which everyone can prosper and where everyone can lend their skills, talents, energy and ideas. There is much we can do together. We cannot lose any more time.

In pursuing this agenda for my second and last term as President of Georgia, I will continue to ask the opposition for its ideas, co-operation and help. And if we succeed, it will share in the credit. It is clear to me, reflecting on the events in early November last year, that Georgia’s political system remains fragile and vulnerable. So when our institutions were under threat, calling an early election and shortening my presidential term by one and half years in a situation where there is a two-term constitutional limit for the presidency clearly showed that Georgian democracy belongs not to any particular president but to the people. Sovereignty should be used by the people for their own good and purposes.

In the second election, what mattered most was for Georgia to emerge from this experience with stronger institutions, part of which means a stronger opposition, because democracy is plural. Judging from the vigour of the opposition today, there can be little doubt that pluralism is alive and well in my country. This spring, Georgia will hold parliamentary elections. I cannot promise that they will be flawless, but we would like to make them as good as we can, so I address to the Secretary General today our formal request for a group of experts to be sent almost immediately to help to prepare the election process, be present in the election commission and even arbitrate in election disputes – something that very few countries have asked for before – in order to make the process even more transparent, credible and automatic for generations to come, so that we form the institution and keep it for the future. We are also working to reform other public institutions in Georgia, to make parliament more workable and powerful, and to make checks and balances more efficient.

Let me close by saying that, with your indulgence, Georgia will call on this Assembly’s advice and support on a variety of crucial issues. Yet we must not lose time because other challenges loom. I need only point to the open wounds of South Ossetia and Abkhazia to underscore that point. Both individually and collectively, those gathered in this Assembly have invested a great deal in healing the breach of Georgia’s sovereignty and in repairing the lives of hundreds of thousands of internally displaced persons. We must rejoin this effort as quickly as possible.

Of one thing I can assure you: in pursuing our democratic journey, we combine the determination of an ancient people and the energy of a young state. If we combine this with your experience in constructing democracies and protecting human rights, there is no challenge too large for us to overcome.

THE PRESIDENT (translation)

Thank you very much, Mr Saakashvili, for your most interesting address. I am convinced that it was extremely interesting to members of the Assembly.

A substantial number of colleagues have said that they would like to ask questions. I remind them that questions have to be genuine questions, and should be limited to 30 seconds.

The first question is from Mr Gross, on behalf of the Socialist Group.

Mr GROSS (Switzerland)

The lesson that I learned from the Rose Revolution was that people in Europe never allow somebody to steal an election. How do you intend to repair the impression that you did not steal an election, but stole the second round of an election?

Mr Saakashvili, President of Georgia

As you said, there is impression and there is reality. Of course, some people, even in established democracies, will have whatever impression they want even if it does not speak of maturity. However, I need only quote what has happened in Georgia. We had parallel vote tabulation carried out by an authoritative international organisation and PVT was also carried out by another international organisation. There were exit polls at all Georgian polling stations, and they all gave the same result. Preliminary election polling was done by a consortium of international pollsters. They told me that I would not get more than 55% of the vote, and some of my people said that we would get 65% or 70%. The pollster said that we would get between 53% and 55%. We strongly disagreed, but that is exactly what we got. I saw a poll after the elections that said that 55% of people polled said that they voted for Saakashvili and that was the exact result before the courts took away some of our votes and we went down to 53.4%.

Some of my people were more optimistic, but it was enough. One of the great riches of democracy is that life goes on and people have a second chance. The loser has to accept the result, but that does not mean that they cannot win next time. Parliamentary elections give everybody that chance. These were the most competitive elections in Georgian history, because it was the first time ever that the election result was decided at the polls, not in the street through demonstrations or in a preliminary political process. The polls decided, and that is why it was remarkable.

It was also remarkable that, despite all the predictions, there was no violence or even skirmishes before or after the elections. There was no trouble on election day, although there were some problems. That is another sign of maturity. Georgia defied the sceptics and I am happy about that. I hope that we will continue in that way. Georgian democracy survived well. The Rose Revolution was about people power, and it was remarkable. We have here friends from Ukraine and other places who have tried to copy the Rose Revolution. That clearly showed that such revolutions happen in countries where the losers are declared winners, and vice versa. This time, things went well and everybody got what they should have done, even if some people were unhappy with the result.


