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Last Updated: Wednesday, 25 February, 2004, 16:02 GMT
Ask Georgia's president
Georgia's new president, Mikhael Saakashvili, answered your questions.

  • Transcript

    The newly elected Georgian president Mikhail Saakashvili has vowed to turn his poverty-stricken country into a prosperous western-leaning state.

    Mr Saakashvili was the opposition leader who led the protests that swept Eduard Shevardnadze from office last November.

    An American educated lawyer, he has built a reputation as a crusader against corruption and poverty.

    Opinion polls suggest he has become the country's most popular politician.

    He achieved a landslide victory in the presidential elections at the beginning of January.

    But critics describe him as a demagogue and a skilful populist.

    Since it gained its independence after the break up of the Soviet Union 12 years ago, Georgia has been beset by many problems.

    Near secession of two provinces, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, has left some 300, 000 without their homes.

    A large proportion of the population live below the poverty line.

    Do you think he can turn Georgia into a success story - revive the economy, halt corruption and resolve the conflicts with Abkhazia and South Ossetia? How should he balance relations with the USA and Russia? Does he have sufficient experience?

    President Saakashvili was our guest on Friday 16 January.


    Bridget Kendall:

    Welcome to Talking Point, I'm Bridget Kendall broadcasting on BBC World Service on radio, BBC World on television and BBC News Online on the internet.

    Today our special guest is the new president of Georgia - Mikhail Saakashvili. He led the opposition protests that swept Eduard Shevardnadze from office last November and has just won a landslide victory in new elections. Trained as a lawyer in America, he's only 36 years old. In fact, once he's been inaugurated, he'll be the youngest head of state in the region and in Europe. But he now has to meet his people's high expectations and tackling Georgia's many problems isn't going to be easy.

    President Saakashvili welcome to Talking Point. Thank you for joining us from Tbilisi. This has all happened very suddenly, you're very young, did you ever imagine that you would become Georgia's president?

    President Mikhail Saakashvili:

    Well once you get into politics of course you always aspire to take higher positions. Basically, I did not expect it would be that soon. I didn't expect that the victory would be that convincing because the turnout was around 75 - 80% - an unimaginable number voted for me - around 96% - that was very much thanks to the fact that many other serious opposition candidates didn't want to take risks.

    But still of course it's a big challenge. Now I've reached this position suddenly I have no sentiment or happiness or something. Suddenly I'm overwhelmed by the extent of the problems which we are facing and so basically it's no longer such a holiday, I mean it's no longer a celebration. And now we should really start working and we've already started working, that's the most difficult part.

    Bridget Kendall:

    Well we've got lots of people who want to ask you questions and so our first one, let's go to Jakarta in Indonesia, Jo Choi. Jo you're on the line what would you like to ask President Saakashvili?

    Jo Choi:

    Hello President Saakashvili.

    President Mikhail Saakashvili:

    Your pronunciation is very good.

    Jo Choi:

    I've been to Georgia three times now. Thank you. I'd like to know - most countries in transition face a period of euphoria, where the population has extremely high expectations of what the new government can achieve and I believe this period of euphoria is relatively short-lived and dangerous for any new administration. My question is what concrete plans do you have such that there will be visible and tangible results which will be able to manage these expectations before they turn into bitter disappointment against you.

    President Mikhail Saakashvili:

    Thank you very much for the question. People voted for me with the main mandate to clean up the country. I warned them against extravagant expectations, we should not expect that overnight Georgia will be exuberantly rich or relatively rich, we are unfortunately a devastated country with huge poverty. But what I promised them was that we will really start to clean up the country and we really did start that, even before I stepped into the office. We already had some of our ministers in place, some top government officials have been apprehended for corruption. We set up some very transparent procedures for existing acting state officials.

    I think what people really should feel is the pace of change. This country has been stagnating for many years, so we really should deal with the people feeling that the things are moving. And that's my primary task. Of course the honeymoon will be very short. I know that 96% approval rating and support will not last long, that's obvious. But on the other hand, of course, if we keep the pace of change after so many years of stagnation, so many years of basically a post-Communist regime, we are going to keep the support of our people. And that's what matters.

    Bridget Kendall:

    Mr Saakashvoli, of course it's not just round the world everyone's wondering what you're going to do, in Georgia they are just as much and our next caller is in Tbelisi, Georgia, it's Elena. Elena what would you like to ask President Saakashvili?


    Hello, Mr President and I have two questions for you. Firstly, about the agreement between us and Georgia and now you are talking about evolution and I think that we must work in a different direction.

    Bridget Kendall:

    I think we've just lost that call there but inevitably Mr Saakashvili, the question is relations with Russia. It always seems to be top of the agenda.

    President Mikhail Saakashvili:

    It's the first time I have to respond to my compatriots in English, although that's a good sign. I think English is essential too for every Georgian, not only just the President but every person in Georgia. We need to fit into the world market, we need to compete, we need to survive and the English and any other foreign language are essential skills.

    I have to say that even in Soviet times when we didn't have a single chance - any chance even to see in our lifetime a live English speaker or French speaker or any other foreigner because it was stopped and banned by the KGB. People here did study the language. When I was a child my mother took me to teachers and I studied French, I studied English, I studied Spanish and there are lots of Georgians like me. There was this kind of hidden or very inherent desire to be open to the outside world even under the Soviets.

