Estonian Ambassador to Georgia - If we want EU membership, we should all play by the rules - The Georgian Government on the one hand says that they are moving closer to the EU, but their actions do not prove that

Estonian Ambassador to Georgia Riina Kaljurand believes that the law on "transparency of foreign influence" is an obstacle for Georgia's integration into the European Union. The diplomat notes that Estonia will not be able to continue its usual activities with Georgia, because this is a step that was deliberately taken against everything that the West advised Georgia to do.

How will the relationship between Tbilisi and the capitals of the European Union precede now, what possible regulations are being discussed in the West and what does the Estonian diplomat think about the foreign policy transformation of the country - Estonian Ambassador to Georgia Riina Kaljurand spoke about these and other topics in an exclusive interview with "InterpressNews".

The law on "transparency of foreign influence" is the most discussed topic in Georgia today. Despite the fact that the leaders of the EU member states called the ruling party to withdraw the law many times, on May 28, the Parliament of Georgia overcame the president's veto on the law. In the light of the current tension, how do you think the relations between Tbilisi and the capitals of EU member states will proceed? The EU leaders label the law on "transparency of foreign influence" as the main obstacle to European integration. Considering this, what are the prospects and chances of Georgia of joining the European Union now?

As you rightly mentioned the European Union is concerned with this law and I can only confirm that this is indeed an obstacle for Georgia to proceed further on your integration path. Why is that? First of all, I think when this law came to the parliament a year ago, we made it also very clear that there will be consequences of this law because this law is not in compliance with the EU standards, our values, our basic requisites of democratic society, because it is demonizing and stigmatizing a very big part of society. This is why we also warned that actually whenever it comes to financing the NGOs or organizations, then there are other means that can be used in order to do that. A year ago, this law was withdrawn. Unfortunately, despite the promises not to bring it back, it was brought back. Our message was very clear if this law is adopted, we cannot continue the business as usual with Georgia, because this is one step that has consciously been made against everything that we advised to do.

It is not only this law, there are other laws that are also controversial and go against the EU value system. Georgia may remain in a waiting room of the EU for a very long time. I think we have done everything we could do. We have given all the arguments to Georgia government and parliament, even if they say that they haven't heard any legitimate arguments. I think we have given a lot of arguments. We have given them also descriptions of how we, the other societies, deal with these issues. For example, Estonia has also a number of NGOs. Many NGOs get funding from other countries, EU countries. We are not afraid that they are undermining our democracy. It is the role of the civil society to be critical of government’s and parliament's activities and to raise critical issues. If you are a consolidated and strong democracy and you are fairly elected, government and parliament, you shouldn't be worried about civil society undermining your legitimacy in any way. There is tough talk on both sides, but it should be overcome by other means, not by repressive means.

It should not be about punishment. It should not be about stigmatization because that's what we see here. If we want to have European Union as a whole, as a protector of human rights, civil liberties, and all these freedoms that we dearly appreciate, we should all play by the rules.

It is unfortunate that Georgian Government on the one hand says that they are moving closer to the EU, but their actions do not prove that. You cannot promise people something that is not up to you to promise like to become a member of the EU by 2030. It is up to us, the Member States. We have also gone through the EU accession process, and we have never questioned the criteria like this. We have done it by the book. I think this is also why maybe Estonia feels a little bit more sensitive about this issue, because we now know that the requirements to aspirant countries are always higher than to the existing members. Our legislation is maybe even more normative in many ways. But at the end of the day, it is to our own benefit.

