Exclusive interview with Markéta Gregorová
10 February, 2020
Exclusive interview with Markéta Gregorová
The Minister of Reconciliation and Civic Equality of Georgia, Ketevan Tsikhelashvili and the Deputy Speaker of the Parliament, Kakhaber Kuchava presented reports in the European Parliament,
after which, during the Q&A session, Georgian officials heard some sharp and critical questions from some members of the European Parliament. Some of those questions were asked by the Member of the European Parliament, Markéta Gregorová, who, about the blockade of Georgian parliament, said that it is the "infamous “Tbilisi wall" and also asked:" When
you talk about Georgia being as close to Europe and the EU as ever, do you think that the political prisoners in the country agree with you?”

MEP Markéta Gregorová spoke exclusively to Georgian Journal about that particular hearing in the European Parliament, as well as about the developments in Georgia and the Russian factor.

- On the 21st of January, you listened to Georgian Minister for Reconciliation and Civic Equality, Ketevan Tsikhelashvili and Deputy Speaker of the Georgian Parliament, Kakhaber Kuchava, at the European Parliament's Foreign Committee session. You had very straightforward questions for them. Do you think you got answers to your questions?

- No, but I have to say, there hasn’t been that much time. As it was a committee meeting, we had very specific dedicated time slots, so sometimes we don’t manage to cover everything inside, so after their reports there hadn’t been that much time to answer everything, they were just brushing the surface, so no, I didn’t get the answers.

- But what did you think about their speeches about Georgian events, in general?

- Well, originally, as I understood the description of that specific hearing in our committee, I understood that would be about borderization and pretty much Russian interference and situation on the borders. The first speaker, Ketevan Tsikhelashvili, spoke about it. However, then Mr. Kuchava started another report and read it, about how Georgian Dream is doing great and all the electoral reforms and everything, and I quite disagreed, based on what I know and also, I was surprised it was even mentioned. So that is why I actually reacted, otherwise, I didn’t plan on speaking, honestly, so it’s even funny what follow up it had.

- “The parliament blocked itself with its infamous "Tbilisi Wall", - this is your quote. What did you mean, more concretely - was it a symbolic comparison or did you mean that the wall is against citizens protesting the fact that the parliament didn’t accept a proportional electoral system?

- Well, I was speaking quite literally about the wall that has been positioned in front of the side entrance of the parliament after some protests. Of course, I absolutely understand that violence and any kind of activity like that are absolutely unacceptable. However, also the members of the parliament, who were elected, pretty much employees of their citizens, counteracted untouchable and putting literal walls there is unacceptable. For any kind of safety measures the police should be enough, and of course, ensuring that there is no violence. But peaceful demonstrations should be allowed.

- Do a lot of members of the European Parliament have the same question marks about Georgia’s present and future? Because Georgian Dream members state that not everybody thinks so…

- Of course, in the European Parliament, there are people with various backgrounds, as in all the parliaments in the world. However, I think the members of the European Parliament care about the situation there and there is a common will to somehow help with negotiations, or with settling the situation now in the most democratic way possible, and of course, proceeding with the democratic reforms that will be very beneficial.

- The US congressmen send letters to our PR, Giorgi Gakharia, when, Georgian officials are compelled to listen to almost the same critics from the EU. The critics also include what you mentioned in the session of the European Parliament – political prisoners. What do you think was the decisive factor, because of which the West started to show its concern so strongly?

- Of course, there are always several reasons, I wouldn’t claim that there is only one. But of course, the combination of the summer protests, the foreign interference, the follow up in the reforms, and they are not really delivering them – it has been a huge thing because it showed to the West two important things: that there are a will and interest of people to go towards the West, they are interested in European politics and they want reforms; but it also showed that the government is not so much willing and pro-active, and implementing this.

- Members of the Georgian government make statements that the critics are there because the Western diplomats and politicians don’t have enough or/and accurate information about what is really going on in Georgia. For example, from which sources do you get information about Georgian events?