    Bridget Kendall:

    Mr Saakashvili I'm just going to stop you - I'm just going to stop there because I think Elena is back on the line, I think she just wanted to finish asking her question. Elena go ahead.


    I'll finish quickly. I have a question. I wanted ideas about improving the investment climate in Georgia. What does he think about it?

    Bridget Kendall:

    Well there are two questions there: the relations with the regime in Russia and the investment climate.

    President Mikhail Saakashvili:

    In terms of relations with Russia we have to just be very frank. Russia has played quite a negative role in Georgia. It had really took part in stirring up conflict here, took part - a very direct part - in the civil war. But I think, at this moment, the Russian leadership, the new Russian leadership, became more pragmatic, they understand that stability in Georgia is important for stability in Russia, namely because of the war in Chechnya.

    And we have other common points as well where we could find understanding. And for me normalising those relations are an essential part for our survival. We should understand, we are a small country in a very complicated geo-political context. A very important country from the superpowers, which means that we certainly should avoid at any cost being turned into a battlefield of different interests of the superpowers. We need to survive in this environment. So we need to be on good terms with everybody, especially with Russia, with which we have a very complicated history.

    Now regarding the investment climate. Georgia has lots of opportunities, potentially - and I'm just referring to the editorial in the Economist from last week, it's a very rich country. We need just to capitalise on our potential strengths. It's a very beautiful country. We have highly resourceful, qualified, educated people. It's a country with huge tourist potential with beautiful mountains, sea- side, very good wine and very good dining possibilities.

    Really I mean I haven't seen any foreigner who has come to Georgia who wouldn't fall in love with our country, that's how it is. But of course that's one thing and the other thing was the climate that was here - corruption, extortion, huge red tape, run by Shevardnadze's cronies - it was basically a very corrupt government.

    So we by cracking down on corruption - we are very tough on that - we are first of all creating this climate of the rule of law. And we make it very clear that any foreign investor, even the smallest ones, that would like to come to Georgia, invest here, will be protected by our judicial system, by our government and by the president himself. We are a small country and I'll do my best to protect every investment because it's a matter of survival for our people as well. And something that happened in Eastern Europe, in Romania or Hungary, Poland, when the wages were low. Now we have this relative advantage because no wages are low here, people are qualified here, people are friendly here, it's a nice environment to be. So I think it's a very good place to invest right now. I'm going to Davos next week to the World Economic Forum and I'm going to invite people to consider seriously the options we can offer to them.

    Bridget Kendall:

    Thank you very much for that President and just a reminder that this is Talking Point and today our special guest is the newly elected president of Georgia Mikhail Saakashvili. He's just been talking about the importance of relations with Russia and so now for our next question we went out on to the streets of Moscow.


    Hello, I'm Alexei, I'm from Moscow and I have a question for you. Mikhail Saakashvili will you allow the Nato forces to be based on the territory of Georgia? Thank you.

    Bridget Kendall:

    President, a question from Russia - will you allow NATO bases on the territory of Georgia?

    President Mikhail Saakashvili:

    Well I have to respond to Alexei and this is something that the question that's not only people on the street in Moscow are asking themselves but which the Russian leadership is all time underlining. Well again we are a small country in a very complicated geo-political environment. We need to survive. Russia has created for us lots of troubles. Its generals were involved in wars here, lots of people were killed, we had lots of people that are internally displaced because of conflicts of the early '90s and now we need to look for our security guarantees.

    The US and Nato were very prompt to provide that security guarantee - they are training our army, they've helped us with its equipment. Now if Russia is willing to consider the same things, if Russia is going to give us additional guarantees of security and we understand that they also have the guarantees of security. Of course we're going to cooperate with Russia as well, we are willing to cooperate with just anybody who would help us to create a normal stable country.

    So it's not a matter of asking whether we're lean towards the West or Nato but it's a matter of offering some more secure, stable, friendly environment to us and we're making concrete steps on the part of Russia. And I very much count on common sense of the new Russian leadership, I've been invited by President Putin to Moscow. We've been talking to the Russian officials during this week and we hope to change this climate of relations.

    Bridget Kendall:

    Because Mr Saakashvili this is a subject which everybody's asking around the world.

    President Mikhail Saakashvili:

    We are a sovereign country. We are taking our own decisions based on our national interest.

    Bridget Kendall:

    I just want to read you this e-mail from Denmark. It's from Srinivasan Toft, Humlebæk, Denmark: How can you lead your country without giving too many concessions to the Americans and raising the suspicions of the Russians?

    So take this issue of Nato and training troops. Are you saying they'll be conditions under which, for example, the two Russian military bases that are still in Georgia could stay?

    President Mikhail Saakashvili:

    Well first of all we need to see this situation when Georgians can themselves protect their territory. We are very keen to see that situation. We are ready to provide - again we're a transit country - the best possibilities for deployment, for movement, for transit to any friendly state. But we need to keep order in our own territory - that's our obligation, that's an obligation of every independent responsible state.

    Now with regards to the US and Russia - we should understand, I don't care about foreign interests, we have our own country. I care today about foreign interests only to the extent when they interact with our own national interests, otherwise I don't care about anything.