There were great expectations, but there are some doubts and hesitations and concerns. You have said that you want a new democracy and a new legal framework, but I would like to know how you will implement that, because that is essential. I am concerned about the separation of powers, the independence of the judiciary – which was in question during the complaints about the last general elections – and the freedom of the media. You have to prove that you will substitute a real and open democracy for the non-democratic system.

Mr Saakashvili, President of Georgia

Georgia has a very vibrant democracy. It is not perfect, but no democracy is perfect. I would be the last person to claim that it does not need serious improvements. We need to work more on it and improve the culture across the political spectrum.

My biggest failure in my first presidential term was not creating the conditions for the emergence of an opposition whose coming to power would not mean problems for the country and many of the people. That is putting it very plainly, but that is the situation. Oppositions can come to power and we need to ensure the continuity of most of the principles of democracy, no matter what happens.

We have made progress from being a failed state. Georgia has a vibrant media. For example, during the election we had 25 to 30 live talk shows every week – I am sure that most politicians would not appreciate that. There are exchanges on television in Georgia that would not be seen in most of the democracies in Europe. Those exchanges can be very brutal, but it is better to have them on television than in the streets. Indeed, it is better to have them in parliament than in the streets. However, it is better to have them on television than in parliament, because it is always ugly to watch law-makers having fist fights with each other.

We have a vibrant democracy, but because Georgians are very emotional and sometimes express themselves very wildly on television, the perception was that the elections might have been the same. That did not happen, and that was a good thing. That is how democracy is supposed to be. It is about solving conflicts, even if it seems very combative.

The questioner mentioned the Georgian judiciary, but it is not just a question of the judiciary. There is also the prosecutor’s office and the police. Four years ago, only 7% of the Georgian population had confidence in the police. They were hated by the population, but now more than 70% have confidence in them, according to a Gallup poll. That is a remarkable change. Once, omerta was the main principle in Georgia, but now we have a high level of co-operation with the police and we have been able to decrease crime by a factor of two and a half.

One reform we instituted was to remove the Georgian judiciary from any institutional framework connected with the executive. The president no longer chairs the Council of Justice. The appointment process has become very complex and the disciplinary process is self-regulated, so that judges are disciplined by judges. The main achievement that I can claim today is that the Georgian judiciary is not corrupt. Very few countries among the new democracies can claim that.

The Georgian state budget has grown tenfold, even though we have cut taxes by almost 50% in the last four years. What does that show? It is evidence of a reduction in corruption that has happened in the tax service, the judiciary, the prosecutor’s office, the government, the parliament, the police, law-makers, local authorities. We have many young, professional judges who are highly paid. We have judicial and police buildings and prosecutor’s offices that are just as good as those in Belgium or the Netherlands. We have judges who take a professional pride in their work and who are becoming more and more assertive. That is what I expect.

We have also introduced jury trial this year in Georgia. We invited the European Union to send judges and they sat on the bench to try not only commercial but criminal cases. No other country in the region has done that. We understand that we may need to import tradition. It is no good saying that we can do everything ourselves. We can do most things pretty well, but on some things we need greater exposure to other traditions. We can send our judges to be trained abroad, and indeed the chairman of the Supreme Court of Georgia has a doctorate from Germany and the chairman of the Constitutional Court has degrees from the United States, but that is not enough. Having foreigners trying cases in Georgia can create an entirely new tradition among our corps of highly talented judges. We are aware that that will take time, but that is what we are trying to achieve. I think that we can be proud of what we have done so far.

Mr EÖRSI (Hungary)

During our international press conference in Tbilisi, I was asked by someone in the media whether I thought that Mr Saakashvili had made a mistake. In answer, I said that it was not for me to decide, but for the Georgian people to decide. It is also up to President Saakashvili to decide that. What is even more important is: what lesson have you drawn from the events of last November? This is a brilliant opportunity for me to put the question to you.