- Nobody can ever accuse me of not having various sources of information, because I am not following just the pro-governmental line, just the NGO line or whatever. I’m trying to follow all of them. That’s also when I’m going to Tbilisi or when I was at the Euronest delegation meeting, I am always trying to talk to as many people as possible from various fields. For example, after the hearing I met Mr. Kuchava and we discussed it from his point of view and he promised to send me some materials, it didn’t happen yet, but he will and there are also other Georgian Dream members, or former members, that I talk to. Then I, of course, talk to and have to talk to the members of the opposition, to hear their side of the story, and then, you can’t talk to just politicians, because they have their own motivations and challenges, I think it’s also important to follow the watchdog organizations, the NGO’s and the activists. So I’m pretty much meeting all of them at one point or another in time. I did in Tbilisi, or I’m visiting them here, and I also invited a bunch of watchdog organization members and NGOs here in Brussels a few months ago and we discussed it at the roundtable. It really puts together the picture. So of course, I can’t ever claim that I know everything, but honestly, all of these aspects put together a quite clear picture on which I can then base my opinion.

- We have upcoming parliamentary elections in October. If the pre-election process doesn’t go in accordance with the international standards and you, our western colleagues, will have questions, is there a probability of pressure on the Georgian government? Such as visa-free regime suspension?

- I think it has been in the letters of the US congressmen and the senators, that they are considering that if the reforms aren’t really fulfilled, there will be some retaliation because they won’t consider the elections really legitimate. However, I don’t think that the EU has this kind of stance right now. We, of course, support the reforms, however, we also don’t want to make it more difficult for the ordinary citizens. For example, the visa regime would be touching the ordinary Georgian citizens, not the politicians, not those responsible. So, of course, we don’t want to make the situation even more “violent” or drastic, so there might be some measures and some replies to it, and of course, the elections should and would be observed, however, I don’t expect such a strong answer.

- Some of the congressmen, in their letters to our PM, expressed their concern that some of the events taking place in Georgia help to strengthen Putin’s position in the region. Do you agree with that assessment and, from the EU point of view, do you observe the same signs in Georgia?

- Absolutely, because unstable Georgia or unstable Eastern Partnership always helps Russian cost, let’s say. So, naturally, it doesn’t really help in which position the government is now and how they are acting and how it all started, right? Also, all these discussions about “what is really going on, who’s actually right”, (as you asked me about what’s my information sources), helps also to any kind of disinformation campaigns and foreign interference. I would be really glad if the Georgian representatives really ensured that there is no foreign interference in their elections. One thing is to really deal with the situation at home, and who wants what, and what do pro-governmental or opposition sides do, and completely another thing is foreign interference, and Georgia has to brace itself from it.

- In the summer of last year, you visited Georgian so-called border in Gugutiantkari. What kind of impression did it have on you and how do you think, what should be done in order to stop aggression from Russian Federation, which includes so-called borderization and capturing people, such as the doctor Vazha Gaprindashvili, who was released from so-called South Ossetia after approximately 2 months?

- First, to say, I’m very glad that he’s out and I hope it will stay like that because I’m not sure about the connotations of that. Well, my take of what I’ve seen, - I actually had “luck”, if I can call it like that, that I’ve seen with my own eyes the soldiers physically moving to border. As far as I know, they are usually doing it overnight, and this time it was in daylight. So, you know, that was actually very strong, because at one point you also have all the disinformation campaigns and think: “Oh, it’s not even happening, it’s not a problem!” And then you see with your own eyes that it’s actually happening. So, that has been really important for me, also to report back to the European Parliament, where of course, a lot of people have been under the impression that there is no such a dire issue. Well, what should happen? I think that right now the only and best answer is to actually join NATO because honestly, that’s also partially why Russia did that, because when Georgia was on the threshold of maybe joining NATO, what did they do? They started to occupy the borders. So, I would say that this would very much help the situation because I feel like that Russia is kind of trying what they can do, and if we don’t show them literally any borders, they won’t respect them or have them.

- But what is your opinion about the fact that the NATO representatives are “praising” us, actually, but then they say that we will join and get membership whenever the time is right and when we are ready, but that’s not very clear, so what do you think is behind that?