On June 11, the Riigikogu (Parliament of Estonia) received a statement condemning the actions of the Georgian government and the parliamentary majority regarding the adoption of the law "On transparency of foreign influence" and the abandonment of European values. In the draft statement, it is mentioned, “until the Georgian government and parliament begin to resolve the democratic crisis through the protection of the rule of law and civil rights, return to the program of reforms and democratization agreed with the European Union, and repeal the law on transparency of foreign influence, Riigikogu considers it necessary for Estonia to block all further processes related to Georgia's accession to the European Union, freeze development cooperation with Georgian state agencies, and use the allocated funds to support Georgian civil society”. There is also mentioned: “It is necessary to propose to the Council of the European Union the imposition of sanctions against Bidzina Ivanishvili, members of the Georgian government, leaders and leadership of the Georgian Parliament, the parliamentary group of the Georgian Dream party, including a ban on entry into the European Union. If this proposal is not supported, the Riigikogu wants Estonia to impose sanctions by the Republic's government, including a ban on entry into the Republic of Estonia, against the individuals in question”. How realistic do you consider the development of events in this scenario? What do you think if the Council of the European Union does not take into account Estonia's statement, will the official Tallinn directly impose sanctions on the mentioned persons?

Well, first of all, I would start by saying that this is a political statement by a parliament. It shows that maybe unlike in some bigger countries in Europe, Georgia is high on agenda. In Estonia, it is a public interest. And the developments in Georgia are also of interest to the public. This is why Estonian parliament probably reacted to what is going on here. But as I said, this is a political statement. Many of the issues that are mentioned there are also discussed on European level. There is not much new in this statement. I think this is an indication of the wish of where Estonian parliament wants things to go. The main message is that Europe should do something. We should do something to remedy the situation. What is doable, what is not doable, we do not know that. There are things that are doable, there are things that are not doable. All these things will be discussed at the end of this month by the, Foreign Affairs Council as well as by the European Council in Brussels. And all the member states are contributing to the options paper. And all the options are on the table. Estonia has been very vocal about some options. It is also important for the European Union to stand for its interests and the interests of the Member States. We cannot always do compromises whenever some government comes up with some kind of a law. I think that as a whole, the European Union can protect every Member State only if we all follow the same rules. You cannot come and say: I want to become a member of a club, but I have my own rules. It's not how it works. Unfortunately, several measures in the options paper might be quite painful also for the society. Nobody wants to punish the society but we must show that these are the consequences of not playing by the rules. Georgian people who aspire to become a part of the European Union make up 85%The Government of Georgia has the obligation to fulfill the wish of these people and play by the rules.

Riigikogu also considers it necessary for Estonia to support the freezing of the visa-free regime between Georgia and the EU in the Council of the European Union until the law "On transparency of foreign influence" is repealed. But in this way, the population of Georgia will lose the opportunity to travel to the European Union without a visa. How fair do you think its cancellation will be for the citizens of Georgia?

Yes, it might be interpreted in this way that this is like a punishment. A lot of people might not like this. It is understandable. On the other hand, visa freedom is part of Georgia’s privileged relationship with the EU and it also requires the fulfillment of certain criteria. We see that due to the current situation right now, there are a lot of people who are leaving the country. The number of Georgian asylum seekers in Europe has grown. Too many of them end up in Europe illegally. It is a setback of this policy. It is more like an instrument again, to show that whatever, progress you may have made on this path towards European Union, you need to keep it up, nothing is to be taken for granted. The moment of reversibility is there. The European Union is a set of rules, a way of life, not a charity organization. If this way of life and these values are for some reason are not acceptable, the EU also has the right to change this privileged relationship. It has nothing to do with people, although the people will suffer. But then, at the end of the day, the people will have a choice. Elections are coming and it will be up to Georgian people to decide. The suspension of visa freedom will never have to be put into practice but it is a realistic tool. And this can be reversed because this is a technical issue. It only requires qualitative majority vote and Estonia is putting this on the table as an option. We don't know whether it will have support by other member states. But we see that this is one of these realistic options that can be done. And it is not against Georgian people, but this is something that has come up as a result of the policies of the government of Georgia.

The statement received in the Estonian parliament was followed by criticism of the Georgian government. For example, the chairman of the parliament, Shalva Papuashvili, said: The government of Georgia is elected by the Georgian people to pursue the interests of the Georgian people. When the issue is to protect the interests of the Georgian people or others, we choose the interests of the Georgian people. Regardless of the fact how anti-Georgian is the behavior of the politicians, our attitude towards the Estonian people does not change. With what arguments would you respond to this criticism of the Georgian government?

