President of Georgia

Speech made to the Assembly

Monday, 21 January 2013

Distinguished President of the Assembly, Chairman of the Committee of Ministers, ladies and gentlemen.

(The speaker continued in English.)

As has been noted, this is the fourth time I have had the honour of addressing this Assembly. I attribute that not to my personal merits, but to the fact that I have been around for a long time as President, and it is part of the job description. It is an immense privilege to address the Assembly at such a crucial time for Georgian democracy.

“Georgia has been threatened, embargoed, bombed, invaded and occupied. Two of our regions have been ethnically cleansed”

Allow me first to express my deepest gratitude to the President of the Assembly, Jean-Claude Mignon, for inviting me to echo in this room the European and democratic aspirations of the Georgian people. As you all know, just three months ago the first transfer of power through elections in the history of our nation took place. As in every democracy, majorities can change in Georgia according to the wishes of the voters, but our national striving for freedom and European integration goes beyond any political division; it unites us, and constitutes the essence of our young State and the identity of our old nation. That is my main message today and I can think of no better place than this Assembly to deliver it.

The Council of Europe gathers all the nations of our continent around the principles and values that have shaped European destiny since the end of the Second World War: the values and principles that have torn down the Berlin Wall and led European reunification: the values of freedom, human rights, political accountability and the rule of law, to which the Georgian people are so attached and which have driven my entire political life.

Distinguished members of the Assembly, I remember well the day I discovered the Council of Europe as a young intern from what was still called the Soviet Union back in 1991, soon after the collapse of the Berlin Wall. My first steps in the free world and, therefore, in real politics – as real politics can exist only in freedom – were made in this very town and this very place. I made not just my first steps in politics here, but my main steps in life. I remember dividing my time between sleepless nights at the library of the European Court of Human Rights preparing for examinations in human rights case law at the Human Rights Institute, and chasing on a bicycle a beautiful young student from the Netherlands, who happened later to become my wife and who is sitting here smiling. Strasbourg was, therefore, a very exciting and special place for me.

On my return visits to Strasbourg, everything has changed for me, except my wife. I came back as an MP of independent Georgia with other young reformists for whom the Assembly has been an amazing school of democracy. Years later, I was invited here to speak as one of the leaders of the so-called Coloured Revolutions that were continuing the movement of emancipation and reunification initiated by the Velvet Revolution of 1989. Those were times of hope and enthusiasm.

Now I am here again, standing in front of you, as a president of cohabitation, a leader of a movement that has returned to opposition after more than eight years in office. It might surprise you, but after all those years, my hopes and my enthusiasm have only grown.

Ladies and gentlemen, from the very beginning, in the early ’90s, when Georgia was a failed State, a divided and brutalised nation, my involvement in politics was inspired by the idea that Georgia would finally join the family of European democracies, the family of nations where governments are changed by ballots, not bullets.

Of course, every politician in the world wants to win elections, and I am disappointed that the United National Movement failed to convince a majority of voters in last October’s parliamentary elections. But I am proud that this party – my party – has contributed to building a system in which governments and majorities are changed through elections, not coups d'état or revolutions, and an institutional framework that facilitates legitimate transfers of power instead of preventing them: a democracy.

For more than eight years, I have led a team that has radically transformed our nation, fought restlessly against corruption and organised crime, systematically dismantled the bureaucratic hurdles inherited from our Soviet past, liberated initiatives in society, and helped to shape the common perception that the government was there to serve the people, not the other way round, and that legitimacy comes from the bottom to the top, rather than the reverse.

Many observers have rightly characterised this change of paradigms as a “mental revolution”. Fatalism, passivity, cynicism – the long-lasting legacy of Homo sovieticus – has been overcome in Georgia. As in most European nations, alternance will become, and has become, the rule, and no leader, no government, no political or social force – nobody – can do anything to reverse that. That is why my hopes and enthusiasm are stronger than ever. What happened in Georgia during these last eight years, including on 1 October – a date that stands as an integral part of our democratic experience – has changed our nation and, I deeply believe, beyond – our region. During these years, Georgia has shown that corruption was not a fate and authoritarianism was not a destiny, and that the choice was not between chaos and tyranny – as it is too often presented in the post-Soviet world – but between democracy and all other forms of government, whatever you call them. Georgia has proven that there was a radical alternative – a European choice.

