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Interview with UK Ambassador McKenzie Smith

Thursday, August 13
Mr. Justin McKenzie Smith, now the former UK Ambassador to Georgia has left Georgia as his term came to close. The Messenger reached out to the Ambassador just before he left.

-Hello, firstly, I would like to express The Messenger’s gratitude for this interview. I’ve had the opportunity to look at your impressive background, but I also wanted to give you a chance to tell us about your experience over the many years that you’ve been a diplomat.

Thank you for the invitation! I have enjoyed reading The Messenger throughout my four years in Georgia. The newspaper is a part of Georgian history and today remains a reliable source of English-language information about many different aspects of the country. It was also a real pleasure to get to know the former Editor-in-Chief, the late Zaza Gachechiladze, and to welcome him many times to the British Embassy.

My diplomatic career has taken me to Russia, the United Nations, Mexico and now Georgia. In every place, it is the people I have met and worked with who have made the most lasting impression on me. This is certainly true in Georgia. The talent, creativity and energy of the many young people I have met leave me optimistic that Georgia’s future is in very good hands.

-Thank you for your kind words! Our next question is how would you assess the development of the UK-Georgia relations? What are your expectations for Wardrop Strategic Dialogue 2020, the final round of which is to be held in September?

It has been exciting to see how fast UK-Georgia links are growing, in education, business, sport, culture, tourism and many other directions. The pandemic has inevitably slowed the pace of growth. However, it has also shown how deep the roots of this friendship are. This makes me certain that contacts will soon start to grow again, as vigorously as ever.

Online contacts continue between the governments and we are preparing for the next Wardrop Strategic Dialogue in September. One agenda item will be our shared experiences of Covid-19. Georgia’s pandemic response has been genuinely admired in the UK and I am pleased we have been able to support these efforts in a number of ways. Trade links are another priority. During the pandemic, we have received a steady stream of enquiries from British companies interested in doing business in Georgia.

-How do you picture the cooperation of two countries in the post-epidemic era and what should be priority fields in the future, given the COVID-19 crisis and the global situation?

The pandemic reminds us that international cooperation is vital in addressing the challenges we face. The UK and Georgia are working together on this. For example, I was delighted Prime Minister Gakharia took part in the UK-hosted Global Vaccines Summit in June. Climate change is another urgent challenge and I am pleased the UK and Georgia are discussing preparations for the COP26 climate summit taking place in Glasgow, Scotland in November 2021.

Of course, there are many other priorities for our future cooperation. It will be for my friend, Ambassador Sophie Katsarava in London, and my successor as British Ambassador, Mark Clayton, to say more about those.

-Looking back at your career years spent in Georgia (since August 2016), what would you remember as the biggest achievement in terms of the relations of the two countries?

I am lucky to have been involved in many wonderful initiatives between our two countries. I will never forget launching Learning Hubs with the British Council, giving young people in places such as Tkviavi, Tsalka and Lentekhi the chance to develop their English skills. I am proud of the cooperation and trust between our Armed Forces. Bringing David The Builder’s coin to the Georgian National Museum as part of our “UK Season in Georgia” in 2019 was unforgettable. However, in terms of lasting impact, I hope the new UK-Georgia Strategic Partnership and Cooperation Agreement will provide a framework to make relations even stronger in years to come.

-Upcoming parliamentary elections in Georgia that are to be held in fall of this year are under massive spotlight and observation. What are your expectations for the process, given the March 8th Agreement?

The constitutional changes agreed in June are a historic achievement. I congratulate the Georgian people on their determination to pursue a fair and representative democratic system. I hope elections this autumn will be calm, transparent and in line with the international standards we all aspire to.

I particularly hope Georgia will see more women candidates taking part in the elections and entering Parliament. In 2020, Georgia’s political leaders can give voters the opportunity to choose a Parliament that is more representative of all voices in society.

-You have said that attempts of foreign interference are a real challenge in Georgia as well as in the United Kingdom and the United States and other European countries. What is your advice and vision against it in upcoming elections?

Attempts at interference are a reality of modern democracy. Sharing experience among democratic partners is a crucial part of our defence. British and Georgian experts are working closely to build cyber resilience.

After observing three elections in Georgia, I would also say we should not underestimate the strength of our “natural defences”. No doubt attempts were made to interfere in those elections as well. However, the results were assessed to be a fair reflection of voters’ preferences. I know how much Georgia’s people have given for the right to exercise their democratic choice – and how hard they will resist any attempt to take it away from them again.

-Lastly, it will be interesting for our readers to know what was your favourite thing about living and working in Georgia?

I have been lucky to travel to many parts of this beautiful country, although there are still many places I hope to visit or return to one day. I have loved the chance to learn about Georgia’s culture, language, history and people’s hopes for the future. In truth, anywhere I am sitting at a table with friends, fresh bread, Georgian food and qvevri wine, I am happy.

(By Natalia Kochiashvili)