- I understand why the situation is like it is –Russia decided to do so because it knows that NATO can’t really now proceed, or it can, but it will be very hesitant to proceed with the membership of Georgia in NATO, because it doesn’t want to further the conflict and doesn’t want to escalate it, you know. However, I really think that this can really help and if NATO shows its support, it will rather de-escalate the situation and that NATO shouldn’t be so afraid. But of course, it’s not something that I can really talk too much into, it is on the diplomatic relations and diplomatic speakers of NATO and Georgia, but this is my approach, and I really think they should push it forward.

- When the European Parliament called for Georgia to increase tourist flow, you said: “the recent political decision of the Russian government to significantly limit Russian’s ability to visit Georgia is an attempt to intimidate our close ally”. But we know there are other tools by which Russia tries to intimidate us, your close ally. Which ones do you consider as the most effective in reaching its goal - intimidating Georgia?

- I think, there are two parts, mainly. One is, let’s say, the manifestation of power through the so-called borderization, like: “ok, we now marked some trees and some region 200 more meters into your territory”, and you know, or Georgia knows, that it can’t really do much because going into full war with Russia is impossible right now, and it knows also that of course, it is losing because of this process, some parts of the territory and the situation has to be so frustrating for Georgia and Georgian citizens.

So that is one way the Russian part is proceeding, another way is what I already mentioned – the disinformation campaigns. Russia mastered its disinformation campaigns over the past few decades so well that we sometimes can’t even really tell what is going on, what is being influenced, who is spreading what information, whether they are actually cooperating with the Russian counterpart or they are outsiders doing whatever they think. But, we are influenced by them, you know. I have several reports on disinformation in Georgia and there are huge networks and structures supporting, sharing online content that spreads fake news, among each other. I think it’s worse than in the European Union, you know we are dealing with that as one of the biggest challenges. So I think this is a huge challenge for Georgia and it should focus on tackling that with, maybe, some legislation.

- In Gugutiantkari, you emphasized that the European Union is supposed to make a strong statement about the situation. Do you think something impedes the EU to do that, considering that Russia has the leverage to, kind of, blackmail the EU, such as, with energy?

- Well, yes, exactly, because as I mentioned previously, there is a visible pattern that Russia is often trying in Georgia how far it can go, you know, and that means that it’s not just about Georgia or just about EU and their position towards Russia or towards each other, but it’s both because if Russia tries something and no one retaliates, it’s not just Georgia who loses, but EU loses too. So I think we should be very much cooperating in this regard.

- So basically what I see, if I am not mistaken, is that you consider that the EU and NATO are kind of too “soft” with Russia, because for some reason?

- Those are some strong words. Of course, I understand that there is diplomacy, and global order we are currently living in. I know that we can’t have some strong statements, because of course, we live in the fragile world order and we see it every day, so I understand what NATO and the EU are doing and why they are doing it the way they are. However, I think that to some extent they should push more and especially, they should stand their ground more. NATO is the biggest military power, EU is the biggest economic block in the world – those things mean something, you know and we can operate with that and not be afraid of, let’s say, lose this position.

- According to the congressmen’s letters, the Anaklia Deep Sea Port Project developments, such as the fact that the government terminated the contract with the Anaklia Development Consortium, means that American investments are under threat. In your opinion, judging by the current situation, are Western investments under danger in Georgia?

- As a first thing, I have to say that the US is the federation, de-facto one state, even though there are various states, whereas the EU is a system of 26 (now, unfortunately) states, that cooperate with each other, that transfer a lot of their responsibilities and things onto the transnational level, however, we differ from the US and usually, we can’t make such strong statements, there has to proceed a thorough discussion and some very important reasons. But talking about important reasons, of course, if the situation was to deteriorate severely to the level where human rights are being oppressed dearly (we have to put business under the human rights or human rights above the business, so to say, which I would prefer most of the time or all the time, but of course, it’s in my knowledge), even EU usually has a very strong and immediate answer. I don’t think it is now on the table, I wouldn’t be afraid about Western investments there, but we need to see what comes in the future and how will the government act towards its citizens in Georgia.

Eka Abashidze

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