During the past decade, we have paid a huge price for choosing transformation and Euro-Atlantic integration. Georgia has been threatened, embargoed, bombed, invaded and occupied. Two of our regions have been “ethnically cleansed”. Hundreds of thousands of our citizens have been expelled from their homes and, as I speak, still cannot go back to their towns and villages. That is, my dear friends, the environment in which we have built our democracy, in which our new State has emerged and in which our mental revolution has occurred.

I want to say today how proud I am of the Georgian people and the sacrifices that they have made so that our independence can survive and our democracy grow and flourish, and how much I admire their bravery and their faith in the future, their absence of hatred and their thirst for freedom of peace.

I want also to pay tribute to our friends all over Europe. Without their continued support, our democratic experience could not have survived and succeeded, and we could not have broken away from the prison of stereotypes and old clichés. I want especially to thank the Assembly for the multiple resolutions that it passed after the 2008 invasion. I thank you, distinguished members, and those who are no longer members but are present in the Chamber, such as Mátyás Eörsi, who helped us so much during those difficult times.

Resolutions 1633, 1647 and 1683 called in unambiguous terms for the withdrawal of all Russian troops from Georgia, full access of the European Union Monitoring Mission to the occupied territories, the reversal of “ethnic cleansing”, a new peacekeeping format and an international policing force, and the withdrawal of the recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as so-called independent States.

As you all know, those demands are still to be met. Since the resolutions were passed, the Russian military build-up in our occupied regions has never stopped, more Georgian villages have been burned and erased from the map by the “ethnic cleansers”, the EUMM has not been allowed in the occupied areas, and Russia’s diplomacy has been touring the world to bribe and pressure countries to legitimate its illegal occupation. Nevertheless, the formulation of those requests by the Assembly has been instrumental: such signals coming from you deter the aggressors, show everyone that principles and values matter, tell the victims that they are not alone, and remind the world what is so special about this institution and Europe in general.

I know that a resolution on the humanitarian situation in our occupied regions is being processed by the Committee on Migration, Refugees and Displaced Persons. I thank you in advance for supporting the resolution and for all your efforts to help us overcome the tragic humanitarian consequences of the invasion, the “ethnic cleansing” and the occupation.

I came here to express the immense gratitude of the Georgian nation and its hope that your attention and focus in support of our internal democratic progress will not decline before external threats. Georgia needs a strong and efficient Council of Europe and a vivid and relevant Parliamentary Assembly, as do all our neighbouring countries and the European continent in general. That is why I want to express my appreciation and support for the reforms initiated by the Secretary General and President Mignon.

(The speaker continued in French.)

I congratulate you, Jean-Claude, on your successful initiative. It was urgent and necessary to carry out this reform. I am convinced that it will enhance the role and weight of the Assembly. The principles and dreams of the founding fathers of Europe are still alive in this Chamber. In Georgia, as elsewhere – perhaps more than elsewhere – we are aware of the crucial importance of what you do. We enthusiastically support everything that can enhance the Assembly and the Council of Europe. We are not just European-minded, but enthusiastic Europeans.

(The speaker continued in English.)

During the last eight years, you accompanied us on our journey of institution building and democratic transformation. You have advised us, welcomed our progress – as in the latest resolution, Resolution 1801 – and proposed changes where you have thought that we could further improve our practice and our framework. The co-operation that we have had during these years with the Council of Europe, the Assembly and the Venice Commission has been exemplary and has constantly helped us to improve our legal framework. Nobody can deny the expertise, good will and open attitude of the Venice Commission. That is why I call on our new government to wait for its recommendations before enforcing laws, especially when they touch on the court system and the judiciary.

I would like to seize the opportunity of this address to offer a special thanks to those of you who have monitored our parliamentary elections. First, I thank the chairman of the delegation, Luca Volontè. You have been able to testify that Georgia is getting closer to the standards that this institution promotes and that should one day unite all of us in this Chamber. Your vigilance, now that my country has passed what was presented as a litmus test, will be crucial to help ensure that Georgia continues to progress on the same path.

Unfortunately, as most of you know, and as has happened in many democracies in their early years, the Georgian political class suffers from the winner-takes-all mentality. From the selective prosecutions targeting former government officials, opposition MPs, local authorities and independent media, to the direct physical assaults by pro-ruling party activists against opposition representatives and elected local self-governments, a coherent campaign has started to silence the political opposition, to get a constitutional majority in parliament through blackmail, pressure and criminal cases against MPs and their families and to seize the entirety of the institutions.

