The constant gardener

As Georgia marks 25 years since it regained its independence from the Soviet Union, Ambassador Tamar Beruchashvili casts her mind back to those fraught early days. “We faced ethnic conflict, occupation, economic hardships…”

Amid the chaos, one memory stands out: meeting a humanitarian mission from Brussels distributing fuel to help Georgians survive the freezing winter. Now Georgia has an Association Agreement with the EU and is a step closer to being a full member. “Looking back, it’s almost like we achieved mission impossible,” grins the Ambassador, who was deputy foreign minister when the deal was signed in 2014.

A keen gardener, Beruchashvili’s career, dedicated to the root-and-branch transformation of her country, is now bearing fruit. As trade minister (and eight months pregant) she negotiated Georgia’s entry into the World Trade Organisation. After the Rose Revolution of 2003, she was appointed Georgia’s first State Minister on European Integration. “That was a political message that European integration was not just a foreign policy priority but something that would be transformational for the whole country.”

A year later Euro-Atlantic integration was added to the job title as Georgia made its ambitions to join NATO clear. The move unsettled Russia, and resulted in the Russian invasion in 2008. Beruchashvili recalls knocking on doors all over Europe, but the response was “not sufficient” she feels.

“The situation we see in Ukraine started with the Georgian War in 2008,” she explains. “And it’s not over. Twenty per cent of our territory is still occupied. Even though there are no open hostilities we experience creeping annexation and ‘borderisation’. These are not random acts; this is a pattern of behaviour, which I hope will no longer be tolerated by the international community.”

Since 2012, Georgia has tried to de-escalate tensions with Russia while asserting its “sovereign right” to pursue its European and Euro-Atlantic integration. But despite being a major contributor to NATO’s operations and far-reaching reforms, Georgia’s membership progress still lacks political consensus of NATO members.

For the upcoming Warsaw Summit, the Ambassador expects the Alliance to acknowledge that the door is open for Georgia when the time is right, while offering more opportunities for cooperation. “We are not just looking for the security guarantees; we already contribute to global peace and security,” explains Beruchashvili.

Drop the post-Soviet label
“Despite all challenges, the choice to follow the European and Euro-Atlantic direction is supported by a large majority of the population and political parties in Georgia,” says the Ambassador. The integration process is catalysing wholesale reform in the country. “We have graduated from the ‘post-Soviet’ label,” she smiles. “During the last decade Georgia has transformed from almost a failed state, to a country which has consolidated its democracy, which is corruption-free with an open economy and a free press.”

Georgia’s strides in strengthening its institutions, combined with the Government’s Four-point economic agenda – reforming the tax system, upgrading infrastructure, improving governance and overhauling the education system – is beginning to attract investors and SMEs.

An array of free trade agreements gives Georgia access to a combined market of 900 million people in the EU (through the Deep Comprehensive Free Trade Area), EFTA, CIS and Turkey. It is a East-West trade hub and a vital link for Europe’s energy security, with a massive US$2bn BP project in the pipeline.

Georgia is also an important partner in curbing the trafficking of people and illegal goods. Having demonstrated its commitment to well managed borders, the Ambassador is hopeful for the “timely  and well-deserved’’ extension of visa-free travel to its citizens, something she negotiated hard for as foreign minister. “This will be a powerful message that the European choice delivers concrete benefits for ordinary citizens.’’

Free movement is a “tool of soft power,” the Ambassador points out, especially for those Georgians behind the barbed wire in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, who may be persuaded that their future is best served in a unified Georgia.

So where does the Ambassador see Georgia in the next 25 years? “I want to see Georgia as part of a strong EU and NATO and I want to see Georgia unified, peaceful and prosperous. Impossible dreams can come true – just look at Leicester City!”

And when Georgia finally joins the EU club, the Ambassador hopes the UK will still be an active member. “European stability and peace very much depends on the unity of the European Union, including Britain.’’

Whichever way the referendum goes, the UK and Georgia will remain strategic partners. The Wardrop Dialogue – named after Britain’s first Chief Commissioner to Tbilisi when Georgia gained its independence back in 1918 – will continue to enhance the political, security, trading and energy ties.

An opera lover, the Ambassador sees further scope for cultural diplomacy – encouraging Brits to discover the cradle of wine-making, its food, heritage and hospitable people. A one-time academic, she wants to enhance ties between Georgian and UK universities and more student exchanges. There are also plans to energise city-twinnings, like Newport-Kutaisi, Bristol-Tbilisi and Newcastle-Akhaltsikhe (which means ‘New Castle’ in Georgian).

Then there is the shared passion for rugby – and when Georgians and Brits put their heads together, whether in rugby or real life, very little can stand in their way.

Embassy Editor Elizabeth Stewart interviewed the Georgian Ambassador on 19 May