    I'm a big friend of the US, I think the US has contributed tremendously to our security. They have invested heavily in many sectors in Georgia, namely in nation building. But we want to be on also good terms with the Russians. But we don't want to turn Georgia into a battlefield between the superpowers. And in fact in terms of orientation we are essentially Europeans. Our values are profoundly European, we want to integrate into Europe, we want to be part of a wider Europe initiative.

    I think the revolution made everybody to understand that Georgians, by their nature, by their culture, by their political behaviour, are Europeans and we want to be part of Europe and nobody can stop us from that. And it's not a matter of confrontation or cold war, it's a matter of our development and development of every Georgian family.

    Bridget Kendall:

    Let's talk a little bit about the regions of Georgia which have proved so troublesome in the last 10 years - Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Ajaria - all of which have had close relations with Moscow, some have even said they might be interested in joining Russia. And we have on the line Aslan Meskhidze, who's in Kobuleti in Georgia and I think Aslan you want to ask about this.

    Aslan Meskhidze:

    Yes hello Mr President. First of all I'd like to congratulate President Mikhail Saakashvili having been elected as the President of Georgia. My question is about Ajaria. How is Mr Saakashvili going to cope with Ajaria region i.e. what does he thinks about further relations of Ajaria, Ajarian population and the regional leadership with the central government in view of the low participation in the polls?

    President Mikhail Saakashvili:

    Well first of all I have to say that Ajaria is a very integral part of Georgia, we have tremendous support there. I would argue about the polls participation. Every foreign observer said that more than 60% of the local population voted in the elections and more than 90% of them voted for me. So I have overwhelming support also in that region of Georgia.

    I think the whole issue was inflamed by some Russian propaganda sources and by the Russian local military based there which kind of played some kind of tacit negative role there. I was also very grateful to President Putin who kind of calmed down expectations of some local people, some local officials, that would long to get more autonomy because of their relation with Moscow and with Russia.

    We - in terms of relations with the Arajia it's as if were any other part of the Georgian territory. If there were some delusions about that, they disappeared today. In fact just one hour ago Georgia's special forces conducted an operation in the capital of Ajaria, Batumi, this is a seaport and arrested the head of the Georgian railways - a person wanted for corruption. He fled to Ajaria, he thought that he would be covered up by the local authorities there but we just went in like into any other regular region of Georgia. We flew in with helicopters, seized him and with every rule of the law, transferred him to the central prison in the capital.

    So we are fully in control of our territory. Of course we are not going to tolerate any dissent in that respect. And one of the new features of this new government is that, unlike President Shevardnadze, we are in charge of Georgia, of 90% of Georgia - one part that remains still out of control is Abkhazia, which has been removed from Georgia by the Russian interference in '92 - '93. And we're also going to find some solutions there. But about the rest of Georgia - I am fully responsible for things there and I'm in charge there.

    Bridget Kendall:

    You mentioned Abkhazia - let's go to our next caller who is in Dakar in Senegal. This is Raphson Amentor. Raphson, I think you wanted to ask about Abkhazia.

    Raphson Amentor:

    I would just like to ask Mr President how successful will it be for him as a newly elected head of state to combine the bad state of economy of Georgia's economy that has sunk for more than a decade with the problems in the province of Abkhazia and Ossetia? And I'd also like to ask him whether he would be able to restructure the economy and at the same time relocate those homeless 3,000 displaced people, so as to draw up a better facilities for them in the future?

    Bridget Kendall:

    Before you answer Mr President let's just explain for those of our listeners who don't know Georgia well that Abkhazia is a province of Georgia that was the focus of a civil war in the 1990s and as you yourself said it isn't - this is a part of Georgia which isn't under your control, in fact it's fair enough I think to call it a breakaway province. What are you going to do there, what is your strategy for dealing with Abkhazia?

    President Mikhail Saakashvili:

    Well it's primarily the issue of our relations with Russia. The Russian generals are in command there, they have military contingent there which played a very negative role in the years of the war. They basically stirred up the war there and the Abkhazia separatists have a huge lobby in Moscow because it was like the Riviera for the former Soviet Union. It was the favourite resort place for Russian nomenklatura, including Russian generals.

    So it was very painful for them not only to lose Georgia, because Georgia became independent of course in '91, but also to lose Abkhazia together with Georgia. But of course it's a Georgian territory, most of the population there is ethnically Georgian or was ethnically Georgian. Those people were thrown out by Russian troops and local separatists and we need to change the situation. Of course primarily the way to change that is peaceful talks, offering them better alternatives in terms of Georgian economic development, Georgia's integration into Europe. Basically that is a lawless place. It has seaports. It is one of the main focal points for drug exports from Afghanistan via Central Asia and Georgian territory to the European seaports. Because it is a lawless zone, they have drug processing plants there - it's not just my allegation but this is the situation as described by many experts on that subject.

    It's also a place for smuggling of trade of arms and other illicit materials. So it's a big problem, it's really a black hole there. It's on the sea, it's a very strategic location. Of course Russia doesn't want to give up the control over it so we have to talk to them and make them realise that we're an independent state, they can no longer treat us as an inferior former colony.