Mr Saakashvili, President of Georgia

As you said, people who do nothing do not make mistakes. It is important to understand what happened not only last November but later. Law enforcement officers have presented clearly documented evidence about the people behind some of the street clashes last November; it cannot be denied. Those people were plotting to kill others, bribing state officials and trying to overthrow the government. That is no longer merely speculation; it is a legal fact.

There should be no double standards. Rubber bullets fired by the police do not amount to the same as real bullets fired at them. They are still rubber bullets. There is no popularity contest. The government must sometimes take unpopular decisions, and sometimes it must impose law and order. We should always exercise self-restraint, but we can argue about reactions and over-reactions. We are still an emerging democracy, and we are dealing with a vulnerable system and an absence of tradition. Despite everything, we managed to avoid violence. We had no casualties. The state of emergency in Georgia lasted for nine days, and after that we had a long and tiring election process. There were hundreds of street rallies with no violence and with zero police presence. There were many discussions, and there was political fighting. What that showed us is that Georgian democracy is alive and well.

I, as President of Georgia, took this gamble. I resigned from my office, whereas people usually act to keep power. The report said that the elections were the most competitive in our country’s history. I resigned to show clearly that the government was acting to protect institutions and not its own place in those institutions. We were willing to take that huge political gamble, to resign and to submit our fate to the people of Georgia. That is the ultimate answer to your question. Did we make mistakes? We asked the Georgian people. How did they respond? With their votes. Most of them considered that we were right to do what we did. Some of them believe that we made mistakes, but that is democracy. Of course we will listen to both sides of Georgian society. That is how a real democracy should resolve conflicts.

The issue is not that a democracy should not have crises – any democracy will have crises – but how it overcomes those crises and how stable it is afterward. We emerged from those events more stable and with more investment. People had more faith in the future of the country, and we emerged with more wisdom. We have learned from whatever mistakes we made.

Baroness HOOPER (United Kingdom)

My interest in cultural heritage and intercultural dialogue, and its impact on education in its widest sense, prompts me to ask what priority you intend to give to cultural matters in your government’s national programme and budget, and in terms of good relations with your neighbours in the region, such as Armenia and Azerbaijan. You referred to your larger neighbour, Russia, in your speech.

Mr Saakashvili, President of Georgia

I thank you for that question. We are enormously proud of our heritage. As you know, we are not unique in the region; our neighbours also have a heritage based on their ancient cultures. We are all intertwined. Armenians have been part of Georgia for many centuries, as have Azeris and other ethnic groups. We have been intertwined with Russia since the 10th and 11th centuries. We have had many cultural exchanges, and the last thing that we can afford to do is to lose that because of politics. Many cultural figures in Russia are ethnic Georgians or come from Georgia – we do not distinguish Georgians by ethnicity, but by their place of origin or their self-identity. The President of the Russian Academy of Arts is from Georgia, as are many famous opera singers, dancers and artists. We are still omnipresent there. The only thing that is no longer present in Russia is Georgian wine, but I am sure that that will return.

We are enhancing the capacity of our Ministry of Culture. Last year, 250 churches were restored. Churches in Georgia are not just religious places but ancient cultural monuments. We have also restored religious items from other religions. We have done tremendous work in making museums better and promoting new ones. Georgia was part of the ancient Colchian and Greek civilisations. The word “medicine” comes from Medea, who was a Georgian woman. She is still the source of considerable controversy in Georgia. A monument to her was erected last year, and there was argument between local government and opposition about whether she deserved to stand where she stands now. That was a hot issue.

We will happily invest in Georgian culture. In budgetary terms, it is more worth while to invest in one museum than in two or three tanks – museums are more efficient for promoting small countries such as Georgia. That is one of our priorities.

Mr KOX (Netherlands)

Mr President, when you addressed us the first time, you were our hero. When you addressed us the second time, we applauded your peace plans. Now it is the third time, and we must express our worries and ask critical questions. What will be the main difference between your first and second presidencies on matters such as the state of democracy, frozen conflicts and social questions, so that you can regain the Assembly’s trust and we can applaud you during your fourth address as loudly as we did the first time?

Mr Saakashvili, President of Georgia

I think that the applause this time was pretty loud, and I am grateful. When I came here the first time, I had nothing to show but promises. When I came the second time, I had huge peace plans, which unfortunately still have not been achieved.

