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Saakashvili speaks of Georgian-Russian relations prospects in NY

By Mzia Kupunia
Friday, September 24
The occupation of Georgian territories is “unsustainable”, Georgian President Mikheili Saakashvili said during his speech at New York University on September 22. “I hope one day to be able to have normal and productive conversations with our neighbour to the North,” Saakashvili noted, adding that the economic, military and political costs [of the occupation of Abkhazia and Tskhinvali region] are “increasingly unpopular” in Moscow. “And I hope that Russia will modernize, change and become a key partner for an independent and European Georgia,” the President stated.

But for that to happen, the Russian leadership has to understand that development requires the respect of basic rules and values, Saakashvili suggested, criticizing the Kremlin for “invading its neighbour.” “[Moscow needs to understand] that you cannot diversify your economy if you send to the Gulag your most successful businessman, like Mikhail Khodorkovsky. That you cannot create a dynamic society if you kill your most talented journalists, like Anna Politkovskaya, and your bravest human rights activists, like Natalya Estemirova,” Saakashvili said “That, last but not least, you cannot be considered as a rational international player if you invade and dismember your neighbor, if your army is leading ethnic cleansing campaigns,” he added.

Some might have thought that there was the choice only between a Yeltsin type of chaos and a Putin style of order in the region, the President said, suggesting that Georgia has become an “alternative model” in the region. “Georgia has shown that another path is possible. And what looked idealistic seven years ago has proved to be more than realistic,” Saakashvili said.

Georgia was basically a “failed” state seven years ago with an “entrenched bureaucracy” and “crippling unemployment”,” inadequate infrastructure” and “corruption-shackled economy”, the President said at New York University. The new administration had no guide book on how to turn a “failed” post Soviet state into a modern European democracy, Saakashvili said. “But we took the risk of a values-based politics,” he noted.

Georgians have stopped thinking of their country as a post Soviet country, according to the President. “Before, we felt imprisoned by our past. Now, we feel liberated by the promise of the future. And with this radical transformation of minds and souls, we have laid the foundations for social justice and economic success,” he stated.

When speaking about the reforms carried out in Georgia, Saakashvili highlighted the changes in the law enforcement system and the energy sector. The first comprehensive reform was the total change of our law enforcement bodies, he said. “We started by firing our entire traffic police force. People thought we were impulsive, naive, crazy even,” he told the students at New York University “But the police had long been a centerpiece and symbol of the state’s corruption and intimidation. A complete overhaul was our only realistic choice if we wanted to implement different policies,” he noted, adding that during the three months of no traffic police, crime rates in the country went down by 70 percent.

The second crucial and symbolic reform was the transformation of the energy sector, according to the Georgian President. “Georgia was a country that had so many blackouts that we were counting the hours when we had electricity and not the opposite,” he said “Within a few years, we became a net energy producer and exporter,” Saakashvili added. The President noted that Georgian government has built a “highly favorable” investment climate based on three factors: minimal economic regulation, low taxes and strong anti-corruption enforcement. “Georgia is a small nation that is remote from commercial centers and financial capitals, in a shaky geopolitical environment-to put it mildly. Our only chance to attract investors was to become a kind of regional heaven for them,” he said. Saakashvili suggested there is “still a lot to be done.” “We are more committed than ever to pursue our path of reform and democratization. And all this despite the permanent provocations coming from the North,” the President said.