    But on the other hand we want to be on good terms with them. After the war in Chechnya, when the war in Abkhazia started, most of the Chechen field commanders took part in Abkhazia prior to the war in Chechnya, encouraged, trained and armed by the Russians. When the war in Abkhazia ended of course they withdrew from there, they went back to Russia and took part in Chechen campaign against the Russian forces. So I think that's a very important lesson Russia's had to learn, that by instigating these kinds of trouble in neighbouring Georgia they are the first ones to lose. So I think we need to now find common ground and there is much more wisdom on both sides.

    Bridget Kendall:

    But it's a question of trust isn't it and we've had this e-mail from Augustin Sague in Ottawa in Canada, who says: Let's face it, a large number of Georgians survived because of remittances from Russia. Georgia gets Russian gas, at subsidised prices. There are Russian soldiers keeping the peace in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. So why then, is Georgia so anti-Russian?

    President Mikhail Saakashvili:

    Well first of all Georgia is not anti-Russian but Georgia is pro-independent and pro-Georgian.

    Bridget Kendall:

    But there is a problem of trust between Russia and Georgia isn't there?

    President Mikhail Saakashvili:

    Part of the issue is that we never attacked Russia, of course we just declared our independence. Russia took over Georgia in the 19th Century but the Georgian people have always longed for independence. We have a 2,000 year-old history of independent statehood. Of course we wanted to be independent. We were independent in the post-revolutionary years, between 1918 up till 1921 when it was again reoccupied by Bolshevik Russia. So basically the Georgian people have never lost their hope to become independent again, that's their right.

    Now of course many imperialists in Russia, in Moscow, don't like that. But we never attacked them, they took part in wars in South Ossetia and Abkhazia and we need to have good relations with them but it's relations of state - between two independent states. We are no longer slaves to everybody, that's normal right? So we want to have good friendly transparent relations for everybody, that there should be no backroom deals, there should be equal relations. Of course we understand that Russia is a superpower, it has its regional interests, it has its security interests. Georgia is an important - not only strategic point but also economic and transit point for Russia and we're ready to accommodate Russian interests. But we need to keep our independence and safeguard our borders and build wellbeing for our own people here. And we have here not only Georgians but we have Armenians, Azeries, Russians, Ukrainians. We are a multi-ethnic society, where peace and balance between those groups have been maintained for all these years.

    Bridget Kendall:

    Can I just interrupt there because actually Mr Saakashvili we have on the line an Armenian - an American of Armenian origin and he has a question he wants to ask you, his name is Richard Antaramian.

    President Mikhail Saakashvili:

    I just want to say, we are not getting Russian gas on subsidised prices as well, it's not true. We're getting it at higher price than France and they're all the time by the way disconnecting that and really exerting that leverage over Georgia, which is not good.

    Bridget Kendall:

    Let's just hear from Richard Antaramian in America. What would you like to ask President Saakashvili.

    Richard Antaramian:

    Good day Mr President and continuing success on your rise to power. First - I have a two pronged question regarding the ethnic minorities in your country. First is a question regarding the political parties and the restrictions placed on them in regards to forming the basis of region and ethnicity. I was wondering if you would think that would be good to lift those restrictions because those different political parties would be more able to acutely address regional and ethnic issues?

    In my second question - the second part of the question was regarding ethnic representation in the parliament. I was wondering as right now there is no guaranteed ethnic representation and I was wondering if you think it would be advantageous to guarantee the representation such as like the Lebanese system, so that the different ethnic groups will have a guaranteed political voice? For example, like I said, I do live in the United States and I see the African/American and Hispanic/American - they're very under-represented in the US Congress and I was wondering if you thought by correctly incorporating the ethnic groups into the government that they may give them a closer identity with Georgian citizenship? Thank you.

    President Mikhail Saakashvili:

    Thank you very much for that question. That's one of my main goals and of course as well as every day concerns. I don't feel that the ethnic, purely ethnic parties could really play a big role in advancing rights of ethnic groups, precisely because that would alienate ethnic groups from the rest of the society. We need to integrate, we need to engage them, rather than alienate and distance from each other.

    So it is important that among our activists - and I'm the leader of the biggest political party in Georgia, there are lots of Armenians, there are lots of Azeries. Some of them are not only locally based but they're national politicians that are well known by everybody, including the majority of the Georgian population, they're liked by the majority. We need to have these people in parliament, we need to have them in the government. We need to let everybody feel that this is their country, this is not some ethnically based country. This is a nation state where nationhood is understood as a compilation and union of all different groups.

    I think Georgia set a very good example. Even at the height of the Armenian/Azeri war those two communities that are very large in Georgia, lived next to each other and were mixing up with each other without any conflict. And that's really a very unique situation because they were like half an hour's drive from the border where there was war between those two nations and two ethnicities.

    So basically we are proud of our legacy of having this tolerant heritage of many centuries, heritage of co-existence between Armenians, Georgians, Azeries and Jews. The other day I went to the synagogue to meet the Jewish community here and all the others and that's our main advantage as well.

    Bridget Kendall:

    Mr President I just want to bring to you an e-mail that comes from Vijay K. Palmer who's been listening to our discussion here in London in England. And the question is with such a huge mandate from the people, isn't there a very real probability that you'll alienate many people very quickly when you don't provide the quick-fix solution they expect? In other words what you're saying is very convincing but how long have you got to turn it into deeds?

