Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili addressed an audience of prominent businessmen and other distinguished Americans and Europeans at a special event hosted for him by the Jamestown Foundation in New York on September 20. Saakashvili spoke on Georgia’s state consolidation, its security problems, and its Euro-Atlantic aspirations. The following is a summary of the president’s remarks.
“A failed state no more” was a running theme in Saakashvili presentation. Following the peaceful “Rose Revolution” almost one year ago, and the ensuing general elections, Georgia has pulled itself back from the brink of state failure and is clearly turning into a functional state. The former system, whereby president and government survived through informal deals with shadowy interest groups and clans, to whom certain areas of the country or state institutions were in effect farmed out, is no more.
The government now controls Georgia’s borders and foreign trade effectively (except in the two Russian-protected secessionist territories — see below) and exercises its authority under the law in the country’s administrative units. An anti-corruption campaign has seen the replacement of tainted officials at all levels, some high-profile arrests, and flight of some major suspects from the country. To suppress extortion of citizens by the police, the government has drastically reduced the bloated, underpaid police ranks, correspondingly increased salaries of those retained on the force, and instituted effective supervision procedures.
In line with newly adopted legislation, the government has substantially reduced taxes while aggressively curtailing tax evasion, the net result being a broader tax base and more effective collection. Thus, tax revenues look set to triple this year compared to last year. Customs revenue collection is also markedly up. The parliament is rapidly moving to radically liberalize the legislation on business and investment. The government intends to sell state property without delay. Privatization criteria will be purely commercial in most cases, with Russian investors welcome; however, Western buyers are being sought for seaports and other infrastructure relevant to the European Union’s transit projects.
In May of this year, a replay of the Rose Revolution was successful in Ajaria, ousting that region’s pro-Moscow chieftain and restoring Georgian sovereignty there. Meanwhile, however, Russia supports the secession of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and is in the process of incorporating those areas into Russia de facto. Absorption methods include the mass distribution of Russian citizenship to local residents (following the ethnic cleansing of Georgians from Abkhazia), property takeovers by Russian entities, and a Russian military presence under the guise of “peacekeeping,” which President Saakashvili termed “piece keeping,” i.e. Russia keeping pieces of ex-Soviet territories in a neighboring sovereign country.
This is not just a Russia-Georgia issue; it is an issue of international law and world order, as territorial grabs of this type may set dangerous precedents, repeatable elsewhere. Moreover, Russian troops are unlawfully stationed at two military bases deep inside Georgia. The Russian side was supposed to have agreed with Georgia in 2001 about a timetable for closing those bases. Moscow is stonewalling, however. Hands-on Western involvement is necessary for a negotiated withdrawal of Russian troops from those bases, as well as internationalization of peacekeeping operations and conflict-resolution negotiations on Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
With U.S. assistance, Georgia has cleaned up the Pankisi Gorge in 2002 and has controlled the situation since then. Moscow’s claims that Georgia harbors “Chechen and international terrorists” in Pankisi are false. Georgia has no desire to provoke Russia, harm its legitimate interests, or complicate U.S.-Russia relations in any way; but neither can Georgia renounce its Western orientation, which rests on a national consensus. Unfortunately, Russia’s ruling elite seems to resent Georgia’s chosen orientation. For its part, Georgia is convinced that its Western choice is fully compatible with normal, good-neighborly relations with Russia.
Georgia’s aspirations to Euro-Atlantic integration are based on shared democratic values and common security interests. Georgia has granted blanket authorization for the transit passage of U.S.-led forces in anti-terror operations. The country is a troop contributor to NATO peacekeeping in the Balkans and U.S.-led operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. While some countries are reducing or terminating their Iraq deployments, Georgia is increasing its troop contribution now; and proposes a further increase in a follow-up stage, e.g. as part of a U.S.-trained protection force for a UN headquarters in Iraq. Meanwhile, the first stage of the U.S. Train-and-Equip program needs to result in a fully operational Georgian brigade. The program’s continuation to create a second brigade would not only improve Georgia’s security, but also enable the country to increase its contribution to U.S.-led operations.