This is not really a criticism. It is their reaction to our parliamentary statement, which I do not have to defend because this is a political statement by our parliament. I can only say that there are very good relations, very warm relations between Georgians and Estonians in general. There are so many Estonians who have many personal friends, long-time friends in Georgia, and the other way around. Georgians are studying in Estonia. So, I cannot see this being harmful to our people-to-people relations. Of course, parliaments are elected by people. What our parliament said should then also represent the interests our people in that sense.

On May 15, the foreign ministers of Lithuania, Estonia, Iceland and Latvia, who were visiting Georgia, joined the students' march and addressed the participants of the rally in front of the parliament. Among them was the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Estonia, Margus Tsahkna. The ministers' speech was criticized by the Georgian authorities. According to them, the foreign minister, the diplomat should not make a speech at the rally. Among them was the capital's mayor Kakha Kaladze, who said: "This is an insult. All developed countries would act in such a way that they would take these foreign ministers by the hand and throw them out of the country." How do you think was it a right move for the Minister of Foreign Affairs to make a speech at the rally, and what are your retort arguments to the criticism of the Georgian government?

Well, of course, there are some very concrete rules in diplomacy and also in state-to-state or government-to-government relations. There are rules that are written, there are rules that are not written. It all seems very black and white. But again, there are moments that are not so black and white, they are rather grey. I have to say that one of the contributing factors to our ministers going to the stage was the press release that came out right after the meeting with the speaker of the parliament. The substance of this press release was exactly on the contrary to what was actually said at the meeting. Also, it was the case in some other press statements after the meetings that were not really corresponding to the truth. It was a way for these ministers to deliver their message directly and say what they needed to say. They didn't say anything that was not said behind closed doors. They expressed their support to the European path of Georgia and Georgian people. As I remember, my minister said that we would stand by your choice as we did in 2008, and we would always do so and stand together with the Georgian people.

It wasn't critical towards the Government. They did not make any political statements. They did not even criticize the current situation because it was the situation of the internal matter. I can understand the argument of interference of internal politics. But as I said before, there are these moments when things are not so black and white.

It has been almost a year since the government of Georgia has been making frequent announcements about the "Global War Party". What do you think is the purpose of bringing up this topic and who do you think they mean by the "Global War Party"?

This Global War Party is like nobody and everybody at the same time. Whenever we have asked the representatives of parliament or government, who do you mean by Global War Party, they usually say that it's not you. But reading the interviews, reading the statements of these same people, you understand very clearly that we might be part of it after all - me as Estonia, me as European Union, me as part of the West. This seems to be a way for the Government and for the Parliament to communicate this abstract enemy to the people just before elections. You need an enemy figure, somebody to fight against, whoever it is. But my problem here is that they have chosen a completely wrong enemy. They have turned their biggest partners and supporters to an enemy. This message is also widespread in Europe and everywhere else. They often say that we, the diplomats are spreading disinformation about what is going on in Georgia. But at the same time, they are also spreading disinformation, this information about us as being the enemy of the state of Georgia, us as somebody undermining the legitimacy of Georgian Government and Parliament. And this is not true. It is simply not true. We have been here in good faith for many years since the independence was restored in Georgia. We have supported the society. We have given our reform experience. We have supported small communities. We have helped to revise all kinds of strategic documents. We have given Georgia all kinds of support it has needed in order to progress, advance, and move closer to European Union and NATO. It is simply not fair to demonize us. It is a message that we have received. It is up to your people now; Georgians have to decide whether they accept this or not or whether the Georgian Government is offering its people some other alternative. This is not up to me to decide. It is up to you to decide.

I want to ask you about the foreign policy course of Georgia. Parallel to the processes when the relationship between the Western countries and the Georgian government worsened, the rapprochement between China and Georgia is clearly visible. For example, visa-free travel between countries has been launched. In addition, Georgia handed over 49% share of the Anaklia deep-water port strategic project to the Chinese state consortium. To what extent do you share the already widespread assessment that Georgia's main foreign partners, Washington and Brussels, are being "replaced" by Beijing? And isn't the reason for this widely spread narrative that Georgia is tired of waiting at the door of the European Union and NATO?