The peaceful and constitutional change of government, by showing that the institutions did not belong to any party and by opening a period of cohabitation between different elected bodies with diverse political colours, should have been a tremendous opportunity to push further the reforms that we had not been able to carry out fully and especially to ensure the independence of the judiciary and the media. Instead, the new authorities have publicly linked the wave of arrests to the political activities of the opposition; we have heard claims in the media that the mission of the new government is to destroy the United National Movement through the judiciary; we have witnessed daily attacks on the judges who are trying to assert their autonomy; and there has been constant harassment of the independent media, starting with the Georgian Public Broadcaster.

The Georgian Public Broadcaster was created to set new standards of objectivity in the Georgian media landscape. According to the European Union Monitoring Mission, the first public channel was the only absolutely balanced TV channel during last year’s election campaign. Instead of reinforcing the emergence of an objective public TV channel, the new government has pushed the director of GPB to resign and has announced a plan to merge GPB with a channel privately owned by the new leaders. Such an initiative would take us years and years backwards. Simultaneously, the director of the biggest private channel in Georgia, Rustavi 2, has been detained and faces court hearings that could bring him many years of prison for charges related to the commercial activities of his legal company. Plans have been announced to change the ownership of Rustavi 2 through the judiciary.

It is true that we did not succeed in all our reforms and that much more needs to be done, but the new government – we wish it success – should go further in building our democratic framework, instead of undermining what has been built. It is also true that some reforms were not fully understood by various segments of the population. I agree that our communication to the public was sometimes deficient, but I believe that principles and values are worth taking political risks for.

The law that we passed in 2011 to give equal rights to all religious minorities might have cost us some votes, but is it a reason to resort to hate speeches and revive the fire of intolerance, for instance by attacking innocent citizens or by releasing with all honours fanatics who had been convicted for physical assaults against minorities? It is possible that our decision to remove all the monuments to the glory of Soviet tyrants and our constant fight against the communist legacy has displeased certain categories of the population, but does that justify the restoration of statues of Stalin in some areas of Georgia, paid for by State funds?

Ladies and gentlemen, the new government in Tbilisi says that it wants to pursue the European and Euro-Atlantic integration of Georgia. That is obviously a positive signal, and I have welcomed it publicly several times, offering to help the relevant ministers on this topic as much as I can. It is good to claim it, but claiming it will not be good enough; one has to act accordingly. The European Union and NATO are not simple partners for Georgia; they are the families we want to join, the transformative goals of our foreign policy and the horizon of our internal reforms. That explains the surprise created by the statements of the Prime Minister during his recent visit to Yerevan. He said there that a country can and should have good relations with Russia and NATO at the same time, putting a strange equidistance between both, and citing our Armenian friends as an example.

I am tremendously proud that, during my presidency, relations between not only the governments but the peoples of Georgia and Armenia have improved dramatically, and the relations are exemplary at the moment. That is important, and I am very proud of it. It is good that after initial verbal attacks against our regional partners and neighbours, the new Georgian Government has toned down such rhetoric. It is important to understand, however, that Georgia has chosen to pursue NATO membership but Armenia, for its own reasons, has not. It is the sovereign right of every nation to choose the alliances it wants to join, but relations and integration are not the same. Unfortunately, what the Prime Minister said a few days ago changes everything we have been saying for all these years. He gave up de facto Georgia’s NATO aspirations; that is what the declaration meant. I think that Georgia should integrate with NATO and have good relations with Russia at the same time.

I was the one who initiated visa-free travel with Russia, and I was the one who supported the World Trade Organisation deal with Russia. We unilaterally abolished visa requirements for Russian citizens. Under no government have so many Russian tourists entered Georgia as under the last years of my government, and I am very proud of that. Under no government have we had so many cultural ties with Russia as during the last years and months of my government, and I am very proud of that too. It is one thing to have cultural, economic and trade ties – that is something we should enhance – but it is another thing to change our foreign policy and orientation, which are based on values and the fundamental direction of our nation. I do not think that that is what the Georgian people have voted for. I hope that we can get better explanations and can help to correct the Prime Minister’s very alarming declaration.

We need good relations with neighbours, but we should not sacrifice other objectives. The level of obligation implied by the word “integration” has nothing to do with a simple relation between two entities. Unfortunately, such a statement comes after several national security and foreign policy moves that, for the first time in a decade, cast doubts on what the Georgian Government intends to do. Denouncing the Baku-Istanbul railway project, which is a huge geopolitical breakthrough connecting Georgia to Europe while promoting the railway to Russia through Abkhazia without clearly answering questions on its status means changing the strategic orientation and basically disconnecting us from European strategic lines. Freeing without investigation people who were convicted for spying for Russia while jailing some of those who built our counter-intelligence system in co-operation with the West also raises concerns. Explaining proudly to the Georgian public that the new government has repelled successfully a wave of “western attacks” is anti-western rhetoric from a sovereign democracy, rhetoric that we thought long dead in our country.