Show me any other country that lost 70% of its export market but still has 12% growth. Show me any other country that was behind Nigeria on corruption and is now ahead of the Netherlands. Show me any other country that has managed in such a short period to transform itself from a failed state to a state in which institutions have the trust of 60% to 70% of the population, which is as high as in Scandinavian countries. Show me any other country that has defied so many doomsday scenarios. We were told that there would be war in one or two months’ time and that there would be turmoil – that this young and inexperienced country would make a mess of the situation. That has not happened. On the contrary, a country divided into three parts by separatist movements has shown remarkable changes through reforms.

These are all results. We are getting higher per capita investment than any other eastern European country. Four years ago, when I came here for the first time, I was told that I was your personal hero. I would rather be the hero of those people who now get $4 200 per capita, rather than $600. That is much more important for me. I would rather be the hero of those people who have benefited from a 100% decrease in poverty, of those people who had zero trust in the institutions and who now can see results of the change. I would rather be the hero of those young people who, in the last few years, have got into university on their merits when before they would only do so through bribery or via special acquaintances. We have overcome corruption that was there. I would rather be the hero of those people who have found justice when they were in a system that had no place for justice for individual citizens and that was instead ruled immorally and corruptly for many years and was basically part of this post-communist nomenclature.

Basically, Georgia is a remarkable success story and I am very proud of it. Of course, I am also aware of the challenges that we shall be facing in the years to come. One of the main challenges is that of reducing poverty. The other challenge is that we manage to find a way to integrate the opposition so that it becomes much less radical, more engaged, involved, empowered to find its own place and is not merely interested in undermining and destroying the country.

These are the challenges and the more that we do with them, the more there is that needs to be done. That is how it is in a normal democracy. The more you do for your people, the less is the tendency for them to vote for you on the next occasion. That is normalcy. It is something that we have to face. I am more than happy to rejoice in this normalcy in my second term. My legacy after the next four years would be to leave behind a Georgia where all of these changes will become universal. This involves efforts being made by all parts of society, the majority as well as the opposition.

Mrs PASHEYEVA (Azerbaijan)

Mr President, my question is related to the issue of territorial integrity, the biggest problem for Georgia. As you are well aware, the conflicts over Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Nagorno-Karabakh are the largest obstacles in the way of establishing peace, stability and safety in the region of South Caucasus. What are your views on the prospects for a solution of the conflicts over Abkhazia and South Ossetia within about two years and what are the biggest obstacles to the solution of these conflicts?

Mr Saakashvili, President of Georgia

You know as well as I do that these conflicts are related to tremendous human tragedy. One thing that is clear to me is that there are no frozen conflicts. These are conflicts that involve the torture of people. They are conflicts upon which, until now, the attention of the international community was frozen. That was the problem. One of the principles involved here should be territorial integrity. There can be no experiments with that, no kind of playing with that because that would be the worst thing to do to the people who have suffered so much misery. The results of such behaviour can never be rewarded, nor can the results of such violence. Time should not be allowed to be a remedy here so that people can say, “Okay, this is universal and forgotten. Let us move on.” If we do that, such problems will replicate in other parts of the world. I believe that most responsible governments understand that.

The other need is to reach out to every person in society of every ethnic origin to make sure that minorities feel respected, that they do not feel menaced, that they feel that in all the areas of the countries that we represent they can find a future for their children and that they will never be second-class citizens. They need to feel that they will never face offensive rhetoric or racist remarks. I am very proud that in Georgia we managed to integrate most of our minorities, including ethnic Azaris, over the last four years. In addition to the conflict areas, we had lots of risk areas and I think the risk areas have gone now.

The feeling that we have sought to give to our citizens is that it is their country, that it does not belong to one ethnic group and that the day after tomorrow the President of Georgia can be an ethnic Azari, an ethnic Ossetian, an ethnic Armenian. We have been promoting this over and over again. You cannot just declare it once. You have to say it more than once to societies that are struggling painfully with their Soviet past. As you know, the Soviet Union was playing that card in a very nasty way, even if it was not in our nation’s culture before that. We need to reach out and to be as patient as we can.