    President Mikhail Saakashvili:

    Well of course that's the concern which I share as well. Of course it's not easy, the challenge is huge but we never promised wonders. We just told them that things will start to change and they have already started to change. And we are very tough, we are very decisive. We've really started to crack down on corruption. We started to fix some things with tax collection. For the first time in many years the government started to pay salaries to the state officials and to the pensioners on time and that was something unheard of under Shevardnadze. While these pensions and even those salaries to teachers, to government officials, to other people, subsidised by the budget, they are miserable. But even those miserable sums of money were never paid on time and were like stolen by previous government officials.

    So now it's a big change. Now people are expecting us of course increase those salaries and we have to do that. But it's a step by step approach. And every time we're telling them well this month we are fixing this problem, we'll move to another problem next month but we need to progress, we need to move.

    One thing we should know, of course there are huge expectations but all the horrible things that were done by the first post-revolution governments in Eastern Europe were already done in Georgia. We already have liberalised our prices. We already have a very low level social welfare system, almost non-existent - it doesn't protect many people. We already have one of the most barbaric healthcare systems in the world where everything should be paid for and insurance does not really exist and lots of people cannot afford elementary treatment. So nothing could get worse than that.

    Now we need to fix those problems and start improvements. And the main thing which we are going to do in this society is to un-root interest groups, the problem here was that two or three groups, families, clans - clan is not the right word - but kind of family businesses and groups in politics - they controlled everything all over Georgia. If we un-root those interests that's the main reform and that's what has support of our people.

    Bridget Kendall:

    But sweeping out the old is one thing but bringing in a new slate also brings its own problems. There are people who say well you're pretty inexperienced, your team is very young, I think that the justice minister and the economics minister you've just appointed are still in their twenties. Isn't there a danger that with this mountain of problems you face that your team and even you yourself, with respect, might find that you don't have the experience to deal with it all?

    President Mikhail Saakashvili:

    Well we are a young nation and this is a curious thing to know but you know sometimes lack of experience or lack of another kind of exposure is an asset because to people who are older - they were all part of the old Communist nomenklatura, this was totally unfit to run an independent country. Shevardnadze and his people they never felt that they were in charge of the country and they had to take their own decisions, they basically never felt that there was people around there.

    Now in terms of experience yes of course we have a new minister of justice who is like 30 years old but when I was minister of justice I was a little bit older than that and I was quite successful and he's very successful. He basically immediately re-established control over the prisons and there was a huge mess and within a few weeks he was very efficient in controlling prisons, which was something unbelievable in Georgia.

    Or we have the minister of the economy who is a Princeton graduate and worked for several important American think tanks and we need this kind of new outlook at the economy, not some old Soviet political economy which was present there. With regards to myself, I was minister of justice, I was leader of the parliamentary majority, I was a vice-president of the parliamentary assembly of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. So I've got international experience and I was in charge of reforming the Georgian judiciary at the age of 27. And it was deemed and considered by the World Bank and other donors to be the most successful reform in Eastern Europe and maybe worldwide. It was very radical and very systematic. So we've got some experience.

    Of course I lack this kind of experience which my predecessor had in terms of backroom deals, intrigues, striking a balance to keep out the opposition. But I don't want to keep my position - I'm not afraid of making some powerful enemies if I can achieve results. I'm not going to stay in this position for 30 years like he did. I have to reform that country and then I can go ahead with my own life.

    Bridget Kendall:

    Let's go for our next question to Serbia and Montenegro and Dragan Nenadovic who is on the phone. What would you like say?

    Dragan Nenadovic:

    Mr Saakashvili I would like to ask one question. You are saying that you're an independent country and that you don't want to see Russian influence in your country. But at the same time you brought in the Americans, so if you are to be an independent why would you bring in another country - the Americans?

    To me it seems that you're not concerned about being an independent but you just don't want to see Russians having that control over your country? And don't you understand that the vital interest of Russia is to have control of that region and they'll never give up on it and if you were to bring their influence back to your country - that's my question actually - will you bring them not only by words but by the actions, the way that you brought in the Americans?

    President Mikhail Saakashvili:

    Well I have to be very straight about that. We don't want anybody's influence here that would damage our own interests. And I have to clarify again. We are friends with the Americans because Americans helped us, they helped us to train our army, they gave us food when the country was virtually starving. They helped us to combat corruption here by providing information and by conditioning their assistance.

    The problem with the Russians themselves, they alienated themselves from the region by taking part in the wars here and stirring up trouble. Americans are not offering us their military bases. But what they are saying they're supporting our claim that Georgia should be a military base free country and this is in our national interest.

    Whatever Russia does to make Georgia stronger we will only welcome that. But no country has title to any other country, let's make it very clear. We are independent, we are sovereign, we need to take care of our own problems. We need to survive but nobody can just claim influence in Georgia because they have some kind of inherent right to be present in the region. We are present in the region and we are present in our own territory and nobody can intervene with our own government and with the wish of our own people.

    The old time of imperialism is over, it's over - it's no longer the old cold war epoch and everybody should understand that. We are not going to give up pieces of any of our independence. It's not a matter of priorities or choices between the countries. I already made my choice and that's a choice for Georgia and for its future and I'll do just whatever it takes to achieve better future for my nation.

    Bridget Kendall:

    Let's bring in here another subject, which is very troubling in relations between Georgia and Russia and that is the region of Chechnya which is on your northern border. And we have on the phone from Australia, Brendan O'Hanlon who wants to ask you about this.