We have preserved our enthusiasm for European Union and NATO despite the threats, the bombs, the invasion and the occupation that aimed to oblige us to change our path. The Georgian people will not give that enthusiasm up lightly. Is it time, now that we are closer than ever to our objectives, to show hesitation or to cast doubts on our trajectory? Ladies and gentlemen, nothing is irreversible and there is room, I am sure, for a fruitful cohabitation in Georgia. I told the Prime Minister that we need to find a way out of the stand-off. We would both benefit from it and we owe it to the Georgian people. I offered a five-step plan to the majority to ensure a peaceful cohabitation and guarantee that we all put the supreme interests of the nation above our political rivalries. From the economy, with a joint conference for investors, to foreign policy, with common initiatives on the European Union and NATO, we can and should work together. Nobody would gain anything from the paralysis of our institutions, a pause on western integration or the decline of our economy. Nobody has an interest in the failure of our new government and the new majority, because such a failure would hurt the country in general.

This is my solemn pledge: let us work together to improve what can be improved in our democracy and let us focus on the principles on which we can agree, the very principles that are the basis of the Council of Europe and that all major political forces claim to respect, promote and defend in Georgia. What is at stake is much more important than our respective political interests, and much deeper than our personal rivalries or collective ambitions. What is at stake is the future of our democracy, and, beyond that, the future of democracy in our region. That is worth standing up for and fighting for.

THE PRESIDENT (interpretation)

Thank you very much, Mr Saakashvili, for your most interesting address. Members of the Assembly have questions to put to you.

I remind them that questions must be limited to 30 seconds and no more. Colleagues should be asking questions and not making speeches. The first question is from Mr Volontè, who speaks on behalf of the Group of the European People’s Party.

Mr VOLONTÈ (Italy) (interpretation)

Immediately after your general election, you made very positive declarations and introduced the country to a period of cohabitation – indeed, you just spoke about a plan of cohabitation. We took note of some rather disconcerting decisions that were taken by the government over the past few weeks and months. How do you view that cohabitation and how can the Council of Europe help democracy in Georgia?

Mr Saakashvili, President of Georgia

First, I could have tried to form a government for a few months, and of course I did not do that. The president could have kept the Ministry of Defence, the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Prosecutors Office, but we did not do that; we gave them away. Georgian people voted, and I thought that this government should have assumed the whole responsibility. I still believe that that was the right thing to do. The way in which we approached the affair was for the new government to assume the whole responsibility and the president to play an arbitration role. Unfortunately, some of the events that unfolded later made such a neutral arbitration role much more difficult to enforce because the very foundation of the constitutional system came under attack, like the constitutional majority. Pressure was put on MPs by blackmailing them and bringing criminal cases against them. There have been attacks on local government en masse and attacks on the judicial system. Those are not good.

Otherwise, as I said, we have a strong interest in keeping this new model of co-operation, because it is new. In the parliamentary majority, there are people who understand that Georgia has to move to another model where people have different levels of responsibility. There might be a president from one party, a parliamentary majority from another and local government in different places from different parties; that is a normal way of life. That is a new tradition, and I think there is a unique chance for the judiciary to become strong and for the media to play a key role. The president has an important role in fostering political cohabitation to help this process for the remaining 10 or 11 months before the new term of office. This is an important process of transition. We do not have a tradition of this, but I think we should create one. I do not lose hope.

Mr IWIŃSKI (Poland)

Mr Saakashvili, how do you see the chances for internal reconciliation between your movement and the Georgian Dream, as well for external reconciliation in relations with the Russian Federation? Has the Georgian establishment as a whole learned the lesson offered by Madam Rice in 2008 that peace is always better than war?

Mr Saakashvili, President of Georgia

We do not have to learn the lesson that peace is always better than war; I have always believed that, and it is especially true for a small country in a difficult geopolitical environment, unless you are a fool or you are suicidal. I claim to be neither of those, and I do not think that I represent a nation that is foolish or suicidal en masse.