Long-standing studies have shown that we can mute such bad feelings and make the natural instinct of reintegration strong. After all, every human being wants to lead a normal life. Nobody wants to live behind Berlin walls, nobody wants to live in trenches, nobody wants to hate every day. This is not a natural condition for a human being. To alleviate that, especially after a painful conflict and a period of alienation, when a whole generation was taught to hate, we need to reach out in a much more powerful way and do everything possible to avoid conflict. We need to understand that we have to be very careful and cautious but also very assertive and work on this daily, not just in the halls of this Assembly or in political statements. We can solve our problems by being more successful, offering more incentives and all the time reaching out and giving people a good feeling about the society to which they belong.

Mrs HAJIYEVA (Azerbaijan)

Our two countries of the South Caucasus have been demonstrating for many years strong European aspirations. European integration is the natural choice of Azerbaijan and Georgia as well, but there are serious obstacles damaging the process of full integration of the whole region. How do you consider the European perspectives of Azerbaijan and Georgia facing problems of occupied territories, ethnic cleansing, uncontrolled areas, and military imbalance caused by the presence of four military bases in the region?

Mr Saakashvili, President of Georgia

It is true that, despite all the problems that your country and mine are facing, your country had economic growth of 22% or more this year. Without the progress we have made, it would have been 11%. We did not have much, we had 12% but we are growing well. That is important. The more that we grow, the more other people will see, even if they are living in isolation, that there are changes for them in society. Our rhetoric should be of a much more out-reaching nature. We can still be successful and find our natural European habitat. There are many people in Europe who would not like to get into these problems because they do not want any additional problems. That is a natural instinct. However, these are issues for Europe as well, not only morally but pragmatically. These are issues connected with energy corridors, black holes, criminality, trafficking of human beings, and with the general level of violence. These are all European issues and we need to put them forcefully on the European agenda and to understand that we all need to be much more patient and persistent in our patience so that we may gain the hearts and minds of our citizens in conflict areas as well as of our European partners. Once we do that – and it might take a generation – I am sure that we shall be on the road to peace and stability.

Mr KOSACHEV (Russian Federation) (interpretation)

noted that, in response to a previous question, Mr Saakashvili had said that it was better to open museums than to buy tanks. Georgia was however a world leader in terms of growth in its expenditure on arms. He asked Mr Saakashvili to confirm that armed force would not be used to settle the dispute in South Ossetia.

Mr Saakashvili, President of Georgia (interpretation)

said that his country’s military expenditure, dependent on which benchmark was used, was comparable to, or less than, similar countries in his area. It was not good to spend money on military equipment: it was better to spend it on schools and hospitals and Georgia had made such investment only recently. If money was not being spent on defence, it could be spent on schools and hospitals.

Georgia had, for many years, been dealing with elements that had been pushing it towards violence. There had recently been a lull in this violence due to the measures that his administration had taken. It had been his policy over four years to reduce violence.

When talking about a state’s commitments, the most important of those commitments were those set out in text. Georgia would conform to those commitments whatever happened. Georgia had succeeded in holding elections and democratic processes had been fulfilled. Georgia would be grateful if the Russian Duma ratified the convention of 1995, which Georgia had already ratified. Information exchange between the nations of Russia and Georgia needed to increase: only then would they be able to make progress. This legal basis was greatly needed for, without such safeguards, it would not be possible to talk about long-term agreements.

Relations with Russia would develop more quickly in a period of peace. The Caucasus had experienced much violence and it was an area whose people would not forget that violence for a thousand years. He was prepared to work with his people, who were, after all, his citizens. He hoped that Russia would help to build bilateral agreements, resulting in discussions at every level to break down the artificial barriers between the two nations.

Mr SLUTSKY (Russian Federation) (interpretation)

thanked Mr Saakashvili for what he had said about future co-operation with Russia. He said that, during the recent presidential election, Mr Saakashvili had obtained less than four times the number of votes he had previously won despite the low turnout. There had been reports that, as a result, the opposition was taking a hard-line view and he asked how Mr Saakashvili was going to work with the opposition in such a situation.

