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Interview

The EU’s Eastern Partnership Programme has been making a lot of noise as of late, especially following the Vilnius summit that was held last November. We asked Salomé Zourabichvili, French diplomat and former Foreign Minister of the Republic of Georgia for her views on the current evolution of the European Eastern partnership programme and relations between the EU and its Eastern neighbours.

Interview

The EU’s Eastern Partnership Programme has been making a lot of noise as of late, especially following the Vilnius summit that was held last November. We asked Salomé Zourabichvili, French diplomat and former Foreign Minister of the Republic of Georgia for her views on the current evolution of the European Eastern partnership programme and relations between the EU and its Eastern neighbours.

Salomé Zourabichvili comes from a Georgian immigrant family that had to fleeto Paris in 1921. Her special family history has given her a very unusual political career. As a French diplomat she has worked at the French Ministry for Foreign Affairs and represented her country in Rome, N'Djamena, Washington, Tbilisi and at the United Nations, CSCE and EU. Currently she works as the Coordinator of the Panel of Experts, assisting the UN Security Council’s Iran Sanctions Committee. At the same time she had always kept in close contact with the culture of the country of her ancestors, which she was able to visit for the first time only in 1986. After the Rose Revolution, President Mikheil Saakashvili offered her Georgian nationality and nominated her as Foreign Minister in his new government in 2004. She was removed from office a year and a half later following several disputes with the prime minister, members of parliaments and other Georgian ambassadors. Nevertheless she remained active in Georgian politics and created her own party “The Way of Georgia”. Because of her dual nationality, she was not allowed to stand as a candidate in the presidential elections in Georgia held last November.

Considering her deep knowledge of the European Union as well as the post-Soviet space from the inside, we wanted to hear her opinions about relations between countries from these two regions.

Could you briefly explain the European Union’s policy towards its Eastern neighbours? What are its targets?

The European Union’s foreign policy towards its neighbours starts with the so-called Neighbourhood Policywhich is designed to give them most of the benefits of the European community, i.e. common European values and as much prosperity and stability as possible without a promise of accession to the EU. Therefore the core of this policy contains much ambiguity and contradiction because most of the Eastern countries covered under the Policy are willing to join Europe and to start down the road to integration. Although European Union officials have strongly emphasized many times that the Neighbourhood Policy is not a road to EU-membership, it has always been seen as a possibility by the Eastern countries (this is not the case for the Southern countries). This misunderstanding at the foundation of the policy is reinforced by the fact that the Neighbourhood Policy includes Action Plans for each country that in many cases appear to be very similar to what the countries that went through the process of accession had to implement. They are less complicated but have the same tone and content. They are not really negotiated with the partner countries and are quite directive. It is not an equal partnership process, but goes from Brussels to those countries. They thus can be seen as demands made by the European Union to the partner countries and as is typical in the case of demands, if you fulfil these demands you start to hope for something. The EU’s Eastern policy has received new support from the presidencies of Poland and Sweden who in 2009 designed what is called the Eastern Partnership programme, which complements and builds upon the Neighbourhood Policy by enhancing partnerships with the Eastern neighbours and offering them additional incentives. Initially six countries were involved, but by today Belarus, Armenia and Azerbaijan have dropped out as they have signed onto the alternative plan that Russia has been proposing, i.e. the Eurasian market. So the countries that are most advanced in this programme are Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova. And they are all basically promised the same things: to travel freely, visas, prior access to the European market, etc. These are the first benefits that are to be given to these countries once they reach the stage of development demanded by the EU. And at the same time, these countries have to go through a series of reforms and of course show that they have adhered to the desired values, especially those related to democracy.

Salomé Zourabichvili

In Russia, the Eastern partnership programme is seen more as a method to decrease Russia’s influence in the region, to progressively disassociate its neighbours from it and to weaken Russia politically and economically. How would you answer these claims?

Knowing the EU from inside, I regret that that this is simply not the case, because this would mean that Europe really has a grand strategy and that it has a project of exporting itself, two things that we from the European side deplore that EU is not capable of doing. For me this is exactly the capacity that Europe lacks: the ability to look at the world beyond its borders and to knowhow it wants this world to look like, even if it does not become part of Europe. This concept is possibly not perceived correctly in Russia for various reasons; perceptions are a different thing. But until now, Europe has been more something that is attractive to others rather than something that has tried to make itself attractive or to sell itself. It has been a success by default rather than an offensive success.

Europe also does not have a strategy concerning Russia; it does not know what it wants to do with Russia. There are many historical reasons for this. It has never had a discussion with Russia about the issue of the former Soviet countries that are no longer in the Soviet space proper and that are growing closer to the European Union. As such, this is an issue where the two sides will not find an agreement on, but this is a matter for dialogue and discussion between the sides though this has never been the case. So this is probably the reason why there are misperceptions on the part of Russia and a lack of perception on the part of the European Union.