    Brendan O'Hanlon:

    Hello Mr President. One of the implications of allegedly providing asylum to Chechan fighters is that it'll no doubt attract unwanted attention from Russia. I was wondering how will you remain equanimous to the concerns of the Chechen and the militant pressures of Russia?

    President Mikhail Saakashvili:

    Yes that's a very important question for us. On the one hand Russia has its own interests of security and primarily these are interests connected with safeguarding its southern borders and its control over its territory and we fully understand that interest and respect it and we would like to help Russia in keeping peace in its own territory.

    And of course there were some elements in Chechnya that penetrated via Georgia under President Shevardnadze that were linked to al-Qaeda and that were basically - they created a threat not only for Russia but also for Georgia, for every Georgian household, and for the peace in the region.

    And especially after September 11 once their finances were cut off, thanks to the efforts of many states - primarily the US but also with the help of the Russians - they started to supplement their financing by processing drugs here, by getting involved into this drug trade from Afghanistan via our territory. The previous government started to crackdown on that and we are going to eliminate these kind of things here.

    Georgia should be a country free of terrorists and free of penetration by such terrorists and we are fully ready to cooperate with the Russians, also with the Americans and the others on that. And we don't consider that that's infringement of our national sovereignty.

    Now there are also other needs, we also fully understand and I am very sympathetic of the Chechen people. They're very nice, very friendly people that have gone through tremendous suffering for all these years. So I hope that President Putin fully understands how important it is to treat them in very human way, like equal citizens of Russia and whatever we can do to accommodate their humanitarian interests as well I'm ready to do that. But of course one thing is humanitarian interests and another is some kind of fighter with intentions to shoot somebody, that's not acceptable for us.

    Bridget Kendall:

    Mr Saakashvili I just wanted to put to you an e-mail that we've had, this is from Cairo in Egypt and it's from Abdullah Al-Masri who says: what will Georgia's stance be towards the Chechen war raging on its borders be? It seems to me that it's a lose-lose situation for the Chechens; if it's a pro-Russian government in Georgia it will sell them out, but if it's a pro-US government it will also sell them out. What's your response to that?

    President Mikhail Saakashvili:

    Well I just explained everything, I'm not going to sell out anybody. But nobody has the right to commit terrorist acts, to run around with weapons on our territory - this is not acceptable. However, we fully understand dramatic developments and suffering of the people and whatever Georgia can do to alleviate that suffering and to protect innocent civilians we will do that but never the terrorists - never. We should understand that - it's a common fact for everybody. But we also fully understand that Chechens and terrorists - these are not synonyms and nobody, even the most aggressive generals maybe in Russia, have never said that and this should not be accepted - I mean these are a very nice people.

    Bridget Kendall:

    Thank you. Just a reminder that this is Talking Point and today our special guest is the newly elected president of Georgia Mikhail Saakashvili. And for our next question we go to the United States, to Washington.

    Zeyno Baran:

    This is Zeyno Baran. I am the Director for International Security and Energy Programmes at the Nixon Center in Washington DC. Mr President, my question is about Georgia's evolving strategic relationship with the US and Russia.

    In the past Georgian leaders have often played the US and Russia against each other. But given the evolving partnership between the US and Russia, that is no longer going to be possible. What is your strategy as we go forward over the next couple of years in terms of those two partners?

    President Mikhail Saakashvili:

    Thank you Zeyno for that very instructive and informative question. That's true, I can agree with you that. Unfortunately President Shevardnadze, who was a very smart man and who is still a very smart man, although with lots of shortcomings of course - he kind of played and poised against each other - the Russians and Americans - he played very much the old Cold War game. And this is no longer possible. And the problem with that game was that he would go to Washington and scold the Russians and then he would go to Moscow and agree just to anything, also in detriment of our national interest. And then again he would agree to something and then break his promises.

    So we need to understand that Georgia is not a battlefield, we would definitely suffer from that. But everybody should also understand that it's a country which is independent and which should be treated properly. I had a conversation with President Bush immediately in the aftermath of my election and he also underlined, by the way, that they welcome our conciliatory statement and steps towards Moscow. But also that the US stands firmly behind Georgia's independence and territorial integrity.

    Colin Powell is going to come for my inauguration here, that's a very important support gesture on the part of Washington and also Mr Ivanov, who is Russian foreign minister, will come here. And I'm looking forward to talking to both of them and to just making the points clear that we don't want to alienate any of them or to artificially create any contradictions. We want to be on good terms with everybody. We are ready to accommodate interests of both superpowers but that they also should consider our own interests and that's the thing to remember when they have interaction with us or any relations with us.

    Bridget Kendall:

    Mr Saakashvili you say you don't want Georgia to be a pawn in a big power game and yet one thing that has focussed everyone's attention on its strategic importance is the new pipeline that's being built across Georgian territory to funnel new oil from the Caspian Sea so it can be exported via Georgia via Turkey into the Mediterranean. We have on the line a caller from Turkey, from Ankara, Ipek Ruacan who wants to ask you about this. Ipek ask your question.

    Ipek Ruacan:

    Hello thank you. My first question is that is the new Georgia absolutely committed to this project; and secondly what we hear in Turkey is that certain regions in southern Georgia might not be stable enough in the future because they might demand more autonomy than they already have. So if indeed that's the case how is Mr President planning to take the south under control?

    President Mikhail Saakashvili:

    Well first of all I need to say again - and I'm saying it over and over again - we are absolutely committed to fulfilling our contractual obligations and to conclude the pipelines project in time and that's a very important pipeline because it creates basically a new source of energy supplies for the West. And Georgia is benefiting hugely from that and we're going to stick to our commitment, that's a matter of our survival as well.

    Now I'm very much committed to having good relations with Turkey. When we speak of the US and Russia we often forget the role that Turkey has played in Georgia and that role has been extremely positive. In the most difficult years when lots of other people or politicians or even the Russian authorities in the early '90s were creating problems for us, Turkey were the first to come and help us, to prop up our military forces, to equip, to train police here. They even gave us financial support and some food when it was so much needed. So that's how the Georgian people understood the Turks are real friends.

    And such things they don't disappear, this was the most difficult part of our history and those who came first to help us were the Turks. The relationship with Turkey is a very essential part of our future strategy and development.

    Now in terms of stability, we can get only more and more stable. We are firmly in charge of the country. Of course they are going to create for us some problems but we have a very capable team - they are young but most of them are very well educated or most of them are Western educated. There are lots of people who come also from Russia, from Ukraine, from other places and we are committed to building up a normal strong country and we already took very resolute steps. And it is not as difficult as many people will describe that.

    Bridget Kendall:

    Do you see the pipeline Mr Saakashvili as an opportunity to decrease your reliance on Russian energy?

    President Mikhail Saakashvili:

    Well primarily we see it as an important guarantee for Georgia's long term development and security and we believe that we should of course have multiple sources of supply. However, I see nothing wrong with buying energy, supply energy, from Russia - that's fine for me - unless it becomes a tool for political leverage.

    For instance right now the Russian gas company, Gazprom, because of some internal political squabbles, is disconnecting gas supplies from the Georgian cities which would leave thousands and tens of thousands families here - maybe hundreds of thousands - unheated in the very bad weather. And these kinds of things happen all the time. So this is not a good experience.

    On the other hand and so far it's getting better with energy supplies - electricity supplies - that's another Russian company which is performing relatively better so far - I hope it will last. So basically we have different experiences with the Russians as well. But the one experience we've got is always to have alternatives because if we become too dependent, it's easier to damage us or even for some people to blackmail us if they want to. Nobody wants that here.

    Bridget Kendall:

    Mr Saakashvili, you've already mentioned that you see Georgia is as in a sense a European country and we've had quite a lot of people who want to know a bit more about that. This is from Ali bin Ahmed bin Saleh Al-Fulani, Sannaa Yemen who asks: Is Georgia considering joining the European Union?

    And we also have a caller on the line who is from Rome in Italy. This is Tommaso Debenedetti. Tommaso would you like to ask your question?

    Tommaso Debenedetti:

    Mr President what do you think about relations between Georgia and the European Union in this moment? And according to you, can Georgia become a member of the European Union in the future?

    President Mikhail Saakashvili:

    Yes thank you Mr Debenedetti. I want to respond to Tommaso and to Mr Ali on those issues. Well essentially during this revolution which was absolutely bloodless, absolutely free of violence, we proved that people here are European. This was done better than the revolutions in Serbia - although I respect of course the Serbian people - better than the revolutions in Prague, revolutions in Romania. I have deep respect for all those nations as well, but we really proved that this is a very disciplined people, with a very vibrant civil society, with a very well developed independent media.

    By the way when you were asking me about the youth of Georgian politicians, all our most popular news anchors are in their early twenties and they're doing just as well as I believe in the US, in France, in the Netherlands. Basically my wife is Dutch and some of our anchor men are better because they are younger and more energetic. And that's a very important asset for us, that this people, this society is very much mature and very much European.

    Now what we did in Georgia was to overturn the old Soviet ways of doing political business. What happened in the former Soviet Union was that old former Communists elites seized the power, they run the countries in similar ways in some cases and Shevardnadze was the classical example of that. He was the darling of the West, star of Perestroika. But when he came back to Georgia he invited all those former Soviet apparatchiks. He used to sit in the same central committee building like under the Soviets and those people went to their same offices which they occupied under the Soviet regime and they ran the country in the very corrupt old ways to which they were accustomed and used to.

    So what we are really doing is we're changing the whole way of doing politics here. For example we are really doing the same things what happened in Europe in the late '80s. And in terms of joining our European organisations, - I just had a very interesting talk yesterday with Xavier Solana. We're going to go as far as Europe would accept us. We think that we are very old Europeans, our culture is European, our history is European and we aspire to go back to our paternal host, which is Europe and where we were of the first occupants before.

    Bridget Kendall:

    We've had this e-mail from the Netherlands from Jose Fernandez who says: How much are you influenced by your Dutch wife when it comes to liberal laws regarding the position of women, homosexuals, the handicapped, abortion and euthanasia? Do you foresee Georgia becoming a moral leader in the Caucasus or are you one of the many leaders that say one thing, but will do another?

    President Mikhail Saakashvili:

    Well so far since I've been the leader I've been saying things and doing them. And that explains the support which I and we have now right now in my country.

    Bridget Kendall:

    But are we to expect Dutch style laws in Georgia?

    President Mikhail Saakashvili:

    Not only I'm influenced by my wife in human terms of course but also she's very popular in Georgia and she's very much liked by the Georgians. If she had run for president in fact she was the only person that could have beaten me and I'm not kidding about that, that's the reality.

    But of course we don't have problems at this point with discrimination, with women. Although of course I would like to integrate women more into the political life. You know our speaker in parliament is a woman and she's very bright. We have of course members of parliament but I would like more of them.

    When I was in charge of appointing judges here, 60% of all the judges we appointed were female and I'm very proud of that and they're performing very well. I think women can play more and more of a role in Georgian society and in political life. In terms of society they are already playing a huge role here and I think they're equal among equals.

    Bridget Kendall:

    What about these more controversial aspects like euthanasia, homosexuality?

    President Mikhail Saakashvili:

    Well euthanasia is not a big issue in Georgia. We have a very well developed medical community but it is not been an on-going debate. I guess it will come day on the agenda. We have no laws that discriminate either against homosexuals or any other groups here because all people are equal here and we are not going to allow any kind of discrimination - of course that's one of my main things that we are not going to discriminate against anybody - everybody is equal under our law.

    Bridget Kendall:

    Mr President we've got a caller from the Netherlands on the line from Eindhoven. It's Axel Goertzen who'd like to put a question to you.

    Axel Goertzen:

    Mr President, first of all congratulations. I have a question for you regarding international aid. We have followed the campaign that you led with more than usual interest, especially since your wife is Dutch as you have just told us. Will you be seeking assistance from the Dutch government, be it financially or in consultancy terms? And do you have any strong ties to the Dutch government? Could you please answer that question?

    President Mikhail Saakashvili:

    I'm meeting Dutch foreign minister in Strasbourg in a few days. Well we so far - we're getting some assistance from the Netherlands, they helped us - by the way they were the first contributors to the election fund and with the other Europeans were quick to follow the lead to help us reinforce the electoral institutions in Georgia and there have been some Dutch projects in Georgia for some time, although it should be much wider than that.

    The first assistance I got as President was presented by the Dutch government for my inauguration and it is 2,000 Dutch tulip bulbs to plant in front of the Parliament - that's also a nice present. Although I would rather prefer a thousand cows or so or something more substantial - I'm just kidding.

    But of course we greatly value our assistance with the Netherlands. But we have some things in common - the Dutch are very open to the outside world. They're a little bit adventurous but also very, very diligent of course and very well organised. And Georgians are also very much open to the world and they're also very resourceful. My wife who has been living here for the last nine years or so, she's part of the society, she very much understands the Georgian society. It was very easy for her. She speaks for good Georgian. The Georgians are very friendly towards her and as I told you she's very, very popular.

    There are no basic competition between the two cultures. When my relatives come here from the Netherlands they love the country, they love the country because it's so open, so friendly and I'm sure one day it will become just as popular a destination for European tourists as say Greece or some other neighbouring nations because of precisely this very nice climate, very nice people, very nice food, very nice environment and sightseeing, lots of historic sights. And the whole atmosphere that's here that is extremely friendly and open for everybody. And that's one of our main assets which we are going to capitalise.

    Bridget Kendall:

    You're very optimistic about your country's future but our last question is an e-mail from Namara who's in Toronto, Canada and she asks: You have vowed to sell the Presidential mansion and live in a two bedroom apartment. But history has shown that as soon as leaders get ensconced into power, they embrace trappings of affluence later. How will you avoid this?

    President Mikhail Saakashvili:

    Well I'm already living in a two room apartment and I'll move to another one when this new presidential residence is built - basically it's built and ready to be renovated.

    We to set examples for our own people and poverty in the country, which has a very well developed middle class in late Soviet years, is really horrifying. The problem is that this country has very well educated, very qualified middle class and now we are in the situation where lots of people have economic problems. In rural areas many children can no longer even go to school because they cannot afford text books or shoes just to walk there. So in such a situation you cannot be exuberant - you cannot defy public expectations.

    So we need to be modest, we are modest and of course the main concern is to develop the country, it's not populism or something, it's a matter of respect for the realities. And once we fix the country maybe I'll move then to a bigger mansion but only after we fix the country and then maybe once we've fixed the country and we will no longer have a need to be president anymore and live a more quiet life. I'm 36 at this moment. They even tell me that I'm the youngest head of the state in the world. Me and my family have our whole lives ahead but of course I came to this position because primarily also I wanted to create a country for my eight year old son and I didn't want him to say one day that he had lost his own homeland - his fatherland.

    So once the country speaks, once Georgia gets back to the European house, once it establishes normal relations with its neighbours, once the economy improves and we realise the economic potential, which is there but which has never been utilised properly. And I'm sure that I'll find other more interesting occupations and just enjoy my life.

    Bridget Kendall:

    Mr Saakashvili thank you very much. And that's all we've time for today. My thanks to our guest the President of Georgia Mikhail Saakashvili and of course to all of you who've taken part in the programme. Don't forget you can keep sending e-mails to or you can go to our website at where you can watch this or any other Talking Point programme. Robin Lustig will be here next week when our guest is the new Nato Secretary-General, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer. But from me Bridget Kendall and the rest of the team goodbye.

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