Mr Saakashvili, President of Georgia (interpretation)

disputed Mr Slutsky’s figures, saying that the election had seen the highest turnout in a Georgian election since independence. In fact, it had been a remarkable turnout. He had got the votes he had been hoping to get and the opposition had got more votes than even they had hoped to get. This had been a demonstration of pluralism and democracy in Georgia.

The opposition was not taking a hard line and there had been lots of meetings with the opposition which had proceeded without violent incident. The pre-election period, the election itself and the post-election period had all been peaceful. The country had demonstrated that it was possible to have democracy in Georgia. It had proved to be a good model and Georgia was prepared to share this model with its friends. Georgia could demonstrate that it had an active, vibrant opposition with full access to the media. This was an excellent example to those afraid of opposition: they had nothing to fear from a strong opposition.

THE PRESIDENT (interpretation)

asked those in the public gallery not to respond in any way. He then called Mr Çavuşoğlu.


I congratulate you, Mr President, on your re-election. The adoption of the law that will allow the return of the Meskhetian Turks to their homelands is another step in the right direction toward the fulfilment of Georgia’s commitments to the Council of Europe. What urgent steps do you intend to take to implement this law, and do you need international support and co-operation?

Mr Saakashvili, President of Georgia

Our co-operation with Turkey is amazing. We have opened our borders. There is no longer real border control on the Turkey-Georgia border. We have opened new passage points. We have opened a joint Turkish-Georgian airport. We are starting to have joint ports and we are building joint railways that will connect Asia with Europe. We have increased the volume of our trade six or sevenfold. That is an amazing change. Had you asked Georgians in the 1990s who was their No. 1 enemy, they would have said Turkey because that is what Soviet propaganda taught us – although incidentally, it is not what my mother taught me; she always told me that Turkey was a friend. If you ask who our No. 1 friend is now, Turkey is high on the list. All that is thanks to your country’s very kind approach. It all is about embracing each other and engaging with each other. That is how all the other issues should be resolved, because we need people to make Georgia strong again. For the last four years, we have had positive immigration balance and we are proud of that.

Let me refer again to the question from Mr Slutsky. Georgia’s experience shows that the more co-operation there is, the more success there will be. We had 1 200 election monitors for our election – six times more per capita than Ukraine had during its elections. It is as if a country the size of Russia had 40 000 foreign observers for its next parliamentary elections. Indeed, I urge Russia to invite 40 000 observers. You should not think of it as an invasion. It is nice. It will boost tourism, as I am sure it did in Georgia. It will also boost the credibility of the elections. When all those people are shown on television on election day, it becomes abundantly clear if the election is free and fair. That happened only because the elections were transparent, open and fair. We should not be afraid of the European approach – on the contrary, we need it. Especially as a small country, we need it to combat stereotypes. We need to be able to anticipate and we need to be flexible. I should be more than happy to get together to discuss all the problems that we have in common.

Thank you all for giving me the opportunity to address the Assembly, which has exceeded my expectations. We want to help your patience in helping Georgia with our democracy. I first met my wife here in Strasbourg 13 years ago. How things have changed since then. In those days, Poland seemed as far away to this Assembly as Tbilisi may today.

How attitudes have changed. How much closer we have become. We lived in the Soviet Union together, but we have never been as close as we are today to Azerbaijan and Armenia, or, as I said, to Turkey. I am sure that in due course the same will be true in our relations with the Russians. That is what this Organisation is about, and that is why I am here and why I thank you again for your kindness.

THE PRESIDENT (translation)

That concludes the questions to Mr Saakashvili. On behalf of the Assembly, I thank him most warmly for his address and for the answers he has given to questions.

I call Mr Wodarg on a point of order.

Mr WODARG (Germany)

I am not content with what we have just heard. It was not fair that the same thing was said several times and that it was therefore not possible to hear even half the people who wanted to put questions to the president. I must state that the president spent his time not answering on the important things we wanted to hear.

THE PRESIDENT (interpretation)

said that he had earlier announced that he would have to end questions to Mr Saakashvili at 4 p.m. but had extended the session for an additional 15 minutes to allow further questions to be asked. He could not now extend the session any further. No President of the Assembly had cut off a head of state in full flow.