The Eastern partnership programme has made a lot of noise lately, especially since the Vilnius summit November. During the Vilnius summit in November, Georgia and Moldova signed association agreements with the EU, while Ukraine did not. Is there a fundamental difference between these countries’ relations with Europe?

Note that Georgia and Moldova have not signed, but instead initialled association agreements which are planned to be signed this year. Ukraine was ready in advance and should have signed an association agreement during the summit. Today the biggest question is whether Ukraine will go the way of Azerbaijan and Armenia or if it will return or find a middle way. It has not signed the last agreement, but it still possible as all of the latest statements of the EU are insisting on the fact that the door is open and that Ukraine can change its mind. This is not the case yet. Georgia is in a different situation than Ukraine as there is not internal divide within Georgia as there are in Ukraine, where one part of the country is more oriented to the Eastwhile the other has turned towards to the West. This kind of division has never existed in Georgia. From the very beginning of its period of independence, from the first government up to the previous one, the country’s pro-Western orientation has been a constant, although there have been several very strong internal changes and also problems with democracy. But this has never affected Georgian foreign policy and its external orientation.

Events in Ukraine recently escalated and resulted in many deaths. In your opinion, how should haveits neighbours Russia and European Union reacted to the difficult and dangerous situation in Ukraine?

As I said earlier, when you have that type of situation, Russia and the EU should have discussed the problems at hand and avoided misunderstandings. Russia has been putting a lot of pressure on Ukraine by promising to help financially and refinance Ukrainian debt. As a result, Ukraine’s leadership has most probably decided not to sign the agreement with the EU. So this shows that Ukraine is still seen as a zero-sum game,especially by Russia but maybe also by the European Union (although I am not sure), i.e. whenever the one of the two sidesmakes some progress and improves its relationship with a country in this region, this step is regarded as setback the other. As long as this is the case, tensions will escalate. At one point of time, it looked as if we were getting out of this zero-sum game, though now it seems that we are going back into it. Unfortunately I do not have a solution!

Ukraine and Georgia are regularly compared and contrasted. What links these two countries and what does Ukraine mean for Georgia?

Of course Ukraine and Georgia have a lot of in common and they have been very close for different historical reasons. They share a common Soviet past, when they were the most nationalist Republics and strongly resisted integration. They have even more in common recently since they acquired independence pretty much at the same time and with the same processes during the dissolution of the Soviet Union. They also went through Colour Revolutions at the same time in a very similar manner. So it makes sense that Georgia and Ukraine move in the same direction together, one country showing the other one the way. Who goes first depends on the initial course of events. Therefore at least among the Georgian population, there is also a certain concern that Georgia might also face similar pressures from Russia as Ukraine. Russia may hold some additional leverage over Georgia. So there are some concerns but few actual facts, although this could be an indication that Russia has been playing a bit recently with borders.

But Ukraine is not the only concern to Georgia. The country’s two other partners in the South Caucasus have left what was considered a common track. So in that sense, Georgia remains isolated both in the Caucasus and in the post-Soviet space and that is certainly a reason for concern.

Elections were held last November in Georgia and a new president Giorgi Margvelashvili was elected. How would you describe the first several months of his presidency? And what do you think his presidency means for Georgia’s future relations with Europe and Russia?

Since I was almost a candidate for the presidency during the past election, I am not going to be very impartial on this question. But I will refrain from commenting personally. First of all, it is too early to make any judgments because he has just taken up his job. Secondly, the office of the president in the newly revised Constitution of Georgia has become very symbolic, i.e. without much power. So we have to look more at the new Prime Minister in order to understand where Georgia is heading. But there too, it is very difficult to see if there will be any major changes. There have certainly been changes in domestic terms, when the authoritarian Saakashvili regime was put to an end. The country is much more democratic now, and there are fewer violations of political and domestic rights. In terms of foreign orientation,the new authorities have not indicated in any way that they could be going in a different direction than what has been done over the past 20 years. But again, there is concern because the new environment and the new leaders are not well understood. There is thus a chance that they might be tempted by different agreements with Russia. Finding points of agreement with Russia is something that is very much desired by the Georgian population, but not at the expense of the general Western, democratic orientation of the country.

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Poll conducted

  1. In your opinion, what are the US long-term goals for Russia?
    U.S. wants to establish partnership relations with Russia on condition that it meets the U.S. requirements  
     33 (31%)
    U.S. wants to deter Russia’s military and political activity  
     30 (28%)
    U.S. wants to dissolve Russia  
     24 (22%)
    U.S. wants to establish alliance relations with Russia under the US conditions to rival China  
     21 (19%)
 
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