The issue is not one of reconciliation of the parties. We should keep in place core political systems that allow different opinions to be voiced: an independent judiciary and media, and checks and balances that prevent things getting out of control even if people despise or lambast each other. That is not what I would choose to do – I am not comfortable with that – but, whatever happens, political systems should allow opinions to be voiced within a framework. That is what we have tried to create in Georgia.

We have taken a number of important steps to reach out to Russian society. Overall, normalisation between Georgia and Russia should be based on small ideas. The principal need for our region, though, is that Russia should give up imperial ambitions and allow all the countries to regain their territorial integrity, to develop as independent nations on their own, to join any alliances they want, to be free in their choices and to be successful on their own without being impeded. Russia should only gain from that, so it is in the interests not only of those nations but of Russia.

We do our best. Even at the height of the tensions when Russia was bombing us, we never used hate speech against Russian society or Russia in general. We always wanted to protect our country, but we never wanted to do irreparable damage to our relationship. I always kept that in mind, as did most of the Georgian political class. As I said, despite the fact that Russia placed heavy visa requirements on Georgia and has introduced a visa for trade, we have never placed any restrictions on Russian trade. They imposed a full-blown energy embargo on us, but we sold electricity to them. We encourage Russian tourists to visit and do our best to strengthen cultural ties. We had a chance to block Russia’s access to the World Trade Organisation, but we thought that keeping Russia within a multilateral framework was good for us, as a small country. I still believe in all that. Eventually things will go the right way, but small nations must be patient. Meanwhile, we have to survive and be successful on our own.

Ms FUSU (Republic of Moldova) (interpretation)

Thank you for your very comprehensive and focused speech. As a representative of Moldova, I can well understand the predicament of your country in your relations with Russia. Following the recent elections, the parliamentary majority has changed and your party is now in a minority. That being the case, and with the new situation of cohabitation, do you consider that your pro-Atlantic and pro-European stance still holds good in Georgia? What about future negotiations to become partners in the European Union?

Mr Saakashvili, President of Georgia (interpretation)

Thank you for that question. As I said in my speech, everything that the new government has said publicly is premised on the idea that there can be no alternative for Georgia apart from NATO and the European Union. That at least is what it said in the early weeks after it took office. Now, its tone has changed completely. We hope that that is purely accidental, or that it will change again in the future. After all, we held a referendum in which almost 60% of Georgians voted in favour of joining NATO. The percentage of those in favour is much higher now – almost 80% – and the number of those against is very small, even insignificant. We consider that there is no major opposition group that might prevent that from happening.

Any government, or any political group that harbours hope of governing Georgia, if it wants genuinely to represent the interests of the population, must not disregard the fact that the entire population is in favour of NATO and Europe. Indeed, the Assembly, the European Parliament and all the important European political institutions can act tremendously to enhance and promote democracy in Georgia. All Georgians are aware of a strong feeling of sympathy, support and concern, and that is perhaps more important than public statements. Obviously, public statements have changed a lot, but there is more to it than that.

Mr PUSHKOV (Russian Federation)

We keep hearing from inside Georgia and from international organisations such as Human Rights Watch multiple reports about serious, even massive, violations of human rights, including the torture of prisoners, which happened in Georgia during your presidency, behind the democratic façade. Do you recognise those accusations, and what do you think about your personal responsibility for those violations?

Mr Saakashvili, President of Georgia

I am very pleased that our Russian neighbours are suddenly taking a very keen interest in human rights, democracy and the freedom of individuals. I hope that you put those principles into practice on a daily basis in your wonderful, great country. Of course, we welcome the fact that Russia daily respects the rights of individuals. Once you do that, maybe one day we will learn from you.

In my country, we always welcomed and listened carefully to every criticism from an international group or organisation. Sometimes we disagreed, but we always listened. I am very proud of the fact that although we came from a time of lawlessness, from a place that was one of the most criminalised and lawless in Europe, according to the European Union, Georgia has now become the safest country in Europe. Its crime rate is a fifth of that in Russia, by the way, to point out a small comparison. We have also become the least corrupt country in Europe. According to Transparency International, the last figure showed us 80 places ahead of Russia. In the rankings for business environment, Russia is 139th and Georgia is 9th. Those rankings are worked out by international organisations; this is not me telling you what I believe. Those are our benchmarks, and for small countries, they matter. I guess that for a big country such as Russia, they do not really matter. Some people in Russia rejoiced in our success and congratulated us on it; some people got nervous. It is a matter of choices and priorities.

We have further work to do, and we will share our experience with Russia. Thank you for your question.

