Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili delivered his annual state-of-the-nation address at the first meeting of the parliament’s spring session on February 14.
Like his Ukrainian counterpart Viktor Yushchenko, who in his February 9 address described his country as “the regional leader for integration processes” (EDM, February 14), Saakashvili claimed that Georgia was the regional leader of “color revolutions.”
Saakashvili’s 80-minute-long, emotional speech outlined several priorities of the Georgian government, including foreign policy.
In his 2005 address, Saakashvili had complained that the hand of friendship Tbilisi extended to Russia remained “poised in mid-air.” This year his criticism of Russian policies was sharper and contained a clear message that Tbilisi is seeking friends in the West. Saakashvili warned that attempts to annex part of Georgia’s territory were underway, evidently alluding to Russia, and he called for “a proper international response.”
Saakashvili said, “Georgia is a stone’s throw away from NATO accession” and predicted joining the alliance in 2008. The president indicated that Georgia would become a candidate for NATO membership this year. He proudly declared, “Georgia’s borders will become NATO’s borders.” Georgia’s desire to join NATO has long been a major irritant for the Kremlin and a source of bilateral friction. Saakashvili’s speech is expected to further complicate Georgian-Russian relations.
Saakashvili listed several major government achievements, including the successful build-up of the Georgian army, which has allowed Georgia to have “the smallest but the best-equipped army” in the [South Caucasian] region. A strong army, he said is needed to respond to “plenty of threats,” but he did not specify them.
According to Saakashvili the “rapidly growing” Georgian economy will help end poverty in the country by 2009. He also noted that Georgia had three times as many entrepreneurs as it did in 2003. Tourism will be a priority for the year ahead.
Saakashvili painted an optimistic picture of Georgia’s economic growth, including a three-fold increase in state revenue, 9% growth in GDP, and a 33% increase in foreign trade. However, opposition parties and some independent economic analysts question these rosy figures. “His information and figures about the economy were extremely exaggerated,” according to Levan Berdzenishvili, a parliamentarian from the opposition Republican Party.
In 2006 the Georgian government plans to liberalize its customs system by reducing the number of duties from the current 16 to three, and to make it easier for foreign banks to enter the Georgian market.
Referring to the January energy crisis in Georgia, Saakashvili said that unlike his predecessor Eduard Shevardnadze, who Saakashvili described as tight-lipped about Russian energy pressure on Georgia, the new Georgian government would not stay silent. The government will also actively seek alternative energy sources.
Saakashvili also noted that the government’s anti-crime crusade would increase “legislative support” for law-enforcement agencies and abolish the current practice of conditional sentencing for petty crimes.
Saakashvili reaffirmed Georgia’s adherence to reunification of the country and the peaceful resolution of the “territorial conflicts” in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which he said have never been ethnic conflicts as Georgia’s ill wishers have portrayed them.
Saakashvili was tight-lipped about the withdrawal of Russian peacekeeping troops from the South Ossetian conflict zone. Givi Targamadze, chair of the parliamentary committee for defense and security, explained that Saakashvili is waiting for parliament’s decision.
Parliament has unveiled the text of a draft resolution and will vote on the measure today (February 15). The measure is expected to pass overwhelmingly. Contrary to expectations, the resolution does not set a deadline or timeframe for the withdrawal of Russian peacekeepers from South Ossetia.
Nika Rurua, deputy chair of the parliamentary committee for defense and security, explained that if the parliament set a concrete deadline for the peacekeepers to withdraw, Georgia’s opponents would most likely procrastinate and drag out the process, possibly creating tension between the legislature and the government.
Instead, the resolution describes Russia’s activities as attempts to annex South Ossetia. It instructs the government to put into effect the provisions of the parliament’s October 11, 2005, resolution. Namely, it seeks to revise the June 24, 1992, Georgian-Russian agreement that serves as the legal basis for the presence of the Russian peacekeepers in the conflict zone and to work towards “replacement” of the current peacekeeping operation with “an effective international peacekeeping operation” in order to develop “a new peace format.” Many parliamentarians told Rustavi-2 that that the new format must exclude Russian participation in the peacekeeping operation. The resolution must come into effect immediately after its adoption.
The past week saw the re-escalation of tension in South Ossetia after Georgian military police detained three Russian Defense Ministry officers in the conflict zone. In addition, South Ossetian forces went on high alert as Georgia brought an additional 250 Georgian troops into the conflict zone; Russian peacekeepers responded by blocking Georgian villages.
Only two months have passed since South Ossetian authorities publicized their peace plan in response to a plan offered by Tbilisi (EDM, December 15, 2005). Apparently Russia wants to drag out confidence-building efforts until a decision is made on Kosovo’s status (see EDM, February 8). Currently the situation in the conflict zone remains tense, and South Ossetian authorities constantly speak of impending Georgian aggression. Several Russian State Duma deputies are currently on a formal visit to the conflict zone to examine the situation.
In his address, Saakashvili bluntly warned his pro-Russian opposition, spearheaded by Russia-based Igor Giorgadze, Georgia’s minister of security in 1993-1995, that they stand no chance of taking power. The Giorgadze-led political party “Justice,” reportedly financed by Russia, is now rapidly building its network in Georgia. In his recent interviews with Russian media, Giorgadze said his party would take power by the same methods that Saakashvili had used. “However, this would not be the Rose Revolution but the Revolution of Nettles,” he added. He claimed to have accurate information that the withdrawal of Russian peacekeepers from South Ossetia would invite Georgia’s military invasion. Surprisingly, his allegations mesh with recent statements by Georgia’s hawkish defense minister, Irakli Okruashvili, who has twice asserted in televised interviews that Georgia will restore control over South Ossetia by the end of 2006.
(www.president.gov.ge, Vesti.ru , February 7; TV-Imedi, February 12; www.apsny.ge, utro.ru, TV Rustavi-2, Civil Georgia, Interfax, February 14)