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Monday, 17 July, 2000, 13:08 GMT 14:08 UK
The Georgian President answers your questions
Eduard Shevardnadze was one of the architects of Soviet perestroika, who as Mikhail Gorbachev's foreign minister, oversaw the dismantling of the eastern bloc.
Since 1992 he has been head of state in his native Georgia, bringing stability to a country that risked being torn apart by civil and ethnic conflict.
He has survived two serious assassination attempts, and was lucky to escape with his life when the Georgian army was defeated in the breakaway region of Abkhazia.
Mr Shevardnadze was re-elected to another five-year term as president in April, despite widespread public criticism of his failure to control rampant corruption.
Among the tasks of his second term will be to ensure that the war in Chechnya does not spill over into Georgia, to oversee the Russian army's withdrawal from at least two military bases in the country and to settle conflicts with Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Read his answers to your questions below.
Babak Azimi-Sadjadi: Mr. Gorbachev's says in his latest book that he believes unity between the republics of the former Soviet Union could have been preserved, and he believes that some sort of unity is still possible. Do you share the same idea?
Andrey, USSR: Don't you think that the destruction of the USSR brought suffering to millions of people, and if yes, do you bear any responsibility for that?
President Schevardnadze: By the end of the 80's and the beginning of the 90's, I have expressed my opinion several times about possible transformation of the USSR. I believed then and so do now that the transformation should be implemented gradually, step by step, to avoid cataclysms. Unfortunately, the mood of the people living in the USSR appeared to be more radical than it was supposed to be by some politicians. The Russian federation under the leadership of Boris Yeltsin was one of the first to make a declaration about sovereignty. This was a year earlier than Georgia and other "Republics of USSR".
According to the results of surveys of that time, the absolute majority of the Russian population welcomed the decision of the People's Deputies of the Russian Federation. The establishment of the "Commonwealth of Independent States" was a logical result of this process.
Since 1992, when I became leader of independent Georgia, I would declare, that the integration processes were necessary as our peoples were united by historical faith. Integration as well as globalisation is an uninterrupted process. I think that, through joint efforts, it is possible to find a certain model corresponding to the political, economic and cultural interests of the CIS countries.
Ryan Boyd, South Africa: I have the utmost respect for your achievements during your time as Russian foreign minister. However, how do you view the current political climate under President Putin? Do you see a reversal of the progress that has been made in recent years?
President Schevardnadze: I have talked with President Putin several times. I have an impression that he is a more balanced, pragmatic and wiser politician. I'm sure, he has no desire to damage Russian democratic achievement, as well as to refuse to have constructive relations with the West after the civil war. In my opinion, democracy and freedom is the final historical choice of the great Russian people. The Russian citizens, as a guarantee of further democratic development, have elected President Putin.
Andrew Brough, UK: How can you bring about peaceful resolutions to the Abkhazia and South Ossetia problems without the force used by Russia in Chechnya?
Paul Lux, Florida, USA: How important for the future of Georgia are the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and Ossetia? Would some measure of autonomy for them be better in the long run?
President Schevardnadze: A solution to the problem of Georgia's territorial integrity through peace is one of the basic priorities of our policy. Today, with the help of the UN, OSCE, "friend countries group" composed of the USA, Germany, France, the U.K. and Russia, we're trying to work out a model envisaging interests of Abkhaz and Ossetian peoples as well as the necessity of maintaining territorial integrity of the Georgian democratic state.
I think that the model acceptable for both sides will be the establishment of federal relations between the centre and regions and Georgia's transformation into a federal state. It is what we have suggested to our partners at negotiations, but unfortunately, they do not accept them.
Dave, United Kingdom: Tourism is in many respects an untapped potential source of foreign income for Georgia. How can you encourage this with the problems being experienced in Abkhazia and South Ossetia?
President Schevardnadze: The authorities of Georgia have worked out a program of development of tourism according to which, by 2005, it will be possible for our small country to receive one million tourists. The state budget expects to gain about $1 billion only from tourism. Despite the fact that "South Ossetian" and Abkhaz conflicts are not yet over (though a ceasefire regime is kept) - about 150 to 200 thousand more people are coming to the country per year than in the preceding year. I am calling everybody wishing to get acquainted with the unique culture created by the Georgian people during thousands of years, to witness the beauty of the country as they visit Georgia. Hospitality is one of the oldest and most firm traditions of Georgians as well as of the Caucasians at large.
Ernest, USA: As any traveller to your country quickly realises, Georgia is characterised by corruption in all aspects of its social and economic life, from the policeman on the street to the highest levels of government. What do you plan to do about this?