Mr KOX (Netherlands)

Let me start by thanking you for being, as far as I know, the one who initiated these spontaneous question-and-answer sessions with heads of State and government in the Assembly. You started, and others followed, and we appreciate it very much. As you are not afraid of spontaneous questions, will you tell us what you consider your best political decision in the past eight years of your presidency, and what was your worst?

Mr Saakashvili, President of Georgia

First, thank you for telling me. I heard it from you today at lunch, but did not know about it before. Perhaps one of the things about which I am proudest and could write in my autobiography is that I introduced a new rule into this Assembly. After my last speech, somebody in the Bureau said that, following Saakashvili asking for spontaneous questions, no one has to write questions. When I was a member of the Assembly, I had to write questions that I wanted to ask. So if I have allowed some ink to be saved here, that is a great honour for me. Thank you for telling me that that is what happened.

One of my best decisions, taken during the elections on 1 October, was immediately, without any delay after the exit polls – within a few minutes – to recognise the results. Nobody did that in Georgian history before, neither opposition nor the government, even if the government usually won the elections. There was one before the Rose Revolution that did not. However, I did not hesitate. I have to tell you that I did not consult anybody, not even my closest friends. I did it because I thought that it was the right thing to do. I did it in an upbeat and optimistic mood for the future of the country. I have to say that I was not optimistic about the government that was coming in – I was pessimistic – but I was optimistic about the country and about the experience that it would gain from that government about which I was pessimistic. That was my instinct.

If I start mentioning the worst decisions, it will be a long list and I do not want to burden the Assembly with those. Maybe I will think more about it.


Mr Saakashvili, you moved Georgia on a path towards democracy, economic liberalisation and Euro-Atlantic integration, but given Mr Ivanishvili’s close links to Russia, is it likely that Georgia will now follow a different path? Will Georgia move away from the western bloc and Euro-Atlantic integration? I ask with regard to the government, not with regard to the people of Georgia. Do you expect political instability or an autocratic government in the near future in Georgia?

Mr Saakashvili, President of Georgia

As I said, we should keep in place the democratic framework; that is what really matters. We should keep an independent judiciary, which is under attack right now, as we speak. Members of the government, such as ministers and others call the chairman of the supreme court, say, a criminal on a daily basis. He is anything but criminal. They just initiated, by the way, a Maoist law in the Georgian Parliament that would replace courts with so-called jury trials, but the defendant would not have the right to choose whether to face a jury. That was the proposal. I do not know whether it will be finally voted on.

We have seen what these mobs look like, because they attack our local government from time to time on a daily basis. I know what they look like. The same people that attack local governments with sticks and other things in their hands will be given the right to try political figures. They said that political figures should be tried by them. They will be nominated by prosecutors and the defendants will not have the right to choose between them and a professional judge. The only example I know like that is the Cultural Revolution in China in the 1950s and 1960s. That was one of the proposals that we got.

If you create such proposals, there is a problem, but hopefully proposals will not pass. I hope that there will be people who understand that this would lead to absolute madness. Hopefully, they will understand that calling the chief justice, who has a totally untainted reputation and is a highly respected figure in Georgia, a criminal every night is madness and irresponsible. Hopefully, they will understand that menacing every government official – or former government officials – with arrest every night on television is, to say the least, unserious. Hopefully, they will understand that telling your parliamentary opposition, “You had better shut up or we will send you to prison”, on a daily basis in parliament, in front of cameras, is not serious. I think that this will not pass.

This happened in other places, as well. It happened in the 1990s with regard to political orientation. I think that there is no segment of the Georgian population that wants such change. Georgian people voted for a better life, not for arrests, and not for resisting NATO, Europe and the west and not for turning our back on NATO and the European Union. No, they did not vote for that. They did not vote for the Government to go against what they fundamentally wanted. There is no such segment of the Georgian population; we are not divided in that way.

That is why I am optimistic about our society. People everywhere want to live better. Economic growth in the first four years of our government was a double-digit average, which was good. In the last three years, we had more or less 6%, then 7%, then we were supposed to have 8% last year, but it was a little bit less because the elections happened. We had high economic growth, but no matter how fast you grow, people want more; we know it. You can never catch up.

As politicians, you know how it is. It is like surfing. You are surfing political waves and in the end some wave will catch up with you and cover you. The main thing is not to drown and, one day, to come back on the wave. Any surfer experiences this from time to time. We are political surfers, from that point of view. That is normal. But we should not change our direction in the surf, that is for sure, because the direction of the wind – I do not know whether members surf – never changes.