Well, I think the foreign policy is a sovereign choice of every country. If Georgia decides that European path with all what it entails is not enough, then it is up to them to find alternatives, but it also needs to know the consequences and find a balance. You cannot really pursue all directions at the same time. You cannot aspire to become a member of the European Union at the same time by going against the policies and the directions of the European Union. Well, I can understand that world is a very turbulent place at the moment. The security of all of us is at stake. What will be the consequences of Russia’s War in Ukraine war for this region, is very unclear. Already now, we see that in some cases, the war is creating opportunities. On the other hand, we see that it also closes some doors, and some policies might be changed. You can have trade relations with China, you can have trade relations with India, with United Arab Emirates, anybody, whatever suits you but we all know that everything comes with a price

But I think you should also be very much aware of what your goal is because if you don't know where you're going, then it's obvious that you have no idea what way is right. And this seems to be the case here that we hear declaration of contradictory policies or directions at the same time. It is a bit confusing. For me, there is a little bit of a dissonance. I cannot say whether it's this or that, but it's about the communication. I also understand that this confusion has been created just before elections to show that actually we have everything under control. All the tracks are under control, while some of them may not be.

The European Parliament elections ended on June 9. Up to 400 million citizens of the European Union elected a total of 720 members of the European Parliament. How would you evaluate the results of the European Parliament elections for the European Union, where the right-wing and far-right groups received more support from the citizens, as well the German and French governments suffered a considerable defeat. What about the results particularly in Estonia? In your opinion, how will the balance of power and coalitions be created now in the European Parliament?

Despite some changes on national level, I think the overall picture in European Parliament will not change that much. I think the policy directions that have been taken will continue in the same way. Howth Member States themselves evaluate the internal power struggle, this is up to them, of course. Maybe they have to go through an internal assessment of what to do, how to manage this situation. But when it comes to Estonia, then I would say that we did fine.

There was no big surprise. The “Pro-patria” party(“Isamaa”), did well, they got an extra seat and Social Democrats managed to keep two seats. Reform Party, our government party, lost one seat. However, Estonia is in a difficult situation now internally because we have still very fragile economic situation and we been still struggling to come out of it after COVID and after the start of war in Ukraine. We are still trying to find a balance. The current government needs to take all these very difficult decisions, which is also understandable why they are maybe internally not that popular. At the same time, they have been wonderful spokesmen for Estonia's foreign policy and in support of Ukraine in Europe and globally. So, I think the overall picture is fine when it comes to Estonia. It's usually the case that the participation in European elections is somewhat lower than in national elections. But in Estonia, it was a bit higher than in previous time. I cannot see a big disaster in all this. When I hear the statements that now the right-wing parties are coming to the power and everything will become more difficult and national interests will prevail and all, I think there’s enough balance to keep the ship from sinking.

We have seen the populist movement coming forward over a long period of time. It's almost 10-15 years we see this happening. Also, we see that some of the right-wing parties or radical parties are forming governments or at least they've been invited to the coalition government. We also had that case in Estonia. But at the end of the day, the problem with populist parties or radical right-wing parties is that they are not delivering because they are basing their argumentation on negations. They are against everybody and everything, but they don't offer a positive agenda or a constructive alternative. At the end of the day, people will call their bluff, and they are voted out of the parliaments again. This is usually what is happening. I'm not too worried, to be honest.

The representatives of the Georgian government have been waiting for the elections of the European Parliament with great interest and they expected that they would establish better relations with the new members of the structure, than it was until now. From this point of view, do you expect any changes considering the share of the far-right groups have increased in the European Parliament and how valid is the Georgian government's assumption that the new European Parliament will evaluate their activities more positively.

