Georgia stands firm on 'irreversible' pro-EU stand: PM
Despite events in Ukraine, Georgia's march towards the EU is "the only way forward" for the small ex-Soviet Caucasus state neighbouring Russia, Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili told AFP Tuesday.
Unlike Ukraine, which under Russian pressure walked away from a key trade and political pact with the EU, Georgia is determined to go ahead with the signature of an Association Agreement by August this year, he said.
"We made this European integration process irreversible" by agreeing to initial the deal in late November, he said, just as Ukraine refused to sign a similar pact, sparking massive protests that have engulfed the country in turmoil.
"Europe is the only way forward for our country," not only for the government but for its people, said Garibashvili, citing a recent poll showing 85 percent support for Tbilisi's pro-EU stance.
Signing the association pact would be "a first step towards membership" of the 28-member EU, he said.
The premier, who is fluent in English and French and became the world's youngest elected leader in November aged 31, said he had received assurance from the EU's top officials that the bloc would not let Georgia down.
As Europe and Russia tussle for influence over former Soviet satellites, Garibashvili said he could not exclude Moscow using pressure to stop Tbilisi strengthening its ties with the West.
The two neighbours cut diplomatic ties after a short 2008 war when Moscow crushed a Georgian bid to reassert control over breakaway regions, South Ossetia and Abhkazia, which it then recognised.
But Garibashvili said his tiny country of 4.5 million was less reliant on Russia than Ukraine as the Russians "don't have too much political or economic leverage" in Georgia.
"Ukraine is a different story. It is more dependent on Russia, therefore we can't compare the two."
Georgia is one of six former Soviet states on Europe's eastern flank to be offered an EU agreement that includes a major free trade deal.
But Brussels in the last months saw Armenia, Azerbaijan and Belarus turn back to Moscow after being told what they stood to lose if they made the wrong choice.
Then the biggest prize, Ukraine, with its 45 million people and industry and agriculture, also walked away in November, leaving only Moldova and Georgia ready to initial the association agreements with the EU.
Reiterating his government's pledge to do "our best to normalise ties" with Russia, the prime minister said trade links had improved significantly last year, with Russia beginning to open its market to Georgian wines and mineral waters, and Tbilisi seeing its exports triple to $160 million.
But he condemned "provocative actions which are in conflict with our constructive policy", such as throwing up barbed wire fences around the separatist regions in recent months.
Saying there had been "no positive dynamic" in talks being held in Geneva to overcome mutual differences, Garibashvili said it had been "hard" for his government to decide to send a national team of four athletes to the Sochi Olympics.
There will be no Georgian officials in attendance, however.
In a statement issued after talks with the Georgian premier, European Council president Herman Van Rompuy "reconfirmed the European Union's support for Georgia's territorial integrity and our commitment to support conflict resolution in Georgia."
Garibashvili winds up a three-day trip to Brussels on Wednesday by visiting NATO as part of Georgia's bid to join that organisation, yet another subject of discord with Russia.
© 2014 AFP