Mr SHLEGEL (Russian Federation) (interpretation)

Mr Saakashvili, thank you for your warm words about the Russian Federation, but unfortunately words often differ. Under your presidency, relations between our two countries have found themselves at an impasse. I do not understand why you are criticising the deeds of your prime minister, who is trying to get us out of that impasse.

Mr Saakashvili, President of Georgia (interpretation)

On relations between Russia and Georgia, you see one Georgia and I see a different one. For all the respect that I have for you, you need spectacles to see Georgia as it really is. Georgia is a fully fledged member of the international community and, whatever you say about other people, it will not change anything in this Assembly. Nobody, not even the most pro-Russian person in Georgia, will be able to give you what you want. Georgians just are not going to give up their territory – it is a simple point – and there is no reason we should. Once you begin to see Georgia as it really is, then we can enter into positive relations.

We have never tried to create any problems for you. You know that the leaders of many countries would refuse to answer you in your language. I have told President Putin that I may be the last Georgian leader able to speak to him in Russian and able to quote Yesenin, Brodsky, Pushkin and even contemporary Russian writers, not just the classics. I speak Russian much better than the current Prime minister, not to mention that I know the poetry of Yesenin and he does not.

So let us shed our illusions and let us really understand the nub and essence of the issue, which is that the Russian Federation has to shed its imperialist ambitions and cease trying to increase its territory using the means that it does.

I have visited the borders that you closed down unilaterally and have shaken hands with hundreds of Russian tourists who come to our territory. I never felt any aggression from them. The Russian man in the street is not the problem; the imperialist ambitions of its leaders are the problem. One of the people I shook hands with ended up in prison, so now I do it without television cameras. We should have good relations with all our neighbours. Our borders are what they are, and that is a lesson in geography that you should learn so that Georgia’s integrity can be preserved.

MS BRASSEUR (Luxembourg) (interpretation)

I had wanted to ask about the difference of opinion between the new majority and you over international relations, but I think that you have already answered that question fully. What are your main differences over domestic policy? In your view, what are the big challenges facing you in the short term?

Mr Saakashvili, President of Georgia (interpretation)

With your permission, Madame, I will reply in English.

(The speaker continued in English.)

When I was asked by the Georgian people before the election, I told them how I saw it. The new government promised the people that they would return to the past. They told them that the reforms of the past eight years were bad and that what had happened before was good. I told them that what was before was bad and that what had happened since was not ideal, but that we were heading in the right direction and that we should move forward. That was the essential difference. We advised our people not to risk returning to the past, because there was nothing nice there. We are now experimenting with reliving the past, and the past has concrete names, faces, experiences – of corruption, mismanagement and certain attitudes towards minorities, local government, relations between ethnic and religious groups, the idea of Europeanness and whether western culture is part of our psyche. We are debating those fundamental values. Our differences are value-based, not just about what kind of social or small economic adjustments we should make.

I fundamentally believe that we cannot promise people what we cannot deliver. For instance, we cannot promise them that they can do nothing and we can feed them. That has not happened anywhere, and it will not happen in Georgia. It is a myth. We have lived through this myth. Our people understand, first, that you cannot be idle – not work – and expect someone to feed them. It is nostalgia. Nobody ever managed to deliver it, however, and no one will do so in Georgia, not matter how many billions they might have in their pockets. In fact, the more billions they have, the less they will deliver to the people. It is a myth that if someone has money, they will share it with you. It is usually exactly the opposite.

The second idea is that you can change your relations with your neighbours, especially great imperial neighbours, simply by trying to please them, without giving up fundamental interests. That is not how it works. Instead, you should develop and be successful on your own, and then they will reconsider their relations with you. The third thing we will learn is that we should continually rejuvenate our institutions and continually have new blood and give way to new generations. The country should also be open to new ideas. We should never return to the past. That is how I see it. We should be open to the future and never try to revisit the past. I am not that young anymore. When people long for the past, they do not long for communism or the Soviet Union; we simply miss our younger years – we miss looking better, being more energetic and having better prospects, and that is all right. In our case, however, there was also a very bad political system. Our population has been offered a poisonous bill, and we swallowed it. I hope we will survive it and will go on with our lives.

THE PRESIDENT (interpretation)

Thank you, Mr President. The next question is from Mr Xuclà, but he is not here, and neither is Ms Čigāne. I call Ms Durrieu.