Well, I don’t know who they are aiming to have better contacts with or who they are going to target in this case. Whatever direction they’ll go, this will put them into a certain category in overall political specter. If they identify themselves with more nationalist or populist or far right parties, it’ll be up to them. Whether this is what the Georgian people identify themselves with, is up to the Georgian people.

Russia’s war against Ukraine has been going on for more than 2 years. The US recently introduced new sanctions against Russia's defense sector and companies that help Moscow evade sanctions. After the USA, Great Britain also imposed sanctions on the Moscow stock exchange. Since the beginning of the war, the European Union itself has launched 13 packages of sanctions against Russia. 2 years after the introduction of the first package of sanctions, do you think that they have been effective against Russia and have produced actual results? Some experts think that Russia managed to get rid of international isolation through so-called "black holes".

I would say that sanctions are not like making a surgery that you cut the bad part out and see the result. Sanctions that the European Union, but also the US, have introduced are long term. It takes time for them to actually have an impact. I think that already these sanctions that were adopted in 2014 have had an impact. Gradually, all these packages of sanctions that have been adopted so far will have an impact on Russian economy, but also on the war machine. How to uphold all this war machine? It’s not easy at all. I think Russia has indeed found alternatives internally and they have received help from certain third countries to uphold all this war machine, but all in all, when the country needs to go to pension funds and welfare funds, it's one of the indications that actually they are no longer able to offer security and social protection to the people. At some point, people also will start noticing that their life is not that secure anymore, and it's not that comfortable anymore. It may not show in bigger cities like Moscow or Saint Petersburg but when you go to the peripheries where there's a lot of poverty anyway, I think these regions are hit hardest. Gradually, it will also show in the bigger cities where salaries are not growing anymore. Russians might say that, they don't feel isolated because they have partners elsewhere than the West

and there are a lot of countries who still want to talk to them and want to do business with them. But they are isolated by the West, and this matters, it hurts even if they don’t recognize it. Because for some reason, people in Russia still want to go and study abroad and by abroad, I mean the West. They still want to go and do the shopping in Paris or New York. It’s not the West that is punishing Russians, it’s the Russian Government who is punishing its people. The situation of Russians who have fled Russia is not easy either. It is not only these 14 packages of sanctions against the country, it's a much broader issue. It's about their self-image, their self-confidence and their way of finding alternatives. It is not easy, neither for those inside, nor for those outside.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy often visits partner countries and calls on them to provide Kyiv with more assistance. According to him, the military assistance of the USA and the European Union is not enough, and to achieve success, more powerful weapons are needed. How would you assess the ongoing war in Ukraine? In your opinion, do you see fatigue of war in the EU countries?

It is definitely in Estonia's interest that Ukraine would win this war, which is why we are really doing everything we can to support Ukraine. Estonia is number one supporter of Ukraine per capita. We have also decided that up to 2027 we’ll provide 0.25% of our GDP to Ukraine's military support on annual basis. We have also launched several initiatives about how to support Ukraine. A year ago, we proposed to create a fund to provide 1 million artillery shells to Ukraine. Another one is about the use of Russian frozen assets. Estonian parliament was the first to adopt the law in the EU that would enable us to use Russia’s frozen assets. We are doing the maximum we can. I think, every European country is doing what they can. It sounds like a cliché, but indeed, democracies are slow. Ukraine needs much more. I think everybody understands that there is much more at stake. So, this help will come, even if it will come with a delay. When it comes to fatigue, this is normal. You cannot keep up adrenaline or fear forever because one day it will become a normalcy. You take it as a part of everyday life. There's a war going on, so you don't think of these atrocities anymore. This is why we have also taken us the responsibility to keep Ukraine very high on every agenda and to actually remind people that the war is not over yet. People are suffering every day; people are being killed every day. I think this is a message that is maybe easier for us to understand who are bordering Russia. Also, for Georgia, it should be understandable. You have done your part. You have had your war. It's nothing that we want to come back to Georgia or to our countries, which is why we have to really raise the cost of war as much as possible. War shouldn’t pay off anywhere.

Beka Beriashvili

Interpressnews

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