Thomas Smekal, Canada In your previous term many things may have been accomplished in Georgia, though corruption at various levels of society is still evident on a regular basis. If you did nothing effective to stamp out corruption in your first term, why should your people believe that this will occur in this term of office?
President Schevardnadze: We are not afraid of candid talk about corruption - one of the severest problems of the Georgian statehood. Unlike some other countries, where there may be high level of corruption but it is concealed by an undemocratic regime and censorship, Georgian citizens, nongovernmental organisations and free media are able to discuss this problem freely and offer concrete proposals. Taking into account the mood coming from society, several days ago I announced the establishment of a special, highly skilled supreme working group with the task of working out Georgia's "national anticorruption program". It will be envisaged for short, medium and long -term perspectives.
The chair of Georgia's Supreme Court of high authority will lead the group. The group is composed of deputies and representatives of nongovernmental organisations. In the near future they will introduce concrete proposals to be laid as the basis of policy in this direction. The major priority for us is to protect human rights in anticorruption combat. We shall not break "innocence presumption".
At the same time, the Georgian authorities have a state right to fight against corruption with all the legal measures available to a democratic state. Our power is in democracy. True democracy will undoubtedly defeat any kind of antidemocratic notions, including corruption.
Dean Clark, Northern Ireland: You have survived two assassination attempts, and you now have a full flank of specialised bodyguards, drivers, decoy cars etc. Do you think that will be enough to be able to foil yet another assassination attempt?
President Schevardnadze: Unfortunately, terrorism still remains unsolved for the most of the modern world. The acts of terrorism conducted against me were aimed at changing Georgian State policy. Antidemocratic forces cannot give up their past privileges. Foreign reactive forces back them up. But they are not able to defeat democracy and bring Georgia back into old times any more. As for the security system, the Georgian State has high-skilled specialists capable of reducing the probability of evil acts.
David Butler, Australia: Do you think that the former Soviet states will ever get to grips with the organised crime that seems to have taken hold? How is Georgia tackling this crucial issue?
President Schevardnadze: Organised crime is accompanying the state and social transformation process. It has accompanied democratic and state building process in all the countries which are regarded today to be examples of true democracy and justice. Within the CIS we have worked out and signed several documents envisaging the joining of efforts against organised crime. The concrete program is being worked out in Georgia as well. It is called "the national anticorruption program". Of course, combating corruption means first of all "fighting against organised crime" as it represents both sides of coin.
Stefan J.P. Louwers, Netherlands: When people foresee an extension in the far future of the European Union to the former Soviet Union, does that in your view also include Georgia? Is this something you are working for?
President Schevardnadze: It is a long-term objective for Georgia to be integrated into the European Union. We understand that it is not a task for the near future because the Georgian democracy, especially the economic system, is not yet perfect but we are on the right road. Georgia is already a fulltime member of the Council of Europe. We could not dream about it five or six years ago. We have managed to achieve a definite standard and are doing our best to maintain rates and rhythm of development.
Sooren Papelian, USA: Why is it that you have a much better relationship with Azeris than with Armenians? Why has there been so much animosity created between Armenians and Georgians after the fall of communism?
President Schevardnadze: I am very surprised that you ask me such a question. I cannot agree with its basic thesis. Georgian and Armenian peoples have centuries of an old traditional friendship. As we develop democracy these relations will receive more dynamism and it is proved by the interstate relations, fundamental treaties, frequency of state visits and their contents and what is most important - sincere mutual respect among ordinary citizens. At the same time Georgia has fine relations with Azerbaijan. Heydar Aliev and I were the initiators of the idea of "the peaceful Caucasus" which should strengthen the atmosphere of peaceful collaboration and co-existence of the south Caucasian peoples.
Vadim Gurevich, USA: What role will Georgia play inside the CIS grouping in the future? Do you envision a EU-type grouping, with one monetary policy?
President Schevardnadze: Georgia is co-operating actively with the CIS countries. We are equal partners and act on the mutual interests of our countries. It is too early to talk about the rate of integration achieved by the European Union during 40 years. Georgia joined the CIS only in 1994. We are yet to see the results of co-operation.
Paul Conneally, Ireland: No doubt you will be inundated with tough political questions about Abkhazia, South Ossetia, oil pipelines and so on. What I really want to know is when is the world going to have the opportunity to sample the fine Georgian wines?
President Schevardnadze: Inhabitants of many countries all over the world, as well as Europeans and Americans, have an opportunity of tasting the Georgian wines. Scientists believe our country has a 3000 year old tradition of wine production and that Georgia was the motherland of the wine culture. Today, wine-producing companies of Georgia are carrying out export of Georgian wine to the world market, that promotes Georgia's membership in the World Trade Organisation.
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