Ms DURRIEU (France) (interpretation)

I welcome our ex-colleague from the Council of Europe. We travelled a long way together. Opinion here is divided. The Council of Europe must respect the sovereignty and integrity of States, however, so I launch an appeal to find a peaceful solution between the two countries.

Mr Saakashvili, President of Georgia

Merci Madame Durrieu

Mr HERKEL (Estonia)

I thank you, Mr President, for mentioning our monitoring report on the consequences of the war, but you referred to attempts to legitimise illegal occupation. Will you elaborate on that, because it is in our best interests to recognise those attempts, if they exist?

Mr Saakashvili, President of Georgia

The last attempt at legitimisation concerned the poor health of Hugo Chavez, who was our Russian neighbour’s last hope in the Americas. Then they bribed a couple of small island nations in Oceania – Nauru and Tuvalu. The Prime Minister of Tuvalu met Foreign Minister Lavrov in New York for three hours. They summoned a plane for him to New York, and he was flown out and brought to Abkhazia, where he signed an agreement recognising Abkhazia. I can only guess what else was involved in the transaction. The great nation of Russia, after long discussions with the island nation of Tuvalu, made a big diplomatic breakthrough: finally somebody else recognised their occupation of Abkhazia. Congratulations Russian friends. It is great.

It is a shame that the Russian Federation, in the 21st century, is playing such diplomatic tricks on a nation that should be its natural friend and ally, provided it respects our right to exist and develop normally. That is the point. Instead of trying to reach out to us, however, it is trying to reach out to Tuvalu. I have nothing against Tuvalu – I have lots of friends in Oceania, and, as a result of Russian policy, I take an interest in that region – but is that the way for our neighbourly relations? Is that the way to pursue our foreign policy goals? I think that is exactly what we are trying to change eventually, once Georgia develops further.

Twice in one week last year, Dmitri Medvedev said, “We have to imitate Georgia.” First he said, “Yes, I absolutely hate Saakashvili, but we have to acknowledge that he made some amazing reforms and learn from them.” The second time, he said, “I would like to learn from them, but we are too big and they are too small. It is impossible for Russia; we cannot really do it.” Four years ago, they said that Georgia should disappear and that I was a political corpse. They menaced me with physical destruction – I guess that threat is still there – but they are still saying four years later, “By the way, we should also learn from this guy whom we are going to hang very soon how to run our own country.”

That is remarkable. It shows that there is a chance for realism in Russian policy. I welcome it, and I hope that it will grow and that no matter who is in government or who is president of Georgia or Russia in future, our peoples will find a common language based on their interests rather than talking through faraway island nations, which, with all due respect, I do not think should be decisive players in our bilateral relations.

THE PRESIDENT (interpretation)

Thank you, Mr President. I do not see Mr Ghiletchi or Mr Jensen, so I call Mr Japaridze.

Mr JAPARIDZE (Georgia)

President Saakashvili, do you seriously think that the current Georgian Government is surrendering to Russia or saying no to our European aspirations? If so, why and what are the facts on the ground?

Mr Saakashvili, President of Georgia

I hear what I hear. When I hear it, then I start to think. What I have heard – I do not have to repeat it at length – is that we managed to resist pressure from Europe and America. I have not heard such a quotation from any Georgian leader since 1991. I have heard that the Secretary-General of NATO – correct me if I misquote any of you – came close to intervening in the domestic affairs of Georgia, and I have heard that for the first time ever in Georgian history, Georgia has something called domestic affairs in which the Secretary-General of NATO cannot meddle. I do not accept that. I know that there are people with different views on NATO, but I have my own strong views. If you want to be part of NATO, you accept friendly criticism, or at least listen to it without openly objecting. Membership has its price. It clearly resonates with certain notions of democracy in other countries.

Just a few days ago, I heard a great example: I heard that we should have the same distance from and the same kind of relations with Russia as with NATO. I refuse to accept that. That tests the concrete price of foreign policy. I also heard it said that Georgia should stop being a problem for relations between the west and Russia, and I fully agree, but the way that point has been put suggests we should stop being a problem without the current problems being solved. That might mean Georgia disappears as a country, not just as a problem. That has happened in our history. Clearly, therefore, in some ways we think things are moving in the wrong direction. I hope I am wrong about all this, but other people think the same way as I do.

THE PRESIDENT (interpretation)

We must now conclude the questions to Mr Saakashvili. I thank him most warmly on behalf of the Assembly for his address and for the remarks he has made in the course of questions.