Zurab Beridze: In Our Mentality We Georgians Are Europeans
Novinite has asked the ambassadors of the six Eastern Partnership countries working with the EU to boost ties to comment on the outcome of the May 22 Riga Summit, EU membership prospects and whether Bulgaria could play any role in their European integration.
The first to be interviewed was H.E. Zurab Beridze, the Ambassador of Georgia to Bulgaria.
In 1991, Mr Zurab Beridze started working for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the newly independent Georgia. In 1992, he headed the ministry’s International Organizations Department. Eight years later he became the Director of the Second European Department. In 2004 Mr Beridze was appointed as the Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Georgia to Romania and to the Republic of Moldova. Between 2009 and 2011 he was the Ambassador at Large at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Georgia. Since 2014 he has been the Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Georgia to the Republic of Bulgaria. Ambassador Beridze is married and has a son.
Your Excellency, soon after the Eastern Partnership Summit held in Riga an analysis by Radio Free Europe said that three countries - Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova had achieved a victory as the participants accepted the wording about EU aspirations of countries concerned. Do you think there was a victory?
I think it was, because we received from the EU a positive response to our reforms. And you know that we closed the first state of the negotiations on the visa-free liberalization process and a couple of technical questions left for the second part of negotiations. You know that Moldova already received visa liberalization. We started a little bit later, but in a six-month period we made a big progress on the matter. And I think the positive response from the EU is very impressive for us to be the leader in economic reforms, and visa liberalization is very important for us.
Mainly because 20% of the territory of Georgia is occupied by the Russian Federation - these Georgian regions are so-called independent, but in reality they are occupied - and if we receive the visa-free liberalization for Georgia it will be very important for Abkhazia and Ossetia so that their citizens can also travel freely to Europe.
But if visa liberalization is delayed further, do you think there are any risks of Georgians losing hope for close ties with the EU and looking eastwards?
No, I don't think so, because visa liberalization process is on a very high level. I think at end of the year or next year we'll receive visa liberalization at the latest - after we've finished our homework. It will be okay not only for Georgians and not only for them but Abkhazians and Ossetians. I know that Bulgaria still has problems with the Schengen zone and despite the fact you and Romania have been in the Union for eight years you still don't have. This is a big process. But I think we'll receive visa liberalization in 2016.
Do you think Europe should make the Eastern Partnership countries choose between the West and Russia, or should it leave them to work with both due to their specific location?
Of course, there is a difference between the six countries within the Eastern Partnership. Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine are among the leaders, we developed reforms and will close the second part [of the Association Agreement] when we have done specific reforms. That's why I think maybe this depends on Eastern European countries themselves to think if they would like to have important steps toward the EU or think it not necessary - it depends on them to choose.
The EU is seeking a "differentiated approach" to each Eastern Partnership country. What is special about its relations with Georgia? Is it the "leading" position of Georgia in terms of EU integration?
It is that the other countries are going more slowly toward the EU and we are determined to become members, an AA, and we are looking forward to a visa liberalization.
Could Bulgaria be anyhow useful to Georgia in its relations with the EU?
Yes, of course. Bulgaria already supported Georgia for the EU, for our Euro-Atlantic aspiration. And it always shared with us the experience - both positive and negative. It's very important for us. Last year it was a visit of a Georgian delegation with representatives of 3 or 4 ministries and they had interesting meetings on this matter how to receive support from Bulgaria on Euro-Atlantic aspirations.
Since Bulgaria and Georgia were part of the Soviet space and are somehow part of the post-Soviet space, do you see any similarities in the transitions?
Yes there are similarities in our historical way from the soviet bloc to the EU. Of course Bulgaria is far more close, a member of the EU, and we try to do the best to become members of the EU and NATO. In our mentality we are Europeans.
Is there any particular field of Bulgaria-Georgia cooperation which you think is still lying untapped and could benefit if Georgia pursues ties with the EU?
We have very good trade economic relations with Bulgaria. Maybe the figures are not so big, maybe the figures are not so big, under 400 million trade turnover in a year. But Bulgaria is among the first in EU by the export of Georgian goods. And secondly, I will give you to see this, I think what's important is that a ferryboat operates not between Varna and Kobuleti. This is a big opportunity of course to help our relations. During the Riga Summit it was the meeting between the PM of Bulgaria, Boyko Borisov, and the PM of Georgia Irakli Garibashvili, they decided to hold by the end of this year the economic commission of trade and development, and I think we can organize a business forum of Bulgarian-Georgian businesses.
Bulgaria and Georgia are quite close to each other in geographical terms. Do you think there are any setbacks in relations? Any challenges to overcome? Except for the waters of the Black Sea?
There are a lot of new challenges like terrorism, cross-bordering - it's important that regional countries should have a close cooperation on them.
How are Bulgarians perceived in Georgia?
Bulgaria is traditionally well-known in GE with historical close relations and always in Georgia everyone talking about positive experience and about Bulgaria as a tourist destination - Varna, Burgas, Golden Sands... Bulgaria was and still is popular in Georgia. And I think last month it was the delegation of the Kobuleti region and we signed a memorandum of cooperation between Varna and Kobuleti do develop tourism and trade. It is very well known destination for Georgian tourists that visit wonder seaside in Bulgaria, and we can increase the amounts of Bulgarians who visit the not less wonderful